Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Delusion of Uncreative Science

Those not involved in the scientific field, on the outside looking in, view science as a procedural  and unimaginative process. That all scientists must follow a specific dogma in each and every experiment. Unfortunately a large portion of the population believe that in the work of science almost no creativity or imagination is needed. The reality is that without creativity, without the imagination of a few gifted scientists, without the courage to defy previously believed knowledge, almost none of the famous scientists would be known today and none of their breakthroughs would have seen the light of day. Without creativity science becomes still and unchanging, and stagnant waters hold no life. But luckily for society, this misconception is entirely false.
Science evolves. It changes and builds on past conceptions, and at times completely abandons old notions of how things work. To challenge concepts that have been held as fact for centuries requires the scientist to break from the pack, to say and think things that are deemed unorthodox by one's colleagues. To do this one has to think differently than the rest, to be able to stand back and look at a situation and see it in another light. This is the essence of creativity. When Darwin sailed the world in the early 1830’s, Darwin along with the rest of the world believed that all species in existence had been around since the start of the world or were created along the course of history. The belief was that the species as they exist today are the same as they were always and never undergo change. The world and Darwin included, held that a God had created the planet’s biodiversity and made them as they were. But after his time on the HMS Beagle Darwin found unavoidable evidence that organisms did in fact undergo change based upon environmental pressures and over generations these changes produced entirely new species. This theory of natural selection was so radical that Darwin sat on his research and wouldn’t dare publish his findings for decades. When he finally did publish On the Origin of Species it rocked the scientific community by challenging the pre-existing understandings of species. Discoveries and actions like this put scientists down in history and are the reasons why Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Hawking, and Galileo are household names.
Creativity (noun) : the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules,patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas. An entire field of science is dedicated to the principle of creativity. Theoretical physics revolves around mathematical models and abstractions of reality that are used to predict how objects will interact with each other. These physicists use advanced calculations to describe and predict phenomena some of which has never even been observed before such as the behavior of wormholes. No place are theories more abundant than in the field of science, and in physics there are plenty.  Theory of General Relativity, String Theory, Quantum Theory, and even the Big Bang Theory. All extremely complex systems based upon ideas and conceptions that challenge our everyday perception of the physical world. In theoretical physics, scientists dedicate their entire life’s work upon theories, ideas that haven’t been proven. To excel in this field requires some of the most open and creative minds in science. Creativity is the tool that allowed Einstein to challenge the Theory of General Relativity with his own Special Relativity and is what enabled Stephen Hawking to further our understanding of Black Holes. To say that there is no imagination or creativity in science is to pretend that Theoretical Physics doesn’t exist.
People hear that scientists are bound by the scientific method and it’s true. But because they are bound by this particular method does not mean that everything must be done in a procedural manner devoid of individuality. The scientific method is actually an extremely loose guideline that is designed to allow as many original approaches as possible. The method is simply this; Make an observation, question the observation, form an hypothesis, test this hypothesis, explain the results. This Scientific Method is simply a loose guidance in getting a scientist on their way to producing testable and understandable results and the word Method produces people to assume a strict unwavering protocol. Further proof that scientists are not bound by this imaginary doctrine are the multitudes of scientific discoveries that occurred simply by serendipity. Paramount among these serendipitous discoveries is Penicillin. In 1928 Alexander Fleming was investigating colonies of Staph when he returned to find his cultures overwhelmed with a mold preventing the Staph from growing. This mold became Penicillin and  would transform modern medicine and become a cure all for infections reducing fatal injuries into minor annoyances. It was no religious following of any method that brought about this miracle drug, in this case lady luck was the guiding hand.
Creativity, imagination, originality, and even dumb luck abound in science. Scientists are memorialized for their unconventional thinking that inevitably revolutionizes the whole world’s understanding of itself. Today entire leagues of scientists are paid to imagine, to predict and infer, and to challenge the way we view the universe. The very method every scientist is supposedly bound to has within it, it’s own elastic clause, encouraging every scientist to perform with their own originality and individual spin. To pretend that science does not require creativity and imagination is to pretend that science is an unchanging stagnant pool that will never evolve.

Works Cited
2013, 28 November. "Why Science Needs Imagination and Beauty." BBC - Future. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
"Charles Darwin." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
"Science & the Scientific Method: A Definition." LiveScience. Purch. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
"Stephen Hawking - Important Scientists - The Physics of the Universe." Stephen Hawking - Important Scientists - The Physics of the Universe. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

"The Real Story behind Penicillin." PBS. PBS. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Demons of the Deep

It is curious how so many life forms that grow in gradual and deliberate increments, live to such lengths. The tortoise with its fabled torpid movement, the century year old sea turtles, or the ancient Sequoia Redwoods. As with all trees that grow slower, they live longer, so there must be something to a slow growth rate. I suppose slow and steady does win the race.

My main question with this article however, is how do they really know the age of these sharks. The article seemed not to be speaking of any particular shark specimen they had found but rather, the species in general, as being the longest living vertebrae. It also seems an odd range of years to put the lifespan of the species at an exact 272 years. The article writes of the age-telling technique of measuring radioactive levels of carbon-14 in the eyes of the sharking (sounding like a complex and therefor accurate science), yet the range of possible age for the largest of the sharks collected in a 2010 study was between 272 and 512. That sounds laughably inaccurate, literally a range of 240 years. If I read this wrong I'd like to know but it seems to me they need to arrive at a more accurate technique.

This article, again brings me back to the unit on DNA (arguably the most interesting unit). I remember delving into the subject a little on my own when the question of aging came up and reading up on telomeres and just what they were. From what I remember, (and here's to hoping I don't butcher it) telomeres are structures at the end of our chromosomes that are like little protective caps. Each and every time our chromosomes replicate a little bit of those caps are worn off until our cells can no longer replicate like they used to. This means we can no longer heal and replace cells like our younger selves. Since every five years or so every last cell and atom of our body is replaced, replication is a constant and necessary process of life and without it we wither and lose functionality. This wearing-down of our telomeres is called senescence, but some creatures out there seem to exhibit no signs of senescence.The Immortal Jellyfish, the Rougheye Rockfish,. and even Crocodiles. A two century year old shark may sound intense but even more startling is the fact that crocodiles seem to have the potential to live for eternity. They show no signs of aging like other animals do and a seven year old Croc is as agile and fit as a 70 year old Croc. This is known as negligible senescence. Father Time cannot slay these ancient water demons, and they haven't changed one bit since the time of the Dinosaurs because they simply don't need too...they are already perfect, immortal, killing machines. Why you ask do we not see thousand year old Crocs? Because though time does not seem a factor in their demise, other Crocs can kill them, along with disease and starvation. Whats more terrifying is that with age, they keep growing. They grow bigger and stronger with each passing year and have the potential to live to pre-historic proportions. The only reason they don't is because to sustain their massive size, they need an equal supply of food. We see no "super-Crocs" because they simply cannot find sufficient food to match their necessary diet. Equivalent exchange.  Mother Nature, is the great equalizer.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cas9 - CRISPR than Toast

CRISPR-Cas9 just opened up a whole new can of tricks for the biological scientists of the world. Now we may very well possess the cure for cancer, and our own little pair of molecular scissors. I'm transported back to Bio and the NOVA documentary on the rascaleous scientists Watson and Crick and their discovery of the double helix, only so recently revealing the shape of our own DNA. That unit gave me, for the first time, an understanding of what DNA really was, what it was comprised of, and how all of its tiny components functioned as a molecular assembly line.

Now only 60 years later we have taken to reshaping that DNA. This article addresses probably the most noble cause we could think to put this science to use for, the crusade against cancer. But what interests me is all the myriad of uses our society will inevitably hunger for besides the noble medicinal cures. For this science is a game changer, a gene changer. Fundamentally DNA is the code of life, and at its core CRISPR is designed to change that code. CRISPR-Cas9 is at its most basic, a molecular scalpel (the enzyme Cas-9) armed with a targeting system (the RNA guide). Who decides what inputs are placed into that targeting system? After all, the possibilities expand far beyond cancer treatment. Any gene eligible for alteration is fair game, the gene that gives you those blue eyes the girls fall for, the curly hair that had all the neighborhood boys in a tizzy. Will our doctors and our scientists be left to decide what can and cannot be altered? Will our philosophers and pastors? Maybe even our politicians.

Now we truly can play God. When you go to the hospital to check up on your pregnancy with your spouse there will be a questionnaire with a list of desired traits for your child to have. Combine this with a gene drive and perhaps you could decide the genetic fate of your entire lineage. That is after all, what we do to animals already. See certain genes have higher chances of being inherited, but the gene drive overrides this to our choosing as we decide what gene shall be inherited, telling Lady Luck and Mother Nature to take the back seat. The AquaAdvantage Atlantic Salmon is a perfect example of this that is already in use, a breed of salmon that has been altered with CRISPR and the gene drive to engineer a fish twice the size of its natural counterpart, with less time and feed required. Now CRISPR already has a booth with its name on it in the food, cosmetic, and medical marketplace.

The cooperation of the gene drive even gives the possibility for biological resistances to be past down from generation to generation. If an altered gene granting resistance to certain diseases is placed in a host of mosquitoes the aim is to eventually spread resistance to the entire population, meaning no more Zika or Malaria. But it goes even beyond that because CRISPR has the potential to utterly rearrange the proteins and nucleotides that it encodes. Does this mean it will possess the ability to create entirely new genes?
With this advancement in technology we are faced with an ethical and moral dilemma of biblical proportions.
CRISPR is shaping up to be a tool with unending possibilities, a tool that may reshape the entire human genome.

The question is, how far will we go down the rabbit hole?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Reptile Scales

Where to begin? This article begs more questions than it answers! For starters I love herpetology and all things reptile and have as long as I can remember (I have a Corn snake myself actually), so anything to do with reptiles intrigues me. 

To jump in, we know mammals and birds evolved AFTER reptiles, i.e. Dinosaurs. So according to this article, feathers, scales, and hair all arise from the same structure of proteins. But modern reptiles may have a completely different skin structure from Dinosaurs, thus why hair, feathers, and scales all share a protein and are grouped together rather than hair and feathers being derived FROM scales (or at least the scales of today). Could this be why the reptiles we have today survived and the dinosaurs went extinct?

Is it possible that the common ancestor is the Dinosaurs? Chronologically Dinosaurs emerged before birds and the modern snakes, but both animals though having evolved after, still lived during the Dino age. As the titan of the skies, Quetzalcoatlus flew he began to share his airspace with feathered birds before the great Meteorite pounded the Earth. The last T-Rex stomped on the same Earth that early Boas slithered on, whom within five million years following the Dino's demise (a blink in evolutionary time), evolved to the peak of power in the form of the 50 foot one ton Titanoboa. Even the crocodiles shared the same waters as the Dinosaurs.

The difference is that some evolutionary advantage allowed them to survive while the Dinosaurs died out. Perhaps it was this protein structure that feathers, hair, and scales share. As we learned in Bio two years ago a certain chain of codons makes a protein. that becomes a part of the gene. But if along the way a mistake in the assembly of these chains occurs the result is a mutation. If this mutation which alters the protein which controls our traits is advantageous, we die and along with us our mutated legacy. But if the mutation IS an advantage then we survive with greater success than those with the original chain, we become the 2.0 model, pass on our gene, the old becomes obsolete, and evolution in a nutshell. The birds and the snakes along with the early mammals (little rodents) lived under the shadow of the Terrible Lizard for millions of years but when the meteor rained on their parade, the evolutionary difference in their skin allowed the birds to quickly dominate the sky, the Boa to reach colossal proportions, and the mammals to rapidly grow and diversify. What if the gene within the Dinosaurs was the original, the papa gene, the common ancestor, and our new skin protein, the winning mutation?

Say this is so, this begs the question. What really were the Dinosaurs covered in? More studies are showing Velociraptors coated in feather like coverings, but there is of course still the old thought of reptile-like scales. But if they were covered in scales, clearly they would have to be a very different scale than what we are used to seeing because if this theory is correct snakes survived because of their different skin protein. To think we still don't even know if Dinosaurs were scaly lizards or feathery birds!

Something I can add from personal knowledge is that Birds and Crocodiles both share the same fibrous protein Keratin. Keratin is like a combination of horn and scale and is what makes up the Croc's scaly hide and a bird's scaly feet. It also makes up many antlers, and the scales of turtles. The difference between snake scales and Croc scales is that snakes form theirs on the epidermis while Croc's form theirs from the deeper dermis (the reason a snake sheds it's skin and why we don't see 20 ft long Crocodile sheddings in the water). A study actually found that crocodile beta-Keratin are closer related to birds than the Keratin of other reptiles! And well we know birds to be the closest living relative to the Dinosaur...could there be a connection there?

And what does it mean when Milinkovitch says of the skin bumps in reptiles, "they appear briefly"? Do they go away after the fetal stage is complete? If so what does this suggest if they appear in mammals and birds but only the embryonic stage of reptiles. Also the article said they found the bumps in scaly bearded dragons but did they mean fully grown or embryonic? This too would be highly intriguing, that during the breeding process the breeders voided the gene for scales (a common practice in the pet snake trade, but resulting in expensive snakes), and in doing so brought back the gene that cause the skin bumps. Could this mean the skin thickening is simply not needed with the presence of scales, hence why it appears on furry, feathered, and scaleless skin?

As I said, this discovery begs more questions than it answers. In the words of Einstein, "As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it."