27 May 2006

How to die at the push of a button

The laboratory instrument pictured at left is a Beckman Coulter Ultracentrifuge. Basically it's a giant spinny thing, that makes proteins and DNA go round and round at speeds of 130 000 rpm to separate them. The molecules in your tube experience forces of over 1 million g's. That's over a million times the force the earth is excerting on your body right now. It is the sort of equipment that demands your respect. On Wednesday I was quietly busy in the lab, minding my own business designing primers (again), when a strange whining noise from the lab next door made me look up from my work. Weird. People started running and shouting and immediately I knew where the noise was coming from: some ignorant student had forgotten to tighten the rotor of the ultra to the spindle before switching it on. Chilling. Apparently Lieschen, who is the only capable person in the lab next door at that time, shot up like a bolt from her hidey-hole behind her laptop, ran to the unstable ultra (and the wide-eyed girl who stood in front of the machine, just staring at it), pushed the STOP button and kept right on running out of the lab. A very wise course of action.

Folks, when the rotor of an ultra comes off the spindle churning it around at 130 000 rpm, it turns into a massive titanium projectile. If you're lucky, the machine will start making noises like a top loader washing machine on spin cycle being thrown down the stairwell of a very tall building and the unstable rotor will cause about 500 grand's worth of damage to the machine. If you're not so lucky, the rotor will be thrown straight through the body of the ultracentrifuge, as well as any kind of construction/lab equipment/unwitting scientist in its trajectory.

Every once in a while, we'll have a chemical spill or fire in our building and it's quite a story to get everybody out, 'cause it just ain't that bad and nobody takes any notice of such trifles. But when the whining noise starts, everybody makes a run for it.

23 May 2006

10 books you must read before you die

I recently gave a talk in FABI on this topic. It went down very well, as most of the talks presented there are on brain numbingly boring subjects, such as the phylogenetic relationships between different kinds of fungi scraped from telephone poles (I'm not making this up) or trapping banana weavils with pheromone traps. So I decided to do something different. These scientists almost never read anything outside their specific field of study, but I do. Or at least try to, every now and then. Here then is my list, in no way endorsed by the authors or their publishers. Please be reminded that this is not a ranked list, and all books are regarded equally (well, Almost Like a Whale is slightly more equal than the others).

1 Voyage of the Beagle Charles Darwin
Documenting Darwin's 1831 journey of discovery that sparked his theories of evolution and natural selection.

2 The Golden Ratio Mario Livio
Discusses phi, a number not only known for its aesthetic qualities in art and architecture, but also ubiquitous in physics and nature.

3 The Red Queen Matt Ridley
The real deal on how sex evolved and how sexual selection has shaped the human mind.

4 Stiff Mary Roach
The secret history of the exciting 'life' of cadavers.

5 The Diversity of Life Edward O. Wilson
Beautifully written treatise on biodiversity and environmental ethics.

6 Rivals Michael White
Illustrates how rivalry has been a driving force in scientific discovery through the ages.

7 The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins
The gene is the unit of selection and really doesn't care about much else than passing on to the next generation.

8 Innumeracy John Allen Paulos
Why are people afraid of numbers? Is it fate or coincidence? How does the media misinterpret statistics? Are the odds in your favour?

9 Orchid Fever Eric Hansen
Enter a realm of obsessed smugglers, murderous Victorians, bureaucracy, red tape, and little old ladies.

10 Almost Like a Whale Steve Jones
Darwin's Origin of Species updated for the 21st century. It will amuse you, astound you and leave you with a new-found passion for biology.

For those anoraks among you, here are the books on my long list that didn't make the cut (and I'm not implying that I've actually read all of these, but hey, I need something to read in future, too). Trilobite and Counting Sheep were my favourites from this long list.

11 The Quark and the Jaguar Murray Gell-Mann
The unified theory of everything and beyond.

12 Six Degrees Duncan J. Watts
Ever play that Kevin Bacon game? This book is on the science of networks: social, economic, electronic. Diverse.

13 The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins
A pilgrimage through time with our genetic relatives to meet our common ancestors. At each convergence we're joined by sister groups, until finally all life is connected, a big family reunion at the start of it all.

14 Wonderful Life Stephen Jay Gould
Arguably the best volume on palaeobiology. The fossils of the Burgess Shale shed light on how strange the Primordial Soup might have been.

15 Longitude Dava Sobel
The history of cartography comes to life in this tale of greed, ignorance and heroism.

16 Gödel Escher Bach Douglas R. Hofstadter
Gödel's mathematical theorems, Escher's art and Bach's music are linked together to illuminate the mysteries of the human thought process.

17 Counting Sheep Paul Martin
Why do we sleep? What happens when we're asleep? How does this intriguing process go wrong? Find it all here, as well as tips on how to get a good night's rest.

18 Trilobite Richard Fortey
The natural history of an ancient arthropod, a witness to evolution, told with spark and enthusiasm.

19 Beyond Supernature Lyall Watson
Telepathy, reincarnation, poltergeists and telekinesis cannot be explained by logic or science, right? Guess again.

20 The Meaning of It All Richard Feynman
Feynman's inspiring lectures on the value of science, science and religion, pseudoscience, and science and public perception.

22 May 2006

The "I'll ask the questions around here!" Interview

Question time, folks!

Okay, so to give everyone an easy opt-out, you may either
  • post your responses on your own blog, thereby inciting another round of incestuous interviews
  • post your responses as a comment here on Eclectic Epiphytes, thereby breaking the vicious chain letter cycle

Here are my questions in order of comments received. Don't be offended; it's never personal and is often more a test of creativity than anything else. Enjoy.

1. When did you realize you wanted to become a doctor?
2. Tell us what you think Michel Houllebecq will do next.
3. What smell immediately takes you back to your childhood?
4. At which point did your relationship with Rowan advance to the next level and who initiated it?
5. Is there hope for Africa?

1. What do you think of genetically modified food?
2. Tell us about something you're really pasisonate about - make it sound like an infomercial.
3. Where did the name of your blog come from?
4. You've been commissioned to write a Mills & Boon romance. Give us a synopsis of the plot.
5. Which foreign country would you like to travel to and why?

1. What were you like in primary school?
2. You can put 5 modern items in a time capsule to be opened in exactly 274 years. What are they?
3. What is a really good party game to play whilst getting smashed?
4. What is your favourite poem and why?
5. Chocolate - just another snack food, or religious experience?

1. Give a short review of the worst movie you've ever seen.
2. Tell us about a cool and secret place in your home town that nobody knows about.
3. As a journalist, what would be your dream assignment?
4. Which band/actor/author do you think is going to be the next big thing?
5. Invent a new cocktail: right here, right now.

1. What is your favourite national holiday and why?
2. You have the power to become invisible. What is the first thing you do?
3. Give us your version of New Orleans - is it all jazz and alligators as I imagine it?
4. What are the sexiest lyrics to a song you've ever heard?
5. Can you cook and if so - got any specialities?

17 May 2006

Music For The Masses

A playlist. No theme, no pattern, just what's been in heavy circulation on the ol' iPod lately.

01 John the Revelator Playing the Angel Depeche Mode
02 Pandora Treasure Cocteau Twins
03 Title and Registration Transatlanticism Death Cab for Cutie
Destroy Everything You Touch Witching Hour Ladytron
05 Tyrant The Bravery The Bravery
06 Bongo Bong Clandestino Manu Chao
07 Lift Me Up Hotel Moby
08 Missing Piece Unsound Methods Recoil
09 Victim of Love The Circus Erasure
10 Fly Me Away Supernature Goldfrapp

Road Safety For All

16 May 2006

The Blog Interview (as told to Karen)

Thanks, karen little, this was pretty difficult! Apparently, the first five persons to comment on Karen's interview get to be interviewed by me. So there you go.

1. Explain your Masters project to us, but pretend we're five year olds. Tell us in a way that makes us want to go home and tell our mothers.
Five year olds, huh? How about I pretend you're fourteen year olds, yeah? Here goes. Aphids are evil insects that damage the food crops we plant across the globe. The Russian Wheat Aphid is an especially nasty plague: it causes yellow streaks to appear all along the leaves of wheat as it sucks the plant juices. New leaves come out all warped and grain filling doesn't take place properly - Fewer loaves of bread per acre, see? Certain kinds of wheat are naturally resistant to aphid pests. Such plants grow in the wild in places like the Caucasus Mountains where the Russian Wheat aphid originally came from. This natural resistance has been transferred into some cultivated wheat varieties through conventional breeding. What happens next? Somehow, the resistant plant can pick up signals that it's under attack and responds drastically. These resistant plants actually kill off their own cells in an area around the aphids, literally cutting off their food supply. Cell suicide for the good of the whole organism. Cell walls in other parts of the plant become thickened with deposits, strengthened against subequent probing by the aphids. Hectic molecules like hydrogen peroxide and other free radicals come spilling out of special vesicles in the cells. Some plants become foul tasting to aphids, others actually do something to the aphids themselves, causing them to have fewer offspring. Others just tolerate the aphids and never die. How does this all work? The answer is that we don't know yet. What I'm trying to discover are the changes in gene expression that natural resistance causes. So far, I can see that several known genes are only turned on in the resistant plants, or are turned on faster in these plants when aphids arrive. Oh, and I've discovered 26 new genes that nobody in the history of the universe has ever even seen before, let alone figured out what they do. My voyage of discovery is just beginning.

2. What's the best night out you've ever had?
The night I saw Depeche Mode at Wembley doesn't count, right? I don't go out that much, and when I do, I don't find it that memorable, really. Bad music, expensive drinks and people all around me doing the mating dance; I find it depressing, frankly. I have quite enjoyed going out with you and Rowan and Wendy, though. Remember when we went to Cranks in Rosebank for my birthday? Oh, wait, something's come to mind. I went to this Bacardi Party at Saints in Rivonia a couple of years ago, which was hugely enjoyable. I remember that I arrived at my friend's house shod in footwear slightly under the dress code and had to borrow shoes from the friend's brother's friend. I think I slipped them back to him through the bedroom window of his apartment at four in the morning, or so. There were several packed dance floors with high quality live music and good ventilation. Quite unlike the murky dives in Hatfield, bleargh.

3. What was your proudest moment?
In my matric year I made a clean sweep of the National Afrikaans Expo, taking gold for poetry, prose and dramaturgy. They invented a new prize just for me, for versatility. At the award ceremony, Jannie du Toit (the one who sings all those Jacques Brel songs) read one of my poems aloud in front of an audience of people from across the country, some of whom were quite high up in Afrikaans literary circles. As soon as I recognized my piece, my heart started beating so fast. I was elated when it was well received. I knew then that I had a command of this one talent and that it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

4. Who is your favourite book-fiction character of all time? And why?
Aargh. There are so many great characters that I love: Aunt Ada Doom from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, who saw "something nasty in the woodshed" and wouldn't let anybody leave; Hannibal Lecter from the Thomas Harris trilogy, with his raspy voice, mind palaces and taste in friends; the Discworld's Granny Weatherwax, especially in Witches Abroad, for her wit, unabashed selfishness and surprising wisdom; Francis in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, who made being an eccentric outcast seem like such a wonderfully chic thing to be; Sarah, the narcoleptic in Jonathan Coe's The House Of Sleep whose cataplexy causes hilarious misunderstandings with incredibly serious consequences; Natalie in Fag Hag by Robert Rodi, who'd rather keep her best friend hostage than see him in a happy relationship. But my favourite character is Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. He's an overweight, self-medicating, washed-up loser of a guy. He teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh college, but the manuscript for his fourth novel is about a million pages long and completely directionless. He's funny and intelligent, but flawed and human. We feel comfortable with him - we're naturally on his side all through his lost weekend with the dead dog and half a boa constrictor in the back of his car, the loss of his manuscript, the uncovering of his indiscretions with the head of the English department's wife and their consequences, his friendship with that oddball student James Leer and his yummy editor Terry Crabtree, and onto salvation. A hugely enjoyable, 3D character.

5. If you could change just one thing, about anything, what would it be?
About me: probably the paunch. But I'm getting there. I feel like I have more energy these days.
About South Africa: I would undo the destruction of our precious ecological heritage. I'd remove all the golf estates and greedy developers who look at virgin forest and go "Hmm, this'll make a nice backdrop to our luxury security village. Let's rip it up!" There are amazing things out there which we've never discovered, never studied, beautiful things we need to conserve so that you can take your children there and show them how awesome this place is. Why do we need another golf course?
About the world: I would undo the population explosion. People should have one child and then be sterilized. I'm serious. For a couple of generations, at least. Overcrowding is where poverty comes from, disease, violence. If I could change one thing, it would be this: I'd give human existence dignity. A life lived with dignity is a life of pride, grace and beauty. Paradise regained.

4 May 2006

Dropping a 3rd generation iPod in a parking lot

I dropped my iPod yesterday, straight onto brick paving in the parking lot at campus. It squibbed out of my hands like an eel, and in slow motion I could see my toy of joy aiming its top left corner towards the centre of the earth. The shiny white plastic and polished metal back came apart. My heart skipped a beat. Just minutes previously I was listening to the Sneaker Pimps on it in the lab, and pulling articles on plant programmed cell death pathways off it for some Honours student and now it's just bits of plastic and metal. All 8000 songs, the first chapter of my thesis: gone.

I picked up the two halves and made a whole. The select button proved responsive to my touch. I spun up Depeche Mode's Never Let Me Down Again and went on as usual. It didn't let me down. My iPod now has a small dent in its top left corner. This is a battle scar that gives it character and shows that it belongs to me. Only now do I realize how much in love I am with this strict machine, what a significant part of my life it has become. All the noises that I like, the music that makes sense of my existence, it's all contained on this one device - an auxilliary organ - biomechanically fused to my body. Having it removed would be like severing a hand. Apple has enslaved me - the iPod senses my mood, presides over my waking hours. Sometimes I'll awaken it just to check the battery bar, like a paranoid parent shaking an infant awake just to be sure that it's still breathing.
Mine's still breathing.

"See the stars they're shining bright; everything's alright tonight"

2 May 2006

In The Greenhouse (06/05)

Weather patterns are shifting. Cold fronts are steadily on the rise, bringing Antarctic air over the southern tip of the continent. Cymbidiums and Dendrobiums are feeling the effects of autumn, with old leaves looking yellow and withered. Phalaenopsis are showing signs of inflorescences bursting through their leaf bases. The buds of Cattleyas are maturing in their sheaths. The orchid show season is coming...

Sophrolaeliocattleya Mahalo Jack. This minicat has shockingly colourful (not to mention large) flowers for such a petite epiphyte. Created in 1991, this grex features Cattleya walkeriana in its background, and it influences the shape of the column and the intense colour. The other contributors are the diminutive bright red Sophronitis coccinea and the absolutely sensual Laelia pumila, responsible for the spicy cinnamon scent emitted by this Slc.

Cymbidium Hot Lips. This grows best in a hanging basket, from where the pendulous inflorescences can be best appreciated. The labellum is indeed a hot red colour, nicely contrasted against the ice green tepals (the correct term for sepals and petals when they are similar in appearance).

Odontoglossum Violetta Von Holm. This is actually a hybrid between two species in the genus Lemboglossum, which has been separated from the genus Odontoglossum since 1984, due to differences in geographic distribution. Nice upright spikes carry lots of cuppy brown barred flowers with heart-shaped pink lips. This is a very easy plant to grow and flower, and I strongly recommend it for any beginner. Just be aware of mealy bugs hiding in the unfurling new leaves.

Laeliocattleya Blue Boy. Long considered one of the best blue Cattleya-hybrids (as can be gathered from its name) this is actually a lavender orchid with some hints of true blue on the lip only. It was registered in 1960. The grex Lc. Mary Elizabeth Bohn (registered in 1966 and which was featured in a previous post) produces flowers much closer to blue and with much improved shape. At least the Blue Boys fade only after about three weeks. Will they still be around when their retro-trendiness has faded, too?

Cymbidium Lancelot 'Grail'. This is a cute orchid. A miniature cymbidium which looks like a tuft of grass for most of the year, simply explodes with teeny-tiny flowers at the end of autumn. This is not a plant for close-up photography really, as the flowers are a quite boring pastel with some typically darker elements on the lip. The best effect is achieved when looking at the plant as a whole from a distance.

Phalaenopsis... who knows, really? Another tagless wonder bought on impulse at a flower shop in Brooklyn Mall. This makes enormous, flat, colourful flowers on a very tall inflorescence. The inflorescence lengthens over a matter of months, drawing the anticipation out over the festive season and well into the new year. The flowers are expected to last as long (if the snails don't get to them first).

Epidendrum 'Yellow'. A reedstem epi I received as a gift from an anonymous hairdresser in Scottburgh. Walking from the beach one afternoon, I saw this woman closing up her salon with a bunch of multicoloured Epidendrums clutched in one hand. After engaging in some conversation about the differences in cultivating orchids on the Highveld as opposed to by the coast, she kindly gave me some keikis, which I duly planted when I got back home. This is the result, in true gardener spirit.

Dendrobium Lee Chong Blue. Another Thai hardcane dendrobe. The amount of hybridizing that goes on in South East Asia is staggering. This one produced three upright spikes with quite dark, starry flowers with delightful stripes and a nice contrasting white anther cap on the column. It'll make any living room look like the lobby of a hotel in Bali.

Zygopetalum intermedium. This was purchased in 2001. The flower in the photograph is its first. Ever. I'm therefore quite proud of it. I knew that Zygopetalum species were tricky to grow well, but never anticipated that I would wait five years for this sucker to flower. The wait was worth it, though. The flowers are huge and colourful, and carried on two semi-arching inflorescences. It also produces an overpowering, musky scent that literally spills out of the greenhouse when you open the door. The plant is a South American native, growing in leaf litter on moist forest floors in high altitude regions of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.