Caught behind but not out!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In the pursuit of truth

Its hard for people who don’t do science to really see the excitement hidden in it. Scientists usually turn out to be a usually stereoptypical man in white lab coats, hounding away with a test tube at hand and trying to resurrect a Frankensteinian like being. I recently was part of a community science outreach program called ‘Mad Scientists’- it stays true to the stereotype of what scientists are like! Well, we were crazy enough to cool a quick mix ice cream recipe with liquid nitrogen (a link to 1001 things one can do with liquid nitrogen whose temperature happens to be about -190 degrees Celsius!)

Apart from this, the practise of science has seen some amazing amount of drama over the years. One of the most famous cases in this respect is what they call in ethics class ‘The Baltimore case’ (yes! I had to fight my way through such a course where I heard some very interesting storeis - yawn, yawn) . Here is a very well written piece on the case.

In brief, the case started off with accusations by Margaret O Toole against her advisor at the MIT- Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari. It was related to her being unable to reproduce some results that had been previously published in the lab. Enter David Baltimore- if I am right in pulling this piece of data from the back of my head— one of the youngest reciepients of the Nobel prize for his discovery of an extraordinary enzyme called reverse transcriptase. At this point, O’ Toole had taken up the case with government and an investigation into the results began. Dr. Baltimore was quite frustrated with the involvement of the governement in testing the validity of scientific data. His argument was that science is self policing.

This is also reflected in the recent findings of fraud in the infamous case of Stem Cells cloned in a Korean lab. I have an earlier piece on this issue. Inspite of the claims to cloning the first stem cells, it was not long before some one sounded the sirens. Who would know science better than scientists themselves?

The Baltimore case was downhill from this point. Dr. Baltimore had recently assumed the presidentship of the Rockefeller university. He was now under severe criticism from several quarters for coming out in support of Dr. Imanishi-Kari. He was forced to resign from the position. Dr. Imanishi- Kari had her funding from the NIH suspended. It took three review committees of the governm,ent to finally exonerate her. She finally got a tenured position and Dr. Baltimore ended up as the president of Caltech.

Another extraordinary case where scientific integrity was under question was in the case of William Summerlin. In this case there wasn’t any exoneration. Scientific fraud was quite blatant! In trying to prove that he was able to successfully graft skin, he tried the transplanation of the skin of black mice to white mice. Summerlin actually used a black marker to colour the white mouse. The fraud was discovered when someone taking care of the mice used rubbing alcohol to remove the marks.

And if you thought that the scientific world was just starting to sound entertaining, here are two instances of books that write about scientific ethics.

A new entrant: Intuition- this is a book set in a scientific lab with a post doctoral researcher making an extra ordinary scientific claim about treating breast cancer using a virus.

An anxious, ambitious, down-on-his-luck postdoctoral researcher suddenly obtains results that look too good to be true — the virus he's injected into cancer-riddled mice appears to be melting away their tumors — and his girlfriend, another postdoc in the same lab, comes to suspect he's fudged his results. But she doesn't know for sure: there's no hard evidence, just some sloppy, discarded lab notes that seem to suggest it

Here is the link to the New York times book review. It seems like it might be worth the read!

I still remember what I heard in a class sometime back- if its too good to be true, its probably not true! This is not to nullify some extraordinary discoveries that do come by. Skepticism at first always helps to look beneath the surface.

This book is not the first of its kind. Carl Djerassi (who is very popular for his discovery of the pill!) had a book out some years ago called Cantor’s dilemma. Here is an excerpt taken from this link on what the book is about:

Professor Isidore Cantor, a brilliant molecular biologist who works at a thinly disguised University of Illinois at Urbana, comes up with a hypothesis about how tumors are formed. Cantor's colleagues at Harvard Medical School, where he first introduces the idea in a talk, immediately recognize the idea as brilliant.

Cantor's major competitor at Harvard is Kurt Krauss, a molecular biologist so famous he has a tumor named after him. "Not as ugly as Kaposi's, nor quite as famous as Rous', Krauss' sarcoma was distinguished by the fact that its discoverer, Harvard cancer doyen Kurt Krauss, was still very much alive," Djerassi writes. Djerassi understands how scientists become famous. Of named tumors is fame made.

What Cantor doesn't tell his audience is that he has an idea for confirming his hypothesis, which he is keeping to himself until he gets back to Urbana. He then assigns his best post-doc, Jeremiah Stafford, the job of doing the experiment.

They both know the call from Stockholm is at stake. But how far is Stafford willing to go to get the confirming result? After he gets a positive result, a group at Harvard is unable to confirm it. And someone slips a note under Cantor's door, suggesting that Stafford doctored the results.

To continue reading this extrmely well written review of this book, click click.

On second thought, I must admit, scientists are crazy indeed!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Reliving daffodils

I still remember that it was fourth grade that I heard this poem for the first time. My school teacher had asked me to read as a 'speaking contest' entry and I ended up winning. Daffodils. It has stuck to me ever since. There are days like today when I suddenly wake up in the morning and relive the last few lines of the poem

And oft when on my couch I lie
in vacant or in pensive mood
they flash upon the inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude
and then my heart with pleasure fills
and dances with the daffodils.

Wordsworth didnt have to say something to the order of what Keat's might have written, if he were to write about daffodils. Bu keats was more a poet who wrote about the human subject. The Nigthingale of course is an exception. (among others but my reading of Keats isnt extensive)

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty
that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know"

He just needed to describe what the daffodils were like:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

He gives the flower an attitude. A sense of pride sprung up as they threw up their heads in a sprightly dance. What do you see if you try reading between the lines? Do you think Wordsworth had something more to say than simply talk about Daffodils? I have tried and tried but in vain. He unfortunately seems to have had not too much on his mind.

Again he didnt have to write something like what Keat's wrote:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness
thou foster child of silence and slow time

and still inspite of all this, Daffodils is a joy to read. I have now been reading it for something like ten years and my heart still jumps with joy when I read the last few lines. To me its as if the entire poem was written just to write them.

Here's to daffodils. After looking at the poem in pieces, here's a more wholesome version!

The Daffodils

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee:
A Poet could not be but gay
In such a jocund company!
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


The one thing I was really disappointed about earlier this week was that I didn’t get to watch the South Africa- Australia game over at the Wanderers. A cricketing fan’s dream come true. A perennial flow of runs upto a gripping finish. Someone posted a nice highlight clip of the match and believe me its definitely worth watching. Inspite of knowing the outcome of the game, the magnitude of the total combined with a fantastic last over finish was truly an adrenaline rush.

But as I saw a game, a flurry of images went past me. The first thing was the South Africa- Australia game two World cups back. I was lucky enough to watch it and that was a helluva nail biter. Klusener had played brilliantly all the way, taken the team to the brink of victory only to be cheated by defeat. I still remember THE RUNOUT. Wow! I kept thinking- did South Africa play this game with vengance in mind? Perhaps this was the game when they gave back to Australia in full measure.

The second thought was Herschelle Gibbs at 175 who probably stood firm. Someone had to stay for the team to even dream of getting to a total in excess of 400. I thought of the match fixing allegations that he had to face. The truth behind them. It was nice that he has been able to rebuild his career following that nasty period. Sometimes careers simply fall apart after such incidents.

While I’m on the subject, I should mention some of the most exciting innings I have seen.
1. Brian Lara’s 155 against Australia to single handedly take W. Indies to victory
2. Chris Harris in the first mini world cup against Zimbabwae
3. VVS Laxman’s 280 against Australia

All these are fond memories indeed!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Awww shut up!

As most of you who came by must have noticed, this page is gathering cobwebs. I'm trying to dust them out but every time I try to clean them the spiders seem to still find a way. Any permanent solutions? Well right now my prioroties are about a certain exam that I have in about a month's time. It keep the butterflies in my stomach quite happy but well as you can see it does have some side effects. So sometime ago was a day when my age goes up by an integer number of years. Some one told me that there is actually a 1/400 factor that should also be included and hence its an integer only onece in something like every 400 years. Now if this didnt particularly make too much of sense you shouldnt bother too much about it. Its quite trivial and quite unimportant. Ouch! I hate redundancy. It's being like Srinath who is credited to have said "That was a wonderful cover drive through the covers' One would think he was stating quite the obvious! Well as far as the cricket goes I'm pretty sure the looming news of South Africa's victory is pretty much floating around and if it isnt it should be. I'm unhappy to have missed it. i'm hoping salvation might be just around the corner