Tuesday, December 25, 2007


How about this 'Last of the Mohicans' shot of my wifey from our Christmas travels.

I am almost thirty and yesterday was my first Christmas without mom and dad. Kate is in the same boat. Somehow, it seems like this should have happened sooner. Maybe thirty is not that old, or maybe we grew up slower than most, or we are just lucky. In any case, it has highlighted the only real problem that we have with living in Australia: a lack of family. Brisbane is incredible, the weather is unfair, the laid-back lifestyle and spectacular scenery in Queensland would make any sane man contemplate staying for good. Plus we constantly meet great people who are very good to us. Here’s why I won’t stay: because Canada is also a good place to live, and because a Christmas phone call to parents and siblings is just not good enough. That would be even more true if I was here alone, or if Kate and I had children.

So... family is important. Family is good. Duh.

Our genes program our little brains to love our close-relatives and we produce hormones that create a strong urge to take care of those we care about. Biology is neither good nor bad, the hormones exist because our relatives share our genes and thus it is best for our genes to help their genes survive. Sure that sounds crude but it works for elephants, penguins, ants, and people. But an understanding of this changes nothing.

We have just been told that Kate’s dad is going to visit us for a few weeks in May. From the minute she heard this news, Kate has been planning every detail of his stay here. It was instant motivation and I know of few things more impressive or capable than a motivated woman. Ken will have a great visit and we're thrilled that he is coming.

Oh, and friends are family! The biology goes as follows: an old friend and a distant relative might as well be the same thing because we evolved in an environment in which all close friends were likely related. This could go without saying but when I say family, I include the many non-related family members that we would have loved to see this holiday season. Anyway, I didn’t really intend to rant today, enough thinking. And I also don't mean to complain. We have countless reasons to enjoy our Christmas in Aussie Land. Here are some pics of how it all went down:

We decided to treat ourselves to a brief holiday in an isolated little rainforest cabin before christmas.

Many years ago in Kingston Kate and I watched a young couple get out of a mini-van and put on matching brightly-coloured full track-suits and matching roller-blades (and wrist guards) and skate away together down the path by the lake. We promised ourselves that day not to become that couple. Avoid matching outfits at all cost. So how did this happen?

We also had time to do some hiking (the Mohican's shot from earlier) and to see the sights in and around the beautiful town of Montville.

Then a quiet Christmas eve and morning at home by ourselves. Rather than a tree, we got a bird with a hat. Here's Kate on Christmas morning on our balcony.

And we also had a big turkey to eat courtesy of our friend Connor (an Irish chemist). He put this Christmas dinner together for a mix of his family-less friends in Brizzy.

We decided not go to the beach for christmas but I do have another typical Aussie scene to finish with. Kate screamed when she noticed this beastie in our cabin bedroom. He was harmless (I think), but too big to take outside in a glass. We decided that the only option was for Peter Parker to take a sad and sudden trip to a better place.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Belated props for Dr. Diamond

This is a picture of our kitchen. You might notice the maple leafs on the fridge mailed to us a few weeks ago by Sandy (a highly illegal violation of Aussie customs but since they slipped through and we did not know they were coming I suppose we're in the clear). Also notice above the stove our quickly expanding little library.Kate and I read a lot here. Maybe because we feel like we’re on holiday, maybe fewer friends mean more free time. Who cares? We read. I like it. By curious analogy to Sandy and Ken (Kate’s parents), Kate reads fiction and I read non-fiction pretty much exclusively. We rarely share a book.

And for the first time in years I am reading 'non Organic Chemistry' and it feels good. Up until a few months ago I felt like any wasted reading could cost me my degree or post-doc, career. It was pretty tense :) I no longer have that feeling. Don't get me wrong, I like chemistry and I continue to read that too but I have no doubt the last five years have been (by necessity) a real ‘mind narrower’.

I’m going to try something different today with this post. Bare with me (or not). I'll start with a little story:

Seven million'ish years ago in Africa, Jack and Jill decided they would be monkeys no longer. Slowly, very slowly, they then spread all over the world killing lots of big animals and gathering nuts. By thirteen thousand years ago small bands of hunter gatherers with stone tools had spread to every single corner of the globe. They were intelligent, very intelligent, and yet not a single one of them could farm or write and nobody had any domestic animals or anything resembling what you or I would call technology. This is all FACT, proven by
chemistry (okay, fine, physics... no it's radio-chemistry damn it!). At that point, rather suddenly, because of critical population density and the end of an ice age and a bunch of other reasons Jack and Jill took a completely unprecedented turn toward civilization. They 'decided' first to domesticate plants and animals (which was very difficult) and this allowed them to settle down and feed politicians, builders, inventors, artists, and armies and thereby grow from bands to tribes to ‘chiefdoms’ to states and then to empires.

This all happened so that in 1998 Dr. Jared Diamond, a 61 year old professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, could describe these last thirteen thousand years in his ridiculously popular book and win heaps of awards for his effort. Here is a picture of JD.
I am impressed that JD would even consider aiming a complex history book full of original ideas at the general public rather than just publishing his ideas in academic circles for his geography, history, and biology buddies. And the brilliant award-winning aspect of his book was the fact that Dr. Diamond clearly explained (with ideas that were neither uncertain nor controversial) why, from an equal starting point thirteen thousand years ago ‘civilizing’ happened at different rates on different continents. Why did north North Americans not discover Europe and slaughter the English, French, and Spanish tribes? Was it race? Varying intellect and 'civilizability' between continents? Was it a few freakishly creative inventors that happened to be born in one place and not another? Nope. Nope. And nope. Highly motivated, intelligent, and racist scholars have tried endlessly to prove the above explanations (especially the first one) but they have not succeeded because these explanations are not true and therefore nearly impossible to prove :). The real reason is geography, and only geography. Cool eh? I thought so too. And I don’t care if you believe it or not, I just wish I had found time to read it eight years ago when Millington first suggested it to me.

Before I continue, I will briefly digress. This blog post is my attempt at a book review. I now notice book reviews in newspapers I'm developing the opinion that these ‘reviewers’ are mostly idiots. I say that because they are way too negative and make too much effort to sound smart.

Dude (I mean Sir), if you don’t like a book, why draw my attention to it at all? Save yourself time and effort and mention it not. Then I won’t buy it. I won’t even know it exists. I may save ten bones if I read that a movie sucks (that’s ten Mars bars) but books are available in the thousands and I don’t require anyone’s help ‘not buying’ them.

And reviewers try too hard to sound smart. I suppose it’s natural but I don’t like it. Dude (I mean Sir), you are not an author and your little article is just a glorified advertisement. So please, unless you have been asked for your expert opinion, don’t give me two pages of original thought. If you’re feeling so creative write your own book. Your review should be a summary and some quotes. Heck, quote the crap out of it! Take a cue from movie advertising and just spoil it. A trailer for a comedy is not some guy I don’t recognize delving into the characters or telling me how hard he laughed . Just a few funny scenes (usually too many). So quote the book numb-nuts.

And introduce the author so I know who I’m reading and can try and determine his or her motive. I’m a practical simple minded scientist-type and I dislike books with obvious (or worse, irrational) bias. I do not want to read non-fiction (arguably) written by politicians or scientologists or anyone else who is heavily invested in, and very proficient at, wasting my time. So briefly sum up the book, the author, and then hit us with some quotes.

Here, if you’re still reading this foolishness, I missed the last ingredient. These are some great, if somewhat random, JD lines that I could not help but underline while reading this book.

JD on cheetah’s and zebras:

…tame cheetahs were prized by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and modern Indians as hunting animals infinitely superior to dogs. One Mogul emperor of India kept a stable of a thousand cheetahs…. all of their cheetahs were tamed ones caught in the wild… efforts to breed cheetahs in captivity failed.
Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure even more American zoo-keepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope, even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses, because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then duck their head out of the way
JD on sheep:
At the time of a recent census, Australias 17,085,400 people thought so highly of sheep that they kept 161,6000,000 of them.
JD on ‘farmer power’:
In a one-on one fight, a naked farmer would have no advantage over a naked hunter-gatherer… farmer power lies in much denser populations that food production could support… Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.
JD on where food comes from:
A typical American fast-food restaurant meal would include chicken (first domesticated in China) potatoes (from the Andes) or corn (from mexico), seasoned with black pepper (from India) and washed down with a cup of coffee (of Ethiopian origin).
JD on the strange nature of many inventions:
…Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison’s list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs-but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years later did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music
I should mention JD's big central thesis. He is all about the 'axes of the continents'. "Around those axes turned the fortunes of history" Civilization progressed faster where people had longitude rather than latitude to work with. This is because food production (that big first step) spread faster along the east–west axes than along north–south axes because plants are adapted to a particular latitude (temperature, growing season, etc). Here’s a picture from JD's article in Nature in 2002. (I hope he won't mind me borrowing it, nobody reads this anyway)

JD on one of his many personal insights about New Guinea (the book is full of these):
In a traditional new Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar new Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged ina long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.
I want to give you a few more quotes but first, a warning. History is full of harsh realities involving inhumane cruelty and death. If you are the type to get very emotionally involved then don't read this book (or the rest of this blog post). I like understanding the past but there is no certainly no changing it (although people do speculate). The human rights conventions adopted by most of the world today are a great achievement, but also a very new idea. The history of civilization (like evolution by natural selection) is mostly cruel, gruesome, and full of death.

JD on guns:
… in 1908 a British sailor named Charlie Savage equipped with muskets and excellent aim arrived in the Fiji Islands. The aptly named Savage proceeded single-handedly to upset Fiji’s balance of power. Among his many exploits, he paddled his canoe up a river to the Fijian village of Kasavu, halted less than a pistol shot’s length from the village fence, and fired away at the undefended inhabitants. His victims were so numerous that surviving villagers piled up bodies to take shelter behind them, and the stream beside the village was red with blood. Such examples of the power of guns against native peoples lacking guns could be multiplied indefinitely
JD on crappy diseases:
The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history - smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera - are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confided to humans… The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people at the end of the First World War. The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed one-quarter of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1352
JD on the sad fate of native North Americans:
The Indian population of the island of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million when Columbus arrived in AD 1492 to zero by 1535… For the New World as a whole the decline of the Indian population in the century or two following Columbus’ arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95%.... Europe’s sinister gift to all other continents were the germs evolving from Eurasians long intimacy with domestic animals.
I will finish with a lighter one. JD on dingos:
Native Australians kept captive dingos as companions, watchdogs, and even as living blankets, giving rise to the expression “five-dog night’ to mean a very cold night.
My parents and older relatives have always been concerned with me knowing my Polish-Catholic roots. This is more than understandable. I should. And if you wish to dig a little deeper, shameful or not, this book is as deep and well written and intelligent as a description of all of our roots will get.

Apparently there is now a three hour
PBS documentary that sums it up pretty well on DVD, so why read.

Here's a final thought. Much of this book is about the domination of 'haves' over 'have-nots'. Powerful advanced societies over weak primitive ones. It's not hard to step back and see that the story is far from finished. JD throws out some very universal insights about leadership, power, and large populations. There are some obvious parallels with aspects of the world today. Somebody will probably write an interesting update in another 1000 years.

Monday, December 10, 2007

geekfest 07

Ten months ago Mark Coster, my boss, relocated to Griffith University (Brisbane) from the University of Sydney . He had a large research group in Sydney . One student (Sean) one post-doc (Kylee) came with him, and I joined them here, but the majority of the group (Sam, Adam, Katie, Katelyn, Josh, Hendra and Cody) chose to stay behind and, although now co-supervised by another professor, finish their PhD projects more independently than most. So Dr. Coster’s group is like a family split in two. And as might be expected, we get together for the holidays. Actually, for just one holiday: Geekfest!

About a hundred clicks north of Sydney there is an old university research station out in the middle of the woods. It is a large cottage that sleeps twenty’ish and is used mostly for the study of Aussie plants and animals. Many years ago, this facility was donated to U of S by a nature loving rich woman who willed it to be used by zoologists or botanists or other hippies for research. We rented it for Geekfest! It was a Thursday to Sunday holiday consisting of a day and a half of chemistry seminars, a day and a half of relaxing family time and… well, three nights of heavy drinking. Here are some pictures.

First, the group from left to right: Hendra, Sean, Kylee, Me, Katelyn, Josh, the boss, Katie, and Sam. Two others, Adam and Cody, missed this picture.The 'research station'.

Inside, we set up a nice little classroom.
This is Mark Coster going down to barbecue town, medieval style on this old stone beast.
An Australian brush turkey. No relation to ours, and harmless (although not very afraid of people). We shared the facility with a few of them and with with an older gentleman doing some very intensive research on brush turkey mating behaviour. Apparently, they are special due to an unusual lack of parental care. Like Britney :)
The birds and bees of brush turkeys are as follows: boy turkey builds a large nest (a meter-high mound of leaves and crap), various hot young girl turkeys come around to mate with him. Usually on his mound. Later the ladies lay their eggs in daddy's mound. Daddy's job is now to defend and maintain the mound, which is warmed via exothermic decomposition of biomass. (In sharp contrast to my lab, where exothermic decomposition is usually a very bad thing. Geekfest.) Sadly, when the young whipper-snappers come digging out of the mound, neither mom or dad want anything to do with them. Kinda harsh for bird behaviour I think. Furthermore, apparently big daddy doesn't realize that some of the little'ns in his mound are (of course) not his. Pimpin ain't easy.

We could not have a 'geekfest' without a geek car or an outdoor movie theatre that played recently pirated films and (when moved indoors) doubled as PlayStation heaven!
I was happy to introduce the game we all know and love to the Aussie chemists. Beersby is spreading fast, as it should be. Soon the frizbee will be sold at the beer stores everywhere. (As with most things here, the cottage was not far from ocean and beach.)
Sean demonstrates a rye and coke Aussie style. Pre-mixed coke and CC in a can. They bottle and can a lot of mixed drinks here. But the real hero at geekfest was Captain Morgan.
After a long flight and months in the closet, this shirt finally came out. Behind me is a Kookaburra. A pretty but vicious little carnavore that makes sure your hotdog is dead (by bashing it against something a few times) before eating it.
And the moustache is now gone, it's December.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Chemistry after Australia

I’ve been thinking 'career' in recent days and that always leads to a sense of 'reality' that can be a little overwhelming. Everybody (or the statistical equivalent thereof) finds a first job. Thankfully Kate and I are on the same page with regard to how much money corresponds to satisfaction and its not much. A modest little house somewhere safe and some pocket change to travel with for a few weeks a year would be more than enough for us both. So I'm not worried. But the overwhelming 'reality' comes when I let myself think about just how much time and effort I have invested into this 'organic chemistry' stuff. Time I can't get back, time I might have spent working or learning something different. I like what I do and and I like what I have learned but I am heavily invested and that can be stressfull. I hate the thought of the time I may have wasted should things not work out well as I believe they can. Other than Kate, most my friends and family (ouside of academia) don't have a good understanding of my career options. Many of you will not want to waste any more of your time reading this but I will try to briefly describe those options in this post. If nothing more this will clear my thoughts so I can get back to work.

After Australia my aim is Montreal. I hope to be hired as a research chemist for Merck or Pfizer or BI or some other Pharma Giant. Rarely are they formally offered but these jobs are usually ‘informally available’ for the right well-trained synthetic chemists. It works like this: seven years of good synthetic experience (via PhD and Post-Doc), a handful of good publications, good reference letters from impressive supervisors, and some luck all add up to an interview. In that interview, on my own, I will either succeed or fail. It is not complicated. A pharma interview is the equivalent of a comprehensive synthetic chemistry oral exam and only acing it with flying colours constitutes a ‘pass’. It is not difficult for a company find the best talent and filter away the rest in that interview room. These jobs are difficult to get, we all know that, but they are definitely worth getting! So I study. I will read and learn chemistry every day between now and that interview. There are, of course, other options. There are lesser known generic companies that are satisfied with less decorated chemists in exchange for lower salaries. There are also countless smaller biotech’s and start-ups that have need for the skills I offer. In these companies, there is the potential to fast track into management and possibly make a lot of money from the success of a company. But a start-up is far from an established business and with typically only a year or two of secured funding a start-up can’t guarantee success. And they often fail. Some survive and with that in mind I’ll certainly have a look around when the time comes but I have the feeling the stress and risk of that kind of work is better suited for someone single (or soon to be single :). I am also qualified to teach chemistry at any University anywhere in the world. These positions are always available but many people have an intuitively inaccurate knowledge of how academia works. Here it is: a well-paid happy university professor is a researcher first and foremost and educator second (a distant second). To survive, one must have original ideas. There is no escaping that simple fact. It also helps to write good grant applications and/or to kiss a bit of bottom early in your career (sadly). Also young academics must work VERY hard and their ideas must succeed (or lead to something that does) so that they can publish, and publish, and then publish some more. Can I do that? Maybe.... probably. I have an idea book, and it is not blank :). I am certainly capable of teaching well, but that is not a useful quality. Some research chemists also happen to teach well which is great but teachers who can’t research do not survive. Universities today do have ‘just teaching’ positions but these come with salaries similar to those of high-school teachers who were smart enough not to waste five years getting a PhD. (That was a very harsh statement and I respectfully apologise to anyone that may have loved their PhD and now loves their teaching job and doesn’t give a crap about my opinion.)

Many chemists aspire simply to be one of the best in their field. The top academic chemists in the world, the ones that travel for half the year, the ones in contention for Nobel, the ones whose names all other chemists know, are not only the most knowledgeable and creative of us but they are also natural leaders and motivators that have a natural ability to impress, sell their ideas, and showcase their results. I have observed that unfortunately some of these same top-academics (too many) also benefit from being cut-throat competitive, guarded, and from having little regard or respect for their peers (that is especially but note exclusively true in the American system). The rules of the game are such that academics compete with each other for government funding. Each can benefit only at the expense of the rest. It's not quite as cruel as Texas Hold'em (there are more winners) but it's the same idea. I don't mean to sound too synical but I do belive that for many reasons, academia is a difficult career choice. Some scientists are so passionate, creative, independent, or 'odd' that they have no choice at all, they are born academics and they are happy and I admire these people greatly. And I will always respect a chemist who has something positive to say about someone else’s research. It is far too rare.

That brings me to the end of this rant. For those that stayed with me, thanks for listening. Somewhere in all this mess, I will soon find a niche for myself. Of course, there is the possibility of a completely unforseable career: there are transition options into other fields of chemistry and science, the environmental chemists are pretty busy these days. I have thought about science journalism or writing, if only part time. Possibilities are numerous but starting with anything outside of synthesis will surely not justifiy all of this training. One thing is for sure, I'm done with school for a while.

Enough of this serious talk, there's more to life than just work. Plus I have to go to bed. I have to get up early and go to work :)