Short version: In a busy week I’ve been drafting some thoughts about topics that are considered awkward, impolite, or worthy of censorship.
There are topics that are uncomfortable to discuss, that etiquette guides suggest one avoids at a dinner party. Topics such as sex, money, politics, physical and mental illness. These are also incredibly important topics to discuss. In general I feel that all topics should be open to discussion, and that we should shake off the idea that certain things are taboo. Some thoughts:
Sex: It is highly likely that you exist because your parents had sexual intercourse. Sex is both important, and fun, but oddly it is often a topic people feel very uncomfortable talking about. Sexual repression, particularly by Abrahamic faiths, is likely a significant contributing factor. It is interesting to note from a perspective of censorship, that film and television guidelines tend to allow much more graphic violence than graphic sexual content in a given category, despite most individuals having much more lived experience with sex than violence. I do wonder if there is a positive to this apparent contradiction: is desensitisation to violence better that desensitisation to sex?
Stereotypes and discrimination: In Australia the series “You Can’t Ask That” puts uncomfortable questions to marginalised Australians. In attempts to avoid seeming ignorant about minority identities, individuals may not engage with them for fear of revealing that ignorance, which further entrenches that ignorance. By asking “taboo” questions this show may help break down that barrier in the general public.
Some things are better left unsaid: There are topics of discussion that, on balance, create harm. Spreading certain types of information, regardless of truth, can have damaging effects (e.g. how to develop biological weapons, graphic descriptions of torture, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories). However it is difficult to delineate when discussing topics becomes harmful (e.g. when does skepticism become fearmongering).
Blogging Note: I would like revisit this in more depth when I have read, thought, and discussed this a little more.
Short version: The Olympics is one year away. The weather is getting hotter. Sometimes scientists lie. People keep doing impossible things. I’m more active on social media.
One year from this Wednesday, on Friday 24th July 2020, the Tokyo Olympic games will open. The games will feature 339 events in 33 different sports, encompassing 50 disciplines. Although playing sport was compulsory in school for me (I played tennis and football (soccer) poorly), it was only while working in anti-doping alongside passionate athletes that I became motivated to try more athletic activities. Since then I have found participating in sports gives me a much greater appreciation for the strength and skill of professional athletes (though many Olympians are “amature” as not all sports have enough of a following to create professional opportunities). This creates an interesting personal challenge: to attempt to “play” each sport between now and the opening ceremony in 2020, and thereby be a much more informed spectator.
Last week I wrote about staying up to date by reading work from other scientists. Publishing papers is how academic scientists progress their careers, which creates an incentive to cheat. To sharpen my skepticism I keep an eye on papers that get taken down for false or misleading data; Retraction Watch is a blog that covers such cheating. This week I stumbled upon their collaboration Forensic Friday, which lets you practice your ability to discern real and fake data.
I’ve been much more active lately on social media, particularly uploading photos from this blog to instagram. I am interested in reaching out to more people. Aside from the vain joy of having a larger audience, I hope you (the reader) find some of my content interesting, or even better comment or reach out to guide me to create better content.
Short version: I summarise and share thoughts on articles from the covers of current editions of high impact journals. I ran late at night and it was serene.
Front Page Science
Human knowledge is vast, and discovering is more difficult than learning from others what was discovered before. This explanation of what a PhD is visualises that point. Scientists need to communicate with each other about their results, and do so by publishing articles collected and edited by journals. Today with journals available online it is rare to open a physical periodical rather than read individual articles digitally (or printed one by one). Those hard copy collections still exist, and necessarily they have a front cover. This week I looked up the covers of some high impact journals (see below), read the related article, and wrote down my thoughts.
Snooze Report On the cover of Nature. This paper studies sleep in Zebrafish. While we all sleep, it is a complicated process with many aspects still not understood. Zebrafish are a model organism, that is they can be used as a substitute for understanding processes in humans, and have been studied extensively. Zebrafish are known to sleep based on behavioural criteria (essentially they stop moving for a while for regular periods), but it is hard to compare Zebrafish sleep to humans (or mammals in general) in a more detailed way. This is because sleep is studied in humans by looking at electrical signals from the brain (via electroencephalograms or EEG), but fish do not have a similar part of the brain (the neocortex) where human sleep signals are recorded. The team behind this paper, mostly from Stanford, used a light microscope based method to look at Zebrafish brains while they slept, and discovered two sleep signatures that they call “slow bursting sleep” and “propagating wave sleep” that they claim to be similar to our “slow-wave sleep” and “rapid eye movement sleep“.
Artificial Muscles On the cover of Science Much of science and engineering aims to replicate nature, be it materials (the first plastics replaced natural materials like silk and ivory), phenomena (electric lighting replacing flames), or biological feats (aircraft allowing human flight). Being able to artificially produce the mechanical properties of muscle (fibres that can contract) is important for robotics and prosthetics that more accurately mimic what natural creatures can do. This group, mostly from MIT, have created fibres that can lift 650 times their weight, and withstand thousands of cycles.
African Killifishes On the cover of Cell The advances made in DNA sequencing accelerated rapidly, and whole genome sequencing is now routinely available to researchers. This research team studied the genetic code of 45 killifish species to better understand the relationship between genes and life span. Killifishes have a range of life spans due to species diversifying and adapting to different environments. Killifish with shorter lives tended to have more genetic code, including both more redundant code and more detrimental mutations.
Controlled patterning of stem cell cultures On the cover of Nature Methods Three key concepts underpin this paper: Stem cells are cells that can become other types of cells. Morphogens are chemicals that, through their distribution, influence how cells develop, and eventually leads to the organisation of different types of cells in complex organisms. Microfluidics is the process of handling very small amounts of liquid. Those three come together in this method that explains how using a microfluidic device to introduce morphogens in a gradient over stem cells alters the patterns that they develop.
Atomistic Simulations of Membrane Ion Channel Conduction, Gating, and Modulation On the cover of ACS Chemical Reviews Reviews are an intermediate type of publication between cutting edge research and established science found in textbooks. This paper covers computer simulations of membrane ion channels, and is a comprehensive 72 pages (excluding the 923 references). Membrane ion channels are important for electrical activity in biological systems, i.e. the nervous system. Computer simulations have become increasingly important in chemistry, made particularly famous in 2013.
A one-dimensional individual-based mechanical model of cell movement in heterogeneous tissues and its coarse-grained approximation On the cover of Proceedings of the Royal Society A My mathematical understanding is far from the frontiers of mathematical research, and so I don’t often read papers from mathematicians. This paper presents a model, that is a mathematical representation, for cell movement in tissue. The power of mathematics, and of models, is to be able to generalise from limited information. In this case the hope is a generalised model might inform a better understanding of disease.
Guiding spin waves in artificial antiferromagnets On the cover of Nature nanotechnology Spin is a fundamental property of subatomic particles, such as electrons. Magnetism is a directly observable consequence of spin, in a similar way to static electricity being a directly observable consequence of charge. We manipulate charge in conventional electronic devices, and spintronics aims to manipulate spin in a similar way. This paper describes spin-waves being controlled, and is a step towards more complex applications of spin.
Rapid Plant DNA Extraction On the cover of ACS Nano The paper describes a method for extracting the DNA from plants using a patch covered in hundreds of sub-millimeter needles. This reduces a multi hour chemical extraction to a few minutes work.
Nanopore metagenomics enables rapid clinical diagnosis of bacterial lower respiratory infection On the cover of Nature biotechnology Oxford Nanopore, like ONI, is a spin out of Oxford University. They develop a device for rapid and portable DNA sequencing. In this paper they apply that technology to diagnosing bacteria in respiratory infections. Conventional identification by growing the bacteria taken from a patient sample takes 2-3 days, whereas the Nanopore method could give results in a few hours.
Early this week I wanted a long run, but only had time to start at midnight. I decided to go for it, and found I really enjoyed the quiet streets. Particularly the lack of vehicle traffic meant I could run on the road. Even having the whole footpath to myself the alternating sloping driveways and flat footpath required attention, while the smooth asphalt gave me space to get lost in my thoughts. I had decided to run unplugged, without music or a podcast, and even turned off the backlight on my watch, setting the pace purely on feel. After the first few kilometres I found a rhythm and just listened to my foot fall, soaking in the serenity. An additional fun moment was running through some road works barricades, which gave me the impression of being on the course of a race.
Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.
Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper
I started a molecular biologyMOOC. The beginning of the course suggested note taking on paper is more effective, and cited this study. It was persuasive, but I will continue to mostly work digitally. I justify this by the ease of carrying, organising, and searching digital notes being more convenient than paper systems. This reminds me of the observation that smart-phone-toting-always-online-humans are effectively cyborgs, with tremendous capabilities for memory, problem solving, and long distance communication. That said, I do find scrap paper to sketch diagrams very helpful in the initial learning.
This week I performed some long experiments, and was complimented by colleagues on being able to sustain energy and remain positive throughout. On reflection I think maintaining good physical health (via exercise and diet) plays a significant part. Avoiding insulin spikes from binging sugar helps, even though appetite will increase during the small hours from sleep deprivation. Knowing how long you need to keep going and spacing caffeinated drinks across that time helps too. Importantly I have learned that some sleep is better than none. To prevent a heavy workload from becoming impossible; minimise unnecessary tasks and focus on completing only what is needed, then recovering (sleeping). Finally it is important to account for a diminished capacity when planning. As you tire speed of work decreases and rate of mistakes increases. Thankfully I am part of a very dedicated and supportive team, and so we are able to work together to ensure the experiments run to plan.
Flood of Children
The University of Oxford has prestige which, beyond the university itself, is used by businesses to create demand and profit. Tutoring school aged students is such a business. Summer programs run by groups unaffiliated with the university (but often using holiday vacated undergraduate accommodation) bring hundreds of teenagers to Oxford for courses costing thousands of pounds. The associated walking tours lead to pedestrian congestion as the children are shepherded around the city center (pictured below).
Short version: This week I had a couple of students in the lab for work experience, and it reminded me how much I enjoy teaching. Some thoughts.
One of the joys of my education was being repeatedly challenged to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to. I found this an incredibly powerful way to learn both information and problem solving skills. It requires capable teachers with time to be able to explore each student’s individual thinking, as well as confident students.
Students are used to being tested on content they ought to have learned, being praised for preparing and chastised for a lack of practice. Thus it can be disquieting for them to be confronted with a question they have not prepared for. Post-education this is not very useful when working in science, where questions need to be answered that have not been answered before.
A wonderful example of taking relatively common experiences and following a path of questions and answers is “Fun to imagine“, an armchair conversation with Richard Feynman.
Science through fresh eyes
There is an XKCD comic for many situations, and one such specific situation is that there will always be many people who have yet to learn something you take for granted. In the lab, my team and I get to take for granted the understanding of many scientific concepts. However, through the eyes of inexperienced students the mundane becomes new. This is easily seen as a weakness of the students, but it is also joyful to see tools and ideas I take for granted be seen as exciting and new.
A good example of this is Pendulum Waves, which was demonstrated at the Cowley Carnival (see below).
If you play these games of asking and attempting to answer questions, often your guesses will be wrong. In order to persist and learn you must enjoy the game, and therefore you must be able to enjoy being wrong. CGP Grey summaries it well: “if you want to always be right, you have to always be prepared to change your mind”.
Short version: After attempting (and failing) to write a blog post each week for the past 6 months, I look back on those posts and reflect.
Identity and Expectation
A realisation occurred to me whilst thinking about the unfinished drafts for this blog. Fitness, particularly competitive fitness, is not a core part of my identity, and so it does not threaten my ego to post slow times on parkrun. By being comfortable running slowly, I run more, and in running more, I run faster. Being comfortable with being a slow runner makes me a faster runner. The ability to understand difficult concepts, and to communicate effectively, is a core part of my identity. This means being unable to understand difficult concepts, and being unable to write well, does hurt my ego. If I am insecure about these aspects, I read fewer scientific papers, I write fewer blog posts, and the result is I do not improve in these areas. The lack of progress makes me more insecure, and a cycle of procrastination begins.
The solution, therefore, is to be comfortable with not understanding, or in the case of this blog, to be comfortable writing poorly. The purpose I have identified, in attempting to write each week rather than each time I have something interesting or insightful, is a need to practice writing regularly, not a need to demonstrate the skill of writing. To be able to write more regularly, I need to stay true to that purpose, and not be swayed my the desire to be interesting, insightful, or demonstrate a level of skill I have yet to achieve.
With that in mind I post this unfinished, and hope to take time when I am up to date to examine the first 25 posts of 2019, and identify what I have done well, and what I need to improve on, as I focus my efforts on more regular content in the 26 posts to come.
Posts I liked:
The short summaries of papers from Week 8 was fun to write, but regrettably shallow. Although not a weekly blog post, I was happy with my comprehensive first race report. Writing about diet and alcohol had a real effect in my life; it made it easier to hold myself to my decision in the face of perceived social pressure. I got stuck for a while trying to write about video games, but overcoming that was useful to me in understanding my relationship with that form of entertainment. Week 15’s Minimalism felt reasonably cohesive.
Posts I did not like:
The most common mistake I see in my writing is the use of unnecessarily complex sentences. Phrases like “much of the time” instead of “often”. I would guess the reasons for this are 1) a lack of consideration and technique, 2) attempting to be precise for fear of being misunderstood and 3) an affectation in order to appear intelligent. Ultimately the goal of writing is to communicate. To be succinct first requires the ideas themselves to be coherent, and testing my ideas by attempting to write about them has helped me think more clearly. In a limited time, some ideas never become coherent, and the resulting posts are much weaker. For example, in Week 21 I didn’t understand my own conclusions about marriage or Romania, and so I feel the writing suffered. The book report in Week 7 was never written, and I cannot help but feel a tinge of shame when I think about it.
Short version: Taking advice is not an easy skill to master. I ought to listen to the advice itself rather than assume its validity based on the person offering it.
I have a bad habit when taking advice. I find it very difficult to listen when the advice comes from someone who does not follow that advice themselves. This is a sort of reverse authority bias, whereby I ignore good information that ought to be taken on it’s own merit. An intuitive example is the sporting one, a coach might study the tactics and strategy of a game, know their players and those of the opposition, the biomechanics of the body, and about nutrition and rehabilitation, and yet be themselves at a poor level of fitness. Thereby they might espouse accurate, useful, and ultimately critical advice, whilst being a terrible player themselves. Sport is also a good example of my bias at the group level, as often it takes skill in the activity to earn enough respect to be in a position to offer advice.
Further, I can find myself confronting the person giving me advice if I feel they are not being consistent to the underlying principle. This often comes across as confrontational, which is not how one should approach an offer of help (of which giving advice is a type). Even if it is not a direct confrontation, by challenging the person I distract myself away from considering the advice, and how it might address my own inadequacies. Seen from this perspective the motivation to react this way is obvious: it is much more comfortable to see someone elses weaknesses than our own. Conversely, once accepted and understood, it is only our own weaknesses that we are able to correct.
Confidence vs. Persistence
I am learning from the beginners rowing course, that while being confident is helpful (it prevents unnecessary hesitation, lowers stress, and makes the whole process more enjoyable), persistence (actual time practicing a skill, making it automatic) helps more.
Short version: Vitamins are important, but confusing. I am learning to row.
The discovery of chemicals needed to sustain animals (including humans) other than minerals (e.g. salt) and the three macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) is described in this paper. The term vitamins itself was coined by Casimir Funk who formed the portmanteau from Vital Amines. Particularly interesting to me was learning that the advent of the highly useful germ theory of disease led to the assumption that conditions caused by vitamin deficits (e.g. scurvy) were also caused by unknown pathogens, resulting in debates around the existence of these other nutritional compounds. The Wikipedia list of vitamins gives some chemical and medical insight into vitamins. Historically it seems that improvements in chemical extraction, purification, and structural determination led to the intermediate letter based classification we still use today, despite a more precise chemical understanding of these compounds having been achieved.
Short version: Waitrose is getting rid of some of their packaging, but didn’t stock yams.
The United Kingdom has a much more diverse supermarket landscape than the Australian duopoly I grew up with. The British landscape is tiered, with M&S and Waitrose as the expensive, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as the middle, and Aldi, Iceland, and Lidl as the cheaper options. In my shopping there is a noticeable contrast in the demographic of the customers at Waitrose compared with Aldi, both on Oxford’s Botley Road. I suspect this is a product of the price differences appealing to different socio-economic classes. The data, however, suggests the difference is small.
The photo from the week is of Waitrose’s “Unpacked” campaign around removing packaging from their stores. Reducing waste is commendable, and the campaign has been successful in encouraging me to purchase more items from Waitrose. However on visiting many of the independent grocery stores on Cowley Road I realised that “Unpacked” is actually the default way of selling goods, rather than an “innovation”.
I tried cooking yams this week, as part of a larger project to improve my cooking by working through a single cookbook (written by the team of the former London restaurant Food for Thought).
The first problem was that I didn’t actually know what a yam is. The wikipedia page offers a disambiguation. This raises the question as to why a tuber produced primarily in equatorial regions would be popular in the UK. The ready availability of carribean food in general (of which yams are a component) in the UK is partially due to the Windrush generation. Finally a pop culture note: Kendrick Lamar’s yams are “authenticity, sex, and drugs“.
This Friday was the Dragon Boat Festival ( 端午节 ). My quest for yams brought me to some Chinese supermarkets here in Oxford and the presence of banana leaf wrapped rice (粽子) reminded me of the traditional Chinese holiday, and the story of Qu Yuan (屈原).
Short version: A colourful week, beginning with a day in Bucharest before returning from Romania to Oxford, where the streets were lively with Oxford Pride and Summer Eights.
Graffiti is a part of most urban environments (perhaps for as long as urban environments have existed) and continues to be seen by some as a blight and others as beautiful. When I first studied art, I remember the compulsion to learn the physical details of individual works, their historical contexts, and how they were and have since been interpreted. More recently I’ve tried more to focus on how I react to art emotionally, to try and build better awareness of my own feelings. In short, I enjoyed the street art in Bucharest.
Oxford held a pride parade. It feels like the community in Oxford is progressive on the issues of gender and sexuality, students seem pretty welcoming and rainbow flags fly throughout the year. Of course even in a progressive community it can be difficult to be in a sexual or gender minority, so demonstrations of support and solidarity serve a beneficial purpose.
Summer eights ran again, finishing on Saturday. Bumps racing, and the ancillary traditions (such as competition between colleges over quality of Pimm’s), are strange from an outsider’s perspective, but I am inspired by the actual rowing to seek an opportunity to try it. Competition results can be seen here.