Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Polymerase: Taking 30 steps forward, taking two steps back ...

The body's nanomachines that read our genes don't run as smoothly as previously thought, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley, scientists. When these nanoscale protein machines encounter obstacles as they move along the DNA, they stall, often for minutes, and even backtrack as they transcribe DNA that is tightly wound to fit inside the cell's nucleus.

For over 30 years, scientists had wondered how the polymerase responded to the nucleosome, and we were finally able to observe this process directly," Hodges said. "People thought that the polymerase is a powerful motor that would blow through the nucleosome like a bulldozer, but it's surprisingly delicate in its response; if anything is in the way, Pol II stops and backs up.

RNA polymerase II performing gene expression
RNA polymerase II (blue) performs the first step of gene expression by moving along the cell's DNA (gray) and transcribing it into messenger RNA (red). During this process, the polymerase encounters obstacles, such as nucleosomes, which tightly wrap the DNA around histone proteins (yellow) and prevent continued transcription. UC Berkeley researchers have developed methods to directly observe this process in real time. (Courtney Hodges/UC Berkeley)


Friday, July 31, 2009

The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker

I love this video about "The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker".
As the story goes on, "that thing" is ascribed a bunch of other properties, and in the end you'll get something as lovely as this:

The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events that we can't otherwise explain and which doesn't need to have been made and is the one thing from which to ask for things that no human can give and without him we can't be fully happy and is unlimited by all the laws of physics and never began and will never finish and is invisible but is actually everywhere at once and who is so perfect that even if he killed millions of people, including babies, he still would be perfect and who is so powerful and magical that he can even make a virgin pregnant if he wanted to.

Now today I came across this explanation of continental drift via plate tectonics (maybe it'll be taken down as it seems from a commercial DVD lecture series). Anyways, the geologist is really vivid in explaining it. And then he says it: "It answered everything": check out the video and go to around 7min 50sec (aka 7'50''); then around 8'38'' he says it :)

Here's a clip from UC Davis Newswatch about Plate Tectonics and Earthquakes and here another educational clip apparently for use in schools.

Yeah, we've come a long way from "the things that made the things for which there is no known maker" to real explanations and an understanding of the world around us. And it's been very, very recent: Darwin and evolution: 150 years ago, plate tectonics, less than 50 years ago, the structure of DNA, new cosmological theories (inflation, etc): less than that... Good hunting! (for knowledge..)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

You are invincible!

My google chat window tells my google status as "Invisible".
And in the line below: "You are invisible. Go visible".
For a second, I read
You are invincible!
Now wouldn't that be nice... In that case, ignore the corresponding: "Go vincible"..


Sunday, July 26, 2009

All religions are wrong, but some are useful

Listening to Das philosophische Radio, specifically the episode with Hans K√ľng, I couldn't help but think of this quote by George E. P. Box:
Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
So how about this variant then:
Essentially, all religions are wrong, but some are useful.
I think that's not such a bad way to put it...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hard questions, easy answers. Today: Are religions naturally evolved?

A while back, I asked myself (and a colleague): could it be that religion is the product of evolution? After all, there is abundant evidence that people(s) make god(s), while the evidence for the converse is, uhm, spotty to say the least... Neither he (nor I) were totally clear on the answer. But now I think the question falls into the "sounds harder than it is" category. This apparently hard question has an easy (i.e., intuitively plausible but also, I think, correct) answer: Religions seem to answer the big questions, such as "what's it all about" quite well.
An evolutionary and systems theory explanation: Once your control system ("brains") get big enough, self-consciousness and other complications arise. And then you rather naturally ask questions such as "why am I here", "where do I come from", and "what's it all about". Big brains => self-aware then self-consciousness => trouble. But religion delivers the reassuring answers: Relax, it's all good. You're here for a purpose. In fact, the whole darn universe is made for you (in some religions, anyways) -- even god (or his son) looks just like you!! (Carl Sagan calls this "the human conceit" and quibs "oh my -- what a coincidence" ...) Of course Darwin delivered a major narcisstic injury, explaining away the need for the sky-daddy (even if he didn't like this repercussion himself).

So this explains it: We (having evolved large brains and asking the "big questions") want comfort and reassurance that all is good. Religion caters to that need. So say we all.

Daniel Dennett also studies and explains religion as a natural phenomenon in Breaking the Spell. Turns out that the evolutionary argument for religion has also been evoked to ask: If religion evolved naturally, then it must be good for something, right? We don't just evolve characteristics for nothing. So what's the purpose of having evolved religion? Dennett points out that the flu also naturally evolved. What's it good for? It's good at being copied and spread. I think the same applies for religion, but we have these additional levels of explanation: it's good at providing answers, makes you feel good about yourself and the world (restrictions apply: some traits make you feel really bad, you immoral sinner! But that's another story...); it can also help group cohesion, channel ideas, organize masses, etc. But above all, it gives you answers!

Next time: Religion, genes, and memes: Cui bono?