Friday, April 11, 2014


In Saskatoon I had an ongoing discussion with a geologist about what it meant to live in a new place where the element isotopes were different.  Since a person changes cells constantly and must draw the materials from the environment where they are, or at least where their food originated, would the difference in isotopes gradually change the cells and ultimately the person’s body?  He said no, I said yes.  Eventually he came to my side.  But would a person know they were changing?  Would they feel the difference?

Animal bodies of different kinds accumulate different isotopes of carbon.

To follow this question, you need to know that the body is made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are assembled out of elements.  An element is the most basic atom but it has three parts: neutrons and protons locked together, and then the circling bits called electrons.

"Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element such that, while all isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons in each atom, they differ in neutron numberNuclides that have the same neutron number but a different proton number are called isotones. This word was formed by replacing the p in isotope with n for neutron.   Chemical properties are primarily determined by proton number, which determines which chemical element the nuclide is a member of; neutron number has only a slight influence.”  Got that?  Science on this level is tough.

An animation of a cell process.  This website is one I often visit because it's FUN.

It always surprises me a little that matters at this literally elemental level are so mechanical: molecules “fold,” have structure, go hand-over-hand along filaments.  But maybe that’s just because we think of them this way, model them this way with tinker toys or ping-pong balls.  We have to envision them SOME way in order to think about them.  The genome is composed of links arranged in a double helix, right?  A cell has a skin and a nucleus, right?  But they move -- they writhe, they dance, they transform.  They take in the atoms of the location, the isotopes formed by forces aeons ago.  And then, yes, we are subtly different.

David Astrachan, MD

Michael Astrachan, animator is a company that produces medical animations of the most teeny and technical structures and their interaction -- not for fun, but for learning and understanding.   (Disclaimer: there are two men on the board who are named Astrachan but they are not related to my birth family “Strachan.”  They don’t look Scottish.  Similarities can be deceiving.)  When you watch these animations, you must remember that they are CGI, as much as sci-fi movie simulations and, in fact, the best Hollywood CGI people (who might not live in Hollywood -- some live in Montana) watch these animations to get ideas.  Even the plot-developing writers who create scripts would be smart to watch these patterns as they unfold.

I have no idea what this is, but it's a bit scary.

If you watch the demo clip at the website, which I just did, you’ll recognize organs, skin, blood, and organic "submarines" called mitochondria which are ancient creatures captured long ago by mammal cells, living batteries that supply energy and come only from your mother.  You’ll see the structure of bone, which changes slowly but DOES change.  But you’ll also see a lot of zany stuff that’s meaningless without technical interpretation. 

This clip is about viruses.  They say that there are plenty of people on this planet who can’t understand things like HIV-AIDS because they don’t understand that there ARE such infectious agents as viruses.  Never heard of 'em.  The piece I was reading referred to tribes where the people know there is reading but have never learned to read.  (Ten per cent of the people in every industrial society don’t read.)  Talking to them about viruses is ineffective if they don’t know the words and the words are not in ordinary use where they are.  Most of us learn fancy medical words by reading.  But anyone can look at these clips and see, conceptually, what a virus does in the body.  All they need is the link I just gave you to call up the clip and watch it if they have a cell phone.

At first the floaty, prettily colored blobs and filaments, accompanied by bouncy sounds, might not mean much.  Even a scientist might need some orientation -- that’s what the Harvard students are getting when they watch these animations.  They are building into their brains some ideas that will serve them for many years.  The main idea is that the tiny world of the cells in bodies are very busy and complex.  You have to keep thinking about them.

The CGI folks who do these animations are not likely to run out of work for a long time, because they will need to revise and revise in response to new discoveries and theories -- which may have arisen out of watching these clips in the first place.  This thinking is hand-over-hand.  Once a person has a firm grasp of the genome double helix, then it’s possible to think about the impact of the epigenome, which can turn individual pairs on or off, or the complex little dance that the pair-partners do during conception that determines which one is dominant or if there should be a compromise.  This is the kind of thinking used to figure out how to transfer the mutated genes that confer immunity to HIV-AIDS from one person to another.

Pretty enough to be jewelry.

Such work is enormously expensive.  Even if the scientists figured out how to do it reliably (without damaging the genes next door to the ones being extracted or added), even if they figured out how to deliver it, let’s say, across Africa to every tribesman and his children, it wouldn’t be possible to get it done for a long time.  Not for scientific or even financial reasons, but for social and educational reasons.  

In the United States a high proportion of people can read, DO understand bacteria and viruses, DO understand routes of infection, and still stubbornly refuse to vaccinate their children or use other personally protective measures like condoms.  In fact, they try to evade laws that require vaccination and they criminalize condoms by assuming that carrying them means prostitution, grounds for arrest.  When it comes to defeating themselves, human beings are very resourceful.

One of the elements of being a smart alec who knows better than everyone else is to contradict whatever official wisdom is going around -- not that officials are always wise.  Emotion gets into the mix -- emotion is the “epigenomic” addition that shuts rationality on and off.  I’m watching “The Outcasts,” not the Western version of the American frontier, but the BBC sci-fi that was too thoughtful and too short on explosions to “live” so got canceled in the first year.  

The idea is based on these CGI-illustrated concepts:  that some people (being forced to emigrate from the planet Earth) had been genetically “enhanced” to make them better suited to harsh planets, but that when the ordinary folks arrived, their babies all died of some virus.  The newcomers thought it was a virus carried by the Frankenfolks and the order was given to kill them all.  But the person who was supposed to do it could not.  So now there are two opposed societies on the new planet and the planet’s indigenous lifeforms are not liking it.

Scottish Madonna (Amy Manson)

Much as we try not be entirely gripped by anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, we want OUR babies to survive.  But many people today, like the illiterates of the world, don’t understand that this is not just a technical problem that can be solved by running the baby over to the emergency room.  The romances and adventures in the media can be like evil CGI that distorts the realities of forming families and protecting infants.  

Where are the cautions against leaving little kids to be babysat by gormless young men with bad tempers so the woman can do some low-pay grinding job?  Where are the endorsing stories about how boys become nurturers, caring for each other as well as the defenseless?  Must they be animations?  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt.  

 Flawed Leader (Liam Cunningham)

Asshole Hero (Daniel Mays)

It’s a step in the right direction that on this BBC show the mighty leader has some serious moral flaws and the “asshole” everyone mocks is the guy who comes through, but simple reversals are not enough.  We need new systems.   And I don't mean solar systems.  But animation would be good.

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