I’m going to learn german.

April 1, 2007 at 8:48 pm | Posted in books, music, philosophical, rambling, silly nonsense, wistful musing | Leave a comment

Just kidding! Well, it might happen at some point in the unforeseeable future. To be honest, I never got past being mono-lingual. Telling people I’m fluent in Mandarin and French gives a nice warm fuzzy feeling and all, but speaking the two languages occasionally really is not like knowing them. If anything, there is a stage in language acquisition after the initial joy of picking up the alphabet and counting to ten and naming vegetables where formulating any sort of sentence is a dreadful experience. It’s just when that rote procedure of swapping words for concepts begins to become more — a new sort of consciousness, both culturally and probably linguistically as those networks of language synapses starts to coalesce and take on higher-order structures in your brain. That last statement was a metaphor, because I know nothing about the neurobiology of language acquisition or really of anything. See, bullshit like that would have been very hard to formulate convincingly in French. Or god forbid, Mandarin — who knows if the Chinese even admit the existence of metaphors.

I love that. The intractability of language. The fact that no translation is perfect, that it is hopeless to convey a concept (not really; “cultural-historical monument” is more like it) like “Liebestod” (love-death, a Wagner aria with massively Nietzschean connotations) or “C’est la vie” (well you understand that, but imagine if you tried to say it in English) through anything but an understanding of the entire culture that gave rise to it.

The challenge is almost like a sort of sensory-intellectual overload — I try to speak something, approach it with a half-assed English thought-concept that gets squeezed through a translation in my brain and comes out disfigured. I sense something lost in the translation but don’t know how or what. Or, I think in the foreign language, but can’t get the right answers — like there is an itch in the middle of my brain I can’t reach to scratch.

I don’t have any answers. Hopefully some day I will have a chance to be immersed in the language and culture of my interests, but now I’m going to keep being puzzled, as is the pathological wont of one whose extracurricular interests don’t lend themselves to any sort of practical purpose whatsoever. To continue this allusion-filled elitist musing inspired by the manner of, but inferior to, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the next paragraph will be a rapid-fire series of references to cultural works that I don’t understand and never will, and which you won’t either. Stay tuned for next time, when I will give a nihilist’s interpretation of The Wasteland, along with select verses by Billy Collins.

Here goes. This bit of underwhelming, overenthusiastic rambling was brought to you by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the movie from the last post. I’ll probably be studying (and not understanding) some Schopenhauer next and thinking about stringing together words and capitalizing them to make myself sound more intellectual, not to mention listening to some SongsOnTheDeathOfChildren. Rest assured though, I’ll be avoiding such gems of dubious literary/moral merit as Mein Kampf, as well as stuff that might make my brain explode all over my desk, including long essays mentioning the word “Oedipus” that aren’t written by a playwright or in Greek.

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Biology students have OCD

February 9, 2007 at 5:57 pm | Posted in humor, rambling, school, science, wistful musing | Leave a comment

Biochemistry lab work is unstimulating. The only reason we haven’t gotten robots or monkeys to do all the pipetting (using a glorified eye-dropper to meticulously measure out really small amounts of liquids) is because it’s cheaper to just get undergrads to do it. I burn more neurons reading Calvin and Hobbes on a summer afternoon. I burn even more neurons on the weekends, but that’s a different story.

I love this stuff though. Sometimes, the conceptual brilliance of biochemistry outweighs the rote labor of running experiments; most of the time, it doesn’t. Masochism is a more important factor. Obsessive-compulsive disorder also helps. A couple centuries ago, someone infatuated with rituals and record-keeping could join the clergy and spend hours playing with beads and all manner of ornate metal vessels for a holy cause. Now, the cause is knowledge, and the beads are made of polystyrene, microns wide, and have fickle little buggers called DNA molecules attached to them. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing science to religion. I’m musing on what makes me and other lab rats — er, aspiring experimentalists — tick.

Biology traditionally got a bad rap for being a little fuzzy and arcane. I wonder why. A basic lab procedure, the Polymerase Chain Reaction, calls for the following steps: add distilled water, add buffer solution, add DNA molecules, add primer (short DNA fragments), add nucleic acids, add DNA polymerase (a protein). After that you will end up with a drop of liquid twenty times smaller than a raindrop, and you’ll put the tiny vial into a machine, close the lid, hit some buttons and wait a few hours. It’s like cooking.

Only unlike cooking, things go wrong most of the time (for me it is like cooking). Even if you’ve torn out your hair taking precautions left and right, you’ll invariably end up with results that are completely unexpected, if not outright incomprehensible. Imagine following a recipe for a dozen blueberry muffins, and when you open the oven, you see one blueberry muffin, two strawberry ones, one dangerous-looking green smudge, and eight blank wells in the muffin tin. They disappeared! That’s what science is like.

So what kind of person loves seeing their muffins disappear? Well, the kind of person who also likes to track them down. I love thinking about the gazillion different ingredients I put in, why they’re there, and how a change in one of them could have screwed everything up. I can never fit all the details in my head at once, and nor can anyone else, but the fun is in seeing how much I can see, and how they fit together. Sometimes, though, the muffins get lost and nobody for the life of them can figure out why. Then, the enjoyment is all in the mixing and baking. That’s why we all have OCD.

Not THAT again

January 31, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Posted in philosophical, rambling, school, science, wistful musing | 5 Comments

The dreaded words of “emergent phenomena” were uttered today in class. Yes, I know that I (and kleinschmidt, sort of) have been beating the subject to death for the past couple of months. Alas, since it’s the first day of the semester I was still awake enough to notice when the professor (i.e. biology-rockstar/Discovery channel host) Rob Lue went on to mumble about multimodular tensegrity in cells.

You don’t really need to know what that is — except that tensegrity = tension + integrity (ludicrous, but I kid you not) — and I doubt I can really convey the feeling of understanding I got at that moment, which I’ve lost anyway after a spirit-crushing session of physical and organic chemistry in the afternoon. What I thought interesting was a question Lue posed at the beginning of class: can understanding the details of how all individual cellular components work allow us to derive an understanding of the whole of the cell’s function?

The example used was an actin monomer, a relatively small protein molecule that binds to itself in long chains to provide structure inside cells. The changes in size and number of the actin chains, or polymers, leads to all sorts of interesting behavior and is actually the basis for how cells move. At the turn of the 20th century, had we known the exact structure of an actin monomer (which we now do) and the physical rules by which it abides, many scientists would have assumed that that was enough information to characterize, indeed predict, the behavior of the entire skeleton of actin filaments in the cell. In fact, as modern biology has found, it is excruciatingly difficult to predict such behavior from first principles, precisely because of the way that it “emerges” from the complex, multi-leveled interactions of many small components.

Analogous examples abound in physics, chemistry, and the social sciences. Continue Reading Not THAT again…

Mr. Science, Meet Captain Obvious

December 14, 2006 at 1:23 am | Posted in opinion, social, wistful musing | Leave a comment

The Harvard Gazette is reporting on a new study that shows that “Too many 24-hour shifts worked by hospital interns cause medical mistakes that harm and may even kill patients.” Apparently, “Interns who put in more than five 24- to 30-hour shifts in a month were involved in 300 percent more fatal errors than when they did not work extended shifts.” Not to mention that they also “stick themselves with needles, and lacerate themselves with scalpels and broken glass at increased rates.” Well, whodathunk? Sleep-deprived doctors not performing flawlessly? Thanks, Harvard Medical School, for advancing the frontiers of science where common sense no longer kicks in!

But seriously, thanks, with no sarcasm attached. As a pre-med myself, it is comforting to know that the fabled culture of competition and self-abuse looming in my future is, at the very least, now being called into question. More encouraging is that the changes in attitude are being expressed by professionals within the field, in addition to the concern long held by outsiders. In Europe, medical students are forbidden by law from working more than 13-hour days, and a new bill in the Massachusetts legislature hopes to instate a similar, albeit 18-hour, cap on American hospitals. While ER and Grays Anatomy will lose an easy explanation for the moodiness of their characters, the rest of the public — and our poor med students, lest we forget — can all benefit from better health and, thankfully, a less dramatic existence.

In fact, this is a much-needed dose of sanity not just to overzealous young interns but to ambitious undergrads and high school students alike. Continue Reading Mr. Science, Meet Captain Obvious…

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