Monthly Archives: September 2014

Where’d You Get Those Genes?


Where’d you get your genes?

Oh, on clearance at Penney’s.

Right!? Probably a pretty good/bad first response if a science communicator ever asked you this. Especially a TED presenter. (For some reason, those things bug me — so artificial and smug in their self-importance. “Where do your genes come from?” asks the fame-hungry scientist, stalking the stage with a headset microphone. “PENNEY’S ON CLEARANCE!!” I yell from the back row, before being escorted off the premises.)

Anyway, your GENES, of course, do not come from Penney’s. Human genetic material is one of the few things department stores do not (yet) sell. But here is an actual TEDed presentation on a question you may not have considered: how’d you get those genes that turn matter into you? A question so basic/fundamental that it is an accomplishment just to ask it.

The answer is: from just three basic sources.

Most casual laypersons know that our DNA consists of genes — packets of genetic material that convey traits. But why does DNA contain these little phenotypic missives? How did this unzippable, replicable molecule come to be segmented into the chemical equivalent of chapters (or sentences, or words)?

Here’s how the TEDed talk tells it: First, well, “it depends on the gene,” they say. “It depends” is hardly ever a satisfying answer, so let’s try to boil those “depends” down to a few (hopefully) interesting sources. Your genes come from:

1) Legacy Genes: The earliest forms of life first developed genes in order to replicate/survive, and passed them on down to you, me and Frank over the millennia. For example, genes for DNA copying.

2) Copy Errors: Speaking of DNA copying, new genes have arisen when DNA accidentally created multiple copies of a gene. The new copies could then mutate into new genes. Presto! Your genome now has both Gene Classic and New Gene. Plus, maybe Crystal Gene and Lemon-Lime Gene down the road.

3) Random Employment: Long stretches of noncoding DNA, ‘genetic gibberish,’ sits there in the genome just sort of hanging out. Sometimes, mutations make it, in fact, do something — i.e., code for a protein. If further mutations make that protein useful — new gene!

And from those three sources, all the bewildering array of functions the human and other bodies perform. One of the more interesting examples from the video: One snake’s venom originated as a chemical made in the pancreas. That gene got copied, mutated, and took a trip, ending up expressing in the fangs. Pancreatic juice did bad things to snake victims, so it turned out to be a useful change. So the snake got a venom gene.

It amounts to a lot of reshuffling. Billions and billions of years of reshuffling of text, and it seeds the planet with an incredibly rich vocabulary of genes. Including mouse-paralyzing pancreatic fang-juice.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the first answer sort of begs the original question. How were those first genes created? How did the first replicable packets of genetic material — genes — develop? It’s a lot easier to answer the question of how, once there are a few genes, new versions are formed. Once you have the basic machinery going, new widgets can come along. But that first segmenting of DNA into genes would have to arise as the genetic code mutated and evolved, and started doing discrete things on discrete stretches of itself.

There’s plenty out there on the origin of life from nonliving matter. A crucial first step is the development of replicating molecules, RNA and/or DNA. These replicating molecules would be subject to evolution, eventually. Then, you get molecules of lesser or greater fitness. And, I suppose, this could involve the kind of information-segregation that you see with genes. But it seems to me like a still somewhat mysterious step.

Holes in the Table


Physics can make the world seem weird, and that’s pretty fun. Some notable popular science writers (see Hawking, Stephen and Kaku, Michio) have concocted some pretty thrilling science-lite confections out of relativity- and quantum-related weirdness.

It provides a good avenue for developing a somewhat superficial appreciation for science, does this physics weirdness. And I should know. I’ve flitted around the edges of actual science for much of my life — intermittently overwhelmed, bored and even depressed by it, but never able to completely let it go. So, I’ve gone after a writing and editing career, but I’ve mostly worked in several forms of science communication. I dropped biology for English, but kept gravitating (so to speak) toward literary intersections with science. All the way up until my MA thesis, which was a look at technology and religion in Rushdie. It was a probably pretty terrible look at technology and religion in Rushdie, but they let me have the degree.

But I still remember those early encounters with the weirdness of physics, and how they made the science seem like something worth devoting your life to. Reality is like nothing you suspected, these theories born of squiggly maths said. The everyday world is a fascinating realm of ghosts and apparitions, and what’s even better, it is on good authority that the world is this way.

Suddenly, the authority figures, professors and scientists, are slipping you drugs.

I remember clearly one such experience of the weirding of the world, and it didn’t even come from Hawking or from any of his brilliant ilk. It didn’t even come from the far-out fields of advanced physics. Just basic particle physics in a high school textbook.

In physics, we covered the structure of the atom, of course. You remember: that solar-system image of an electron doing its 1950s swing around the central cherry of the nucleus. Here we came upon the factoid that an atom is mostly empty space. And I had a holy-shit moment.

It’s possible I imported that ‘neato science factoid’ from a pop-sci book. It sounds more like it would come from them. But, nevertheless, it was in Mr. Dick Winder’s physics class. I looked across at the black surface of the science class tabletop, and I imagined an illusion — a ghost, tricking us with its reflection of light beams, but a nearly empty network of mist and cobwebs behind that.

Sure, it would cut your forehead, and concuss your brain should you slip on a sheet of notebook paper and fall onto a corner of that table — but that was tantamount to an mirage. Just billions of electrons, spewing their force vectors forth into the aether. There was no THERE there. Or nearly so. These tables, these teenage limbs — mine scrawny, other kids’ muscular and capable of hurling footballs — just blobs of misty space.

We live in a Swiss Cheese universe, and you people are worried about the labels on your jeans?

That’s what the weird views of physics could mean to me as a, you might have guessed, nerdy and isolated teenager.

But I got immune to that mystery, eventually. Make it into college, and science dissolves into a slew of equations and figures. It’s a lot of memorization. I’m giving myself excuses. The truth is, actual science is hard. And I didn’t have the brain-stomach for it.

I’m studying science, real science, again — in an online bioinformatics program. It’s discipline, and sacrifice, and boredom, and tired brainwaves — and wagon-loads of self-doubt. Balanced, hopefully, by the conviction that this stuff matters.

So it can be good to be reminded of the goofy, enthralling, mystical side of pop-sci physics. Here’s an example of that, from the Smithsonian: the universe as a hologram, the universe as a computer simulation. I read books about these flights of fancy when I was a younger nerd. It’s still good stuff.

You Can Look in a Volcano

via The Guardian

We live at a time in which you can stick your head inside an active volcano while you’re in your underwear eating cold cereal.

In fact, I advise you to do just that.

Over the years, sociologists and historians have devised various means of measuring the progress of human civilization. You might look at how the average diet has improved. Or take a look at general health and life expectancy. Measure the decreasing size of circuit boards, or take note of the amount of scientific information produced in a given year. Compare the godlike abs of today’s superhero actors to their flabby forerunners.

A less frequently used metric is the ease with which you may stick your head in an active volcano.

As it happens, you can do that right now. Live webcam footage of the mouth of Icelandic volcano Bardarbunga brings hell-on-Earth to your iPad.

What you’ll see, as you wipe Cheerio-flavored milk from your lip, is the glowing inferno of Earth’s molten belly spewing forth into the very air we mortals breathe. AKA, you will see the march of human progress. To our forefathers, such a view likely meant either imminent death or hallucination.

Now, it is mild entertainment to fill that small gap between re-checking your Gmail and drafting fantasy football players.

But to linger a bit more, here is what is actually happening in that haze of thick smoke and redly glowing globs of light. Bardarbunga is Iceland’s second-tallest mountain, a volcano that reaches more than 6,500 feet above sea level. After several weeks of seismic activity (read: earthquakes), the volcano this week turned to eruption, spewing red lava some 160 feet (a good half football-field) into the sky.

If you’re looking at liquid lava, that means it’s 1,300 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit as it first erupts, otherwise known as extremely damn hot. Heated by geothermal energy (80% from radioactive decay, 20% energy left over from Earth’s original formation), that makes lava hot enough to ignite most human possessions it touches, if it does not bury them first.

Bardarbunga is a “stratovolcano,” meaning its profile comes from the progressive buildup of layers of cooled lava. That makes it of the same type that buried Pompeii, a people famously known for not being able to peer at the mouth of an active volcano in their pajamas. Think on those mummified losers, and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Breaking the Conservative-Christian Stereotype

How the denominations vote (via Tobin Grant)

When I think about “religion and politics” in the United States, my instinct is to oversimplify: I imagine a be-suited Evangelical Republican, praising his God by voting for small government.

You may do the same. This is an unfortunate instinct, as things are rarely that simple. And, ironically, it plays into Republican strategy. Conservatives have waged a very successful campaign to tie being Christian with being Republican.

Millions of individual cases violate this “rule” — enough, in fact, that it should probably not really count as a rule. There are plenty of Christian Democrats. There are plenty of Christian progressives. And, not to be lost in all of this, there are plenty of “religious” people in the United States who are not Christian. And they cover a range of political identities.

Still, conservatives have succeeded in linking religion in the U.S. culturally with Christianity, and Christianity with Republicanism. That this is even a stronger association among those who disagree with both those philosophies is a testament to the effort’s success. More importantly, I’m sure it weighs heavily on those who subscribe to the teachings of Jesus and His Merry Men. A good Christian is a good Republican. This is in the culture. Even their opponents (pricks like me) may sling this as a stereotype and/or insult.

So it must be true.

Perhaps this has lessened a bit since what I remember as its heyday, when George W. Bush was the Evangelical in the Oval Office. I know, anecdotally, of people with definite Christian beliefs who were off-put by the war on terror and even the tax cuts for the rich. “The Christian Left” Facebook group boasts over 180,000 “likers,” and posts things like this:

“If the USA can’t afford to provide basic medical care, feed the poor, protect the environment, maintain our infrastructure, or teach our children anymore, then what exactly is our bloated military budget defending?”

Good question, right? But, anyway, that group states as its goal, “To follow Jesus by taking actions on behalf of the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the poor, the incarcerated…” and other greatest hits of alleged Christian concern.

The group also argues vociferously that it exists — i.e., that progressive Christians are real, live people. “We can’t let the right-wing dominate Christianity like they do. They’ve twisted it into something that has nothing to do with Christ,” they say in this post. This is how successful the linkage of conservativism and Christianity has been: to be a progressive follower of Christ, you need to work hard to convince people that you are real.

But here’s a more nuanced look at religion and the U.S. ballot box: Tobin Grant of the Religion News Service mapped voting and religious persuasion using Pew data. He looked at how religious groups voted along two axes: 1) Government size (big, with many services vs. small, with few services) and 2) Morality (government that enforces morality vs. one that does not).

These are interesting choices in their own right, but they also seem to break out along the traditional Democrat/Left vs. Republican/Right divide in U.S. politics. Generally speaking, the Dems like big government and the attendant social programs, while the GOP favors a smaller government that enforces, for example, “traditional” definitions of marriage.

So, unless every Christian denomination appeared in the upper right corner (smaller government, greater protection of morality), then the popular association of Republicanism and Christianity would falter. And of course it did. Evangelicals, unsurprisingly, are up there. But check out Catholics: pretty much a circle around the center of the graph. One of the biggest denominations in the country, therefore, comes in all flavors: traditionally Democrat to traditionally Republican — and an equal number of adherents who combine beliefs across party lines.

That may be, to me, the most interesting part of this graph: It not only breaks apart the Republican-Christian identification, it also cuts across the two-party continuum. Check out the Anglicans and Presbyterians, who want a smaller government that also stays out of morality. See the Baptists, who want more morality, but also more services. And, of course, the very diverse Catholics. Not to mention the non-Christian groups: Buddhists and Atheists like governments that offer services and stay out of morality (ok, so they’re likely Democrats/Progressives). Hindus, however, tend toward more morality paired with greater services. Neither pure Democrat nor pure Republican ideology would serve their needs.

It’s a big mash, in other words. Religious identity does seem to be associated with politics, but in more-complicated ways than the popular prejudice would suggest.

ThinkProgress  links this at least partially to economics. Churches with poorer flocks generally like more government services. Catholics include a relatively even distribution of economic groups, so those folks cluster around the center.

But there are almost as many economic outliers. Hindus tend to make good bank, but they vote for services. Many Evangelicals make modest incomes, and often rely on social services themselves, but oppose big government. So if religious groups do cluster into clear political quadrants, money doesn’t explain why — not entirely. Neither does political party. Faith is part of a complicated network of identities — economics, race, ethnicity, region, immigration history, and I’m sure many more — that could affect political ideology.

But there doesn’t seem to be much inherent in any particular religion’s teachings that leads people to choose a particular political identity. As ThinkProgress writes:

Regarding the two issues discussed above, the data hints that a voter’s religious affiliation is a strong indicator of their political beliefs, but it’s not totally clear whether religious teachings are the main force shaping those political beliefs. A longer analysis of history, theology, and actual voting patterns of parishioners would be required to get a more accurate picture of what’s going on here.”

Economics is part of the greater identity matrix that shapes political beliefs. So is religion. And so are the ways that political parties themselves attempt to define your religion for you.