Wednesday, October 29, 2008

senseless babble

I spoke on the phone to a couple good’ol friends from good’ol Canadia this week, first to ‘Hot Prof” and then “Big Cheese’ (… to avoid names). Anyway, these are good, good people - truly solid individuals. And they were entertaining as always. These two conversations reminded me that I have been out of touch with many of the finest dudes and dudettes in my life during the past year. I’ve missed two weddings, one Alumni weekend, and countless other less-formal adventures. And it blows.

I’ve also had zero face time with my brothers, who I’m pretty sure are getting more interesting as they get older. The little brats have yet to find me on skype. If you two are reading this… you’re both tools! The rock climbing programmer tool is comfortably settled in Vancouver and is now spending time with a young lady that I won’t get to meet for a while. And the younger pilot tool is Calgary-based, and teaching pilot stuff to younger-still pilot wanna-be’s, and also has a good woman making his life interesting. That’s probably why I don’t hear from him. Here's recent picture of Greg having a mid-mountain rest.

And the folks, left by themselves in K-W, have to be wondering what they did wrong to deserve the huge distance between their home and their three sons. I suppose pushing us to perform in school in the hope that it might open some doors without realizing that these doors might lead a long way from Ontario was their mistake. There ain’t much doubt they would like to see more of us (and preferably with some grandchildren of course), but they haven’t complained much lately. They’re good at keeping busy.

So my point… I’m not sure. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that as awesome as living here in Aussie Land has been for me this past year… roots are roots. (The Aussies will like that expression.)

In any case… Kate and I are down-under for another year or so before we head back to a mildly ‘colder’ reality that we hope may involve a couple kids, a dog, a nice porch (… sadly not to be confused with a nice porsche), and a real job.

Like everyone else, I’ve been observing the impending global economic tragedy and wondering what it means for me and the people I know. Pharmaceutical industry's not looking too impressive lately so medicinal-chemistry, the only career I had in mind, might be a tight find. I might have to ‘widen the grid’ a to include available jobs if bread becomes scarce. Maybe I’ll learn to bake bread :) I do like bread.

I’ve been reading about economic theories and world history and the more I read about these topics the more I realize how little control we have over ‘ourselves’ as a society. It’s hard to explain what I mean. Basically: I can control what I do, and you can control what you do, and yet somehow ‘we’ have very little control of what ‘we’ do. Does that make any sense? It’s a bit frightening to witness just how intrinsically unstable the global economy might be. Even more troubling is the thought of economists arguing and presenting conflicting 'theories' to explain it all. Not only is today's society a long way from perfect, it also remains very poorly understood. (Probably because so many of the things around us are so new.) And to a science-nerd like me ‘poorly understood’ is bad. The problem is that if I decide to try to make the world a ‘better’ place, how do I know which actions are ‘positive’ and which are ‘negative’ in a big-picture sense? I don’t have a clue. The bio-fuel business is a prime example: good or bad for us? It's looking pretty bad. Nor can I do any thing positive if it costs too much (in dollars, or time, or even effort). Maybe I’ll deepen these thoughts in another post soon. I’m actually enjoying a book about math right now… one of the few subjects available with some occasional straight answers. How nerdy is that?

But enough of this senseless babble.

I’ll leave you with a recent picture of my wife and I taken by our friend Craig between games one of these weekends. I don’t think he’ll mind if I borrow it. Cheers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

chemistry is not for everyone

For years during my PhD effort I worked as a TA (teaching assistant), babysitting undergraduate students as they struggled with basic chemistry experiments. I have some fun stories from those many lost hours. Here’s a lil’nugget from my lab mate Sean O’Connor’s more recent experience. Sean is a cynical young man (an effective strategy for maintaining one's sanity around here).

Student: “Excuse me sir, the lab instructions say: ‘add water to the flask, remove from ice bath, and warm to room temperature’. What should I do?”

Sean: “Do what it says: add water and warm to room temperature. Why did you just ask me that question?”

Student “Because I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Sean: “But you did do something wrong.”

Student (worried): “What?”

Sean: “You asked me that stupid question.”

Thank you Dutchman.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

the law of gravity requires no enforcement

Here's a picture of my little cousin Ula and I in the lab not too long ago. I borrowed it from her facebook album. I brought her to work with me for an afternoon and tried my best to make 'science' look appealing. I asked her to do an aqueous workup of an mid-sized DMF reaction and she said something like: "This stuff is a lot of work - it's no wonder it took you so long to get a degree". Yes it is cuz, and yes it did :)

I’d like to tell you about one of my ideas for a book. I’d like to write a popular science book – don’t laugh! I have been thinking about it for almost a year. My goal is something that I would have enjoyed reading about ten years ago when I was starting university. The topic will be the ‘mechanisms of life’ (as we understand them - obviously :). I don’t want give away specifics, but I see a 200’ish page paper back that simplifies some of the fascinating complexities of biology and chemistry and hopefully leaves reader with appreciation– rather than fear – of the unimaginably small details of the living world around us. If we understand how gasoline is converted to motion in an internal combustion engine, why should we not also understand how an apple becomes muscular movement in your arm? Do you know how that works? Do you think it is something worth understanding? It’s not magic. It probably once was. But today, it's just chemistry. And I believe that the only reason biochemistry is considered so ‘difficult’, is that so few people have tried to simplify it for us.

No doubt this book would be difficult to write. I suppose that is why I have yet to find it on the shelves. But it’s not impossible I think. Perhaps I might make a contribution to bridging the growing gap between us and them – between the nerdy scientists and the ‘regular folk’.

Why write such a book? First, I’d love to write a book, and chemistry is what I know. But also, I feel like front-line scientific research these days is becoming more and more like ‘black magic’ to Joe Average - and not just because it’s pretty boring but also because it takes so much effort to comprehend the boring stuff. In the good’ol days, I think the public could better appreciate discoveries like electricity or radio because, although remarkable, the practical details of these ‘miracles’ were easier to grasp than today’s ‘particle accelerators’ or ‘small interfering RNA’.

But does that mean that we shouldn’t try to understand science? And do scientists not have some responsibility to simplify physics or biochemistry and teach it to non-professional-academics? You might argue: what’s the point? Well here’s the point: when you and I stop trying to understand our world, society seems to take a nose dive into ignorance. Unfortunately, it appears to be human nature to fill knowledge-gaps, wherever they exist, with endless fiction. If the word ‘ignorance’ is offensive then call it ‘unawareness’ or ‘naivety’ or maybe even ‘ill-judgement’ but there must be a good term that describes what possesses so many of the people around us to act in such strong defiance of basic logic.

Examples of this ‘ill-judgement’ will undoubtedly offend, so forgive me, but if the law of ‘gravity’ requires no police enforcement and then neither should evolution, or coincidence. These are observable facts. I believe the world would be a better place if no adults believed in: magic, miracles, astrology, creationism, alternative meds, seances, ouija boards, UFOs, elves, bigfoot, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, and even the seemingly harmless concepts of fate and destiny. In my ideal world, everything observable would be left to reason - and everyone's actions (and prejudices) would be sensible. So believe me when I say that, as cool as he is, David Blaine can not fly. No one can read your mind. No house is haunted. And nobody communicates with the dead.
If any of those things were actually true, would they not also be ‘ordinary’? Yes they would. They would be about as 'mysterious' to us all as microwave ovens or the clouds in the sky. And they would be studied by reputable researchers like all other observable truths.

I should add now that I am neither an atheist, nor would I ever object to anyone’s belief in a ‘higher power’. I believe that any sort of faith makes finding some honest meaning in life (and in death) a whole lot easier. But as to the question of what to do when faith and science cross paths? The only answer that makes any sense to me is that they don’t. They really don't. I am thankful to live in a time when a religion that tries to challenge and disprove observable facts faces a real uphill battle (although many still stubbornly try). I see no need for man made mysteries in a world with so many real ones. We have plenty of questions that no researcher will ever answer - the biggest one, of course, is the question of why this universe of ours exists in the first place. That one you can ask a priest :)

And as for 'right and wrong' or ‘good and evil’ or human ethics and human rights, and all other morally tricky lil’issues are concerned: if you really don’t believe these can be tackled without religious input, then perhaps you will at least agree that a priest who also reads science books can offer better judgments about the today’s world than one who just reads scrolls.

So… back to the point. (I see that got carried away again) I keep thinking about how much I would enjoy writing for living. But the thought of taking the time to get started - and then actually becoming good at it - is pretty daunting. Maybe by posting my intentions to write this first book I will be motivated to get going. I wish I had a few months off to get a draft out… hey, I wonder what would happen if the lab burned down :)