In Honor of the One-Year Anniversary of STS135

8 Jul

Look at this picture of the surface of Mars. I mean, LOOK at it.

A combination of images taken by NASA’s Opportunity rover on Mars.

Take the time to click on the photo and zoom in — it’s really a gigantic image, and in amazing detail. My favorite part? The tracks from the rover itself, just to the left of center. Especially the circular tracks, where it looks like Opportunity must have turned around.

These are the tracks from a manmade object, in the dust of another planet. And in just 30 days, Curiosity will be landing on Mars as well. I can’t think of anything better than this photo to honor the spirit of those two days last July.


My Bradbury Story

6 Jun

Today is, I think, a day for everyone to have their own Ray Bradbury story. My own started last summer, when I first read The Martian Chronicles, but only really picked up steam in August, when I took Something Wicked This Way Comes back to school with me, to kick off my senior year.

I finished both books, and loved both books, and then uncomfortably realized that I had never read Fahrenheit 451. So finally, one day last October, between my philosophy class and my chemistry class, I sat in the student center, and finished Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. And I was shaken. Actually, I was shaking. I went to chemistry and dutifully took notes, but I don’t think I heard a single word.

Later — about six months and two rereads of Fahrenheit 451 later — I was cast out into the Los Angeles night due to a small fire in my apartment building. I wandered a while, and what did I stumble across but an empty, darkened carnival.


Something Wicked This Way Comes

And last night — oddly, coincidentally, just last night — I finally started reading Dandelion Wine, which I got at the used bookstore for three dollars, as it should be. I had to put the book down, though, when the following made me tear up, and it’s become even more poignant in light of this morning’s news.

“Tom,” said Douglas, “just promise me one thing, okay?”

“It’s a promise. What?”

“You may be my brother and maybe I hate you sometimes, but stick around, all right?”

“You mean you’ll let me follow you and the older guys when you go on hikes?”

“Well… sure… even that.  What I mean is, don’t go away, huh? Don’t let any cars run over you or fall off a cliff.”

“I should say not! Whatta you think I am, anyway?”

” ‘Cause if worst comes to worst, and both of us are real old — say forty or forty-five some day — we can own a gold mine out West and sit there smoking corn silk and growing beards.”

So thank you, Ray Bradbury, for sticking around as long as you did.

Valentina Tereshkova

6 Mar

Today was the 75th birthday of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who, on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. After a gap of nearly 20 years, the second woman in space was Svetlana Savitskaya, in 1982, followed by the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, in 1983. This is a fairly decent article about Tereshkova’s journey and current life (though be warned of loud ads).

Valentina Tereshkova

She also had space hair, but to be fair I think everyone did in the 1960s.

Tereshkova’s call sign on Vostok 6 was “Chaika,” or “Seagull,” incidentally the name of my second-favorite Chekhov play. Happy birthday to a brave woman, and here’s hoping both of us live to see man land on Mars.

Never Be Bored

3 Mar

Once again I’ve abandoned you all for weeks. Midterms plus interviews plus presentations plus pointlessly raging against politics leaves little time for blogging.

But there’s so much exciting STUFF going on, so this is sort of a round-up post.

  • Oxygen detected in the atmosphere of one of Saturn’s moons. Dione, not Titan. Which brings us to….
  • The Sirens of Titan. I’m on a Kurt Vonnegut kick. I last read most of his books about five years ago, and picked up Cat’s Cradle up at the library a couple weeks ago on a whim. And everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
  • Probably the reason I needed so badly to read some Vonnegut was that the last book I read was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Which I highly recommend, and all, but which is not something you want to read if you’re looking to feel good about yourself as a member of the human race or of the biological sciences. For my money, the two most important things civilization has given us are science and basic human rights (fancy coffee drinks are a close third). So what happens when those two fundamental values clash? Nothing light-hearted enough to be reading during midterms, that’s for sure.
  • But if you want to feel good about something humanity has done, may I suggest our treatment of baby sloths with little teddy bears and bandages that look like jammies? (Preceded, I am afraid, by an advertisement)


  • And finally, in case certain ongoing incidents are making you, like me, feel kind of down about the whole history of mankind along with the future of both your gender and your chosen career, and in case the baby sloths did not provide a permanent fix, let me just point out that you are made of atoms whose emergent properties can rather conveniently be altered by atoms that have formed molecules like caffeine or ethanol. So, being alive? All in all, pretty cool.

Everything is better with neuroscience

17 Feb

You know that thing where I pretend I’m a grown-up and I talk about serious things? That is not happening this week. Instead, I present to you, reason enough for the internet to exist: Neuroscientist Ryan Gosling. Now, I think the last movie I saw that had Ryan Gosling in it was probably The Notebook. I think? (Because I’m really good at modern pop culture, clearly.) But some of these make me giggle. Winner? “Have you been running laps on my corpus callosum? ‘Cause you’ve crossed my mind a lot lately.”

(Except there is still a part of me pointing out slight factual corrections to some of these)

“Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil”

8 Feb

You may have heard that poet and Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska passed away recently at the age of 88. I had never read her work before, but one of her poems in translation caught my eye, and I thought I would share it here.

Under a Certain Little Star
by Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity in case I’m mistaken.
Don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you for my own.
May the dead forgive me that their memory’s but a flicker.
My apologies to time for the quantity of world overlooked per second.
My apologies to an old love for treating a new one as the first.
Forgive me, far-off wars, for carrying my flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
My apologies for the minuet record, to those calling out from the abyss.
My apologies to those in train stations for sleeping soundly at five in the morning.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing sometimes.
Pardon me, deserts, for not rushing in with a spoonful of water.
And you, O hawk, the same bird for years in the same cage,
staring, motionless, always at the same spot,
absolve me even if you happen to be stuffed.
My apologies to the tree felled for four table legs.
My apologies to large questions for small answers.
Truth, do not pay me too much attention.
Solemnity, be magnanimous toward me.
Bear with me, O mystery of being, for pulling threads from your veil.
Soul, don’t blame me that I’ve got you so seldom.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere.
My apologies to all for not knowing how to be every man and woman.
I know that as long as I live nothing can excuse me,
since I am my own obstacle.
Do not hold it against me, O speech, that I borrow weighty words,
and then labor to make them light.

I imagine most of my readers can relate approximately as well as I can to the transgressions here — the pricked fingers and flowers carried home, the flickering memories of the dead, etc. My entire life, by some lights, could be considered a minuet record in the face of those calling out from the abyss. But this poem justifies it, somehow.

Why Cells Age

7 Feb

I’m in the middle (er, maybe the first third) of a class on the neurobiology of aging. As such, we’ve covered a few different theories of aging, from the molecular (telomeres!) to the evolutionary (grandparents!). There are about as many overlapping theories of why we age as there are branches and specializations within biology. Aging affects all of us if we’re lucky, and all systems within our bodies, yet we don’t know precisely why it happens at all.

A new paper from scientists at the Salk Institute theorizes that cellular aging may be linked to “extremely long-lived proteins” (ELLPs). Keep in mind that cellular aging is slightly different from aging as a person; some cells throughout your body are constantly aging, dying, and being replaced, no matter what your age is. Other cells are mostly with you from birth until death — neurons are one such group of cells. With some slight, recently-discovered exceptions, there is very little neurogenesis (the birth of new cells in the brain) after childhood.

This new research into ELLPs focuses on the aging of brain cells, which is important, as they are not replaced when they are damaged or die off. Culturally, it’s also important because brain aging is a big deal in our population. I mentioned above that some cells (like skin cells or the lining of the stomach) are being replaced fairly regularly. Another mechanisms that cells use to repair damage is to replace or recycle the proteins that carry out cellular activities.

One important class of protein in brain cells is the transporter protein. The ELLPs in this study form channels that allow ions and other small molecules in and out of the cell past its membrane, which is how neurons signal to each other.

If this type of protein gets worn down or damaged, it is not able to be replaced or recycled, according to this paper. In that case, neurons will have a hard time signaling to each other, and the accumulated damage over many years could lead to problems throughout the brain.

This paper is new and interesting, although it doesn’t provide any easy answers, and definitely requires further study (For instance, the study was done on rats, which are a good model organism, but which also have much shorter lifespans than humans have). It does, however, illustrate one of my favorite differences between physicists, who have variously flavored quarks, and biologists, who have “extremely long-lived proteins.” I don’t know what that says about our respective fields, but it must mean something.