It is not every decade that humanity makes a discovery so radically different from existing theory that it is rejected as “impossible.” Such a thing happened in 1982 when Stanley Prusiner announced the existence of a disease agent that was NOT a bacteria or virus. That is, a third “thing” could cause diseases, and it was neither DNA or RNA, both of which are found in bacteria and viruses. And, shockingly, Prusiner hypothesized that it was a protein. He named this thing a “prion” and in1997 he got a Noble Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work.
Defining life is surprisingly difficult. The obvious criteria include (1) ability to reproduce, (2) ability to metabolize, i.e., take in energy, (3) possession of DNA (or RNA), (4) ability to move, (5) ability to grow, (6) being comprised of cells (or a cell), and (7) being constructed of carbon. The problem is that when you take them one at a time, they all have exceptions. For example, mules are sterile, so they don’t satisfy #1 above, yet mules are obviously alive. Ability to metabolize may seem to be a good one, yet biologists can create chemical compounds that perform the same ste
You wouldn’t think that Antarctica, of all places, would have any relevance to deep space. You probably wouldn’t think that Antarctica would have something interesting to tell us about bacteria (not to mention that you probably don’t think bacteria are interesting anyway). You also wouldn’t think that Antarctica would have anything to do with life on other planets. And finally, you wouldn’t think that it might have something to reveal about good and bad science.
Over the holidays I got a little tour of the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee. Visiting industrial settings is one of the cool things I like to do when I can; I’m sure my kids remember visiting a “wind mill cemetery” east of San Francisco, where it seems every experimental windmill imaginable had been mothballed. I thought it was awesome, but they really really wanted to visit Marine World instead. Oh well, you can lead a horse to water . . . .
The other day I was shocked to read that several prominent geologists in Italy had been convicted of manslaughter for failing to adequately predict an earthquake that ultimately claimed the lives of 300 people. Or maybe the prediction was made but the press did not properly communicate it to the public. To the extent I can figure out who is culpable, it doesn’t seem to be the scientists. After all, saying or implying that a particular event is “not probable” does not mean it won’t happen, but many citizens in the area of the quake apparently either didn’t understand that or chose to put
Long ago (circa 1976) I attended a lecture given by the famous author Ray Bradbury, who wrote such science fiction classics as The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451, among many others. He began by sweeping his hand over one half of the full auditorium and said, “In 1900 you would be dead.” His talk went on to be upbeat and optimistic about the future, in counterpoint to the general attitude of hopelessness that prevailed in the wake of the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil embargo. And this was only three or four years after publication of the widely-read Limits to G
Recently the New York Times has run a series of articles about the patenting of software, and their general tone is that the patent system is “broken.” Now I haven’t a clue as to why anyone would make such a sweeping generalization, especially since it appears to be based in large part on the fact that there have been several high-profile court cases involving software patents in the past few months. (Unless they don’t like the rulings, of course. Or they don’t like paying license fees to the owners of the software.)