Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter apparently went out to make an artificial bug, piecing genes together in the lab and stuffing them into a lipid shell. The synthetic bacterium will be called Mycobacterium laboratorium. I haven't read much about this and don't want to comment. Despite this, the story deserves a post because Channel 4 interviewed Venter the other day and showed a little piece on the evening news.

How is this relevant? And how do I know this, deprived as I am of a TV? Well, Venter was interviewed because he is giving a talk at Imperial tonight, and the TV crew came to the College to get some local voices to contribute thoughts. No, they didn't ask me, they interviewed my boss, but I managed a fleeting cameo appearance in the final clip (see minute 1:15). Fame and fortune are surely not far off now.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

shut up

Two days ago I commented on the infuriating but also sad story of James Watson whose brain has gone mushier than an overripe banana. I suggested he shut up and go home, but he is still talking. Here is what he had to say on Friday.

"I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have." – "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

He is a lifelong scientist and yet has statements published that stand on no scientific basis whatsoever. This is inexcusable. The defense that he made a mistake does not cut it. Someone who has been standing in the limelight and had his ideas in public scrutiny for many decades must be expected to mind his words – at least when microphones are pointed at him. For me, only two explanations are possible: he is either stupid or inept.

In either case, he is ill-suited for his job, which happens to be Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. CSHL agrees and has suspended him from his post. Following which Watson went home. Now if he could just keep his mouth shut as well...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

mr hyde

The ink is barely dry on the articles announcing this year's Nobel Prizewinners when a previous winner is making big waves, stunning the world with shockingly ill-chosen words and signs of deteriorating mental well-being. Dr. James Watson won a Nobel Prize for his prediction of the molecular structure of DNA when he was only 34. He's been in the limelight ever since, nearing half a century. He has given as many interviews as anyone, and his words can be taken at face value. No interpretation necessary.

The other day, he came to London to promote his latest book, a patronizing pseudo-scientific biography. One of his talks was to take place at the Dana Centre this week, barely three minutes from where I work. When I called to reserve tickets, the friendly receptionist told me that I was too late already. Today on the news I hear that his talk has been canceled. What happened?

To paraphrase Watson, blacks are dumb, blame their genes. That's not only bad for Africa, just look at the mess, but also for those foolish enough to employ them in civilized Western societies.

Watson is a complete idiot, obviously. He's not trying to stir constructive controversy because what he says lacks any basis. It is true that blacks in Africa or Aborigenees are less intelligent by Western definition. They live in very different, oftentimes sadly deprived, environments and have no reason to conform in any way to Western definitions. Plus, how do you stimulate and develop your brain when you fight with malnutrition, infectious diseases and marauding bands of warriors? It is stupid to even try to compare.

On the other hand, to my knowledge there is no rigorously controled study that shows that a black kid and a white kid growing up in the same environment, with the same education and stimulation, equal nutrition and affection will show any difference in cognitive abilities or intellect. And as long as that isn't shown – I doubt it will – they are the same.

Of course, there are differences between races. How could it be that appearance should be the only distinguishing criterion? Millennia of evolution have had an effect. But studying them will take more than watching TV and pulling hypotheses out of thin air, and it's not clear that simple picture of superiority and inferiority could be drawn. In a world where putting people at a disadvantage because of racial prejudice and flawed mental models is commonplace, in a world where ignorant discrimination exists all too much, words should be chose with much more care, especially by those with an audience.

What's the next thing Watson will lend his famous voice to? Intelligent design? Alchemy? The revenge of the Tooth Fairy? Shut up and go home, doc.

ready for business

Last night I went to an information session one of the business schools here organized on their Master's and evening programs. I don't know much about business. So when I talked to the organizer while having a coffee before the event, I obviously asked the wrong question.

"What's the audience you expect for this event?" I asked. "Are you doing market research?" was her response, and she frowned at me with what could only be called cold suspicion. I had to admit that it's my job to do research, and that I hail from Imperial, but as a biochemist I'm no competition. In the end, she lightened up, and even make a joke during her introductory speech referring to our little conversation.

Sitting in the lecture hall, I'm felt reminded of why I don't like be in a business environment. While I like the topic and find it interesting, sometimes rivetingly so, people are often extremely uptight and full of themselves. Of course, the session itself was a powerful sales pitch but not too annoying. There was some factual information in it, and I learned something.

Much to my delight, things turned for the better at the drinks reception afterwards. Beer, wine, almonds, and a dozen of fascinating people to talk to. Students with a passion.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The other day, I signed up with facebook. This is my first adventure in virtual sociability. I resisted friendster, mySpace and Hi5, the latter despite multiple invites. I thought that I know my friends and don't need affirmation in the form of "I'm friends with you" tags.

I think I was right. Facebook is silly. It lets you feel like you connect with people by shot-gunning status updates and assembling lists of two gazillion friends. I prefer a long email or, a dramatic change over the past, an even longer phone call. Or just come over and stay in my spare bed for the weekend.

With facebook I have the impression of being back in high-school, exchanging pledges of friendship and trying to be cool. I was never cool.

On the other hand, finding people you once knew is cool. So maybe facebook is not about friends but about staying connected with acquaintances, and they're only called friends to make people feel better? Maybe in a week or two I'll get it. Wanna be my friend?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

speak out

The New York Times, newly free for all on-line, including their fabulous archives, summarized neatly and with lots of links to background stories the crude incompetence and pervading ineptness with which the American Administration has handled, or rather mishandled and botched, Iraq. It asked why all this is known and yet no one is held responsible, no one is asked for justification, and no one has to stand trial.

How come the American people is quiet about this? If what happened is shameful, letting it continue is even more so.

Friday, October 12, 2007


The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Mario Capecchi (go Utes!) and two other blokes who knocked mice out (or rather genes in them), that's something I'm stoked about. These three guys developed methods that are used everywhere in the study of the processes of life, disease and death.

About the Chemistry and Physics Prizes I cannot say much. Apparently my miniPod and my latest investment, a 160GB drive for my laptop, benefit from it. And equally apparently, processes of industrial chemistry are so much more efficient and clean thanks to improved surface catalysis. So be it.

About Doris Lessing I won't say a thing. I haven't read her books. Some commentators say she's no John Updike or Philip Roth.

What I can do, today on Friday, is shake my head over the Peace Prize for Al Gore. Whose idea was that? I mean, come on, this guy is kind of responsible for the mess in Iraq and the concurrent resurgence of al Qaida by losing an unlosable election to George Bush. Without his incompetence on the campaign trail, the excesses of the current American administration wouldn't throw the world in disarray.

So he made a movie about global warming. Big effing deal. It was a summary of the known, and while it started a discussion, it didn't really contribute anything to it.

On the other hand – and on the bright side – there is no danger anymore that Al Gore will run for president again. Americans would never elect anyone so spectacularly endorsed by the international community.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

color of dumb

I noticed that I haven't used this space for ranting in quite a while. So here it goes:

The other day I saw an advertisement in the tube telling the habitually comatose commuter audience that recycling a water bottle instead of throwing it out gains enough energy to power a living room lamp for six hours. Or some such thing. I don't remember the numbers. I was half asleep myself.

The advertisement was for some plastic bottle maker trying to restyle itself as environmentally responsible. The characteristic I would have picked is devious because they didn't tell how much energy is saved by not buying a plastic bottle in the first place.

Anyway, this advertisement was only the second worst I've seen recently. The uncontested number one is, well, one, a company that's out to save the world, one wasteful plastic water bottle after another. The industry must really be hurting if they resort to such hyperbolic bullshit.

What is scary is that this pretending to be responsible has really taken off. Everyone is green these days, everyone is hugging trees and being good. Unsuspecting citizens are being dumbed into believing that powering your car with corn-derived ethanol does the environment good. Budget airlines all over Europe fight global warming by buying more planes and LiveEarth... I don't have to say anything about LiveEarth, do I? The color green has gone through a profound change in meaning lately.

I ride my bike to work, but only because it's fastest. If a Hummer H1 would get me there quicker, I might consider it. I drink tap water because I already carry enough when I go shopping. I don't own a car because I don't need one, and I liberally fly across Europe in search of old friends and a good time. I care for the environment, but please don't call me green. Not these days anyway.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

et toi, thomas?

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist with a convincing solution for every problem in the world, is my favorite anti-hero. Most of the time, I disagree with what he has to say. He is too sure about his ways, too convinced of his genius, and too confident of the infallibility of his points. He is pedantic, patronizing and pontificating. Often, he is wrong.

But he does his homework most of the time, he researches before he writes, his opinions are invariably entangled with facts. I like to argue, and it's hard to argue with someone who seems to have the facts on his side. I am forced to read, question and research for myself. Keeps my mind on its toes and me informed on current affairs.

In the one Thomas Friedman book I own, a collection of columns spanning the weeks leading up to and the months after 9/11 (*), he claims that he is free to say whatever he wants. His editor advises only on linguistic and stylistic questions. Or not at all, as it turns out. His latest, about the dark machinations of Toyota lobbying, has a title that makes anyone who is only remotely linguistically inclined wince with pain. Not only is it grammatically incorrect, but what's the point of using French when talking about a Japanese automaker?

On the other hand, the revelation (to me anyway – not a topic I necessarily care about) of Toyota's lobbying efforts and speculation that it's all a ploy to steer the Big Three towards bankruptcy faster is quite interesting.

(*)  Just the other day, he was sort of looking back on 9/11 and calling desperately (and in a uniquely self-flagellating way) for Americans to look forward. More power to him, in that case.

ps.  And how cool is the New York Times jiffy that, upon double clicking of a word, pops up a window with a vast dictionary entry of that word. Click yourself smart.