Author Archives: Mike White

Sunday Science Poem: Straining Minds versus Nature’s Single Gesture

William Carlos Williams’ “Labrador” (1948)

Coast_of_Labrador_1874It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re continuing our focus on the poems of William Carlos Williams.

As much as we might wish to have a unified understanding of nature, we have no choice but to break it into tractable chunks. Richard Feynman put it eloquently in his Lectures on Physics:

If we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts – physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on – remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

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Sunday Science Poem: The Stark Dignity of Self-Organization

William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923)

After an unintentionally long hiatus, our Sunday Science Poem is back. April is National Poetry Month, and this month we’ll read the poetry of the American physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).

“In physics, irreversibility and dissipation were interpreted as degradation, while among natural scientists biological evolution, which is obviously an irreversible* process, was associated with increasing complexity… Today scientists realize that dissipative systems constitute a very large and important class of natural systems.” (Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity (1989), p. 50-51

Nicolis and Prigogine argue that we should no longer take the simple, regular, and stable motions of classical mechanics as the essence of our macroscopic physical world. Rather, we live in “a world of instabilities and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing variety and richness of the forms and structure we see in nature around us.” Nature is characterized by spontaneously organizing structures. Continue reading

All trace of the doubled NIH budget has vanished

Things that I’m not thankful for: this week in Pacific Standard, I argue that Congress is like my former landlord, who did a major remodel on his rental property and then let his investment rot away due to neglect. The NIH budget is now substantially lower than it would have been if there had been no budget doubling, and instead, it grew at its previous, pre-doubling historical rate of 3.3% in real dollars (see figure). It’s as if the doubling never happened.


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If we can build it, we understand it… clearly we don’t understand life

This week in Pacific Standard I try to answer the question, why can’t we build life from scratch?

There are two primary ways biologists are trying to build life from scratch – evolution and intelligent design. People like Harvard’s Jack Szostak are trying to understand prebiotic evolution, by evolving autonomously replicating protocells in the lab. On the other hand, synthetic biologists, like those at the Venter Institute, want to be able to go to the whiteboard and intelligently design a genome from scratch. They already know how to synthesize and transplant a genome; designing it is another matter. As I wrote for Pacific Standard, we’re “like someone who knows how to work a 3-D printer but can’t design new digital templates for it.” Continue reading

Sunday Science Poem: The Irreversibility of Time

Czesław Miłosz’s “This World” (1994)

Telomere_capsIt’s a question you’ve certainly heard before – the laws of physics work just fine when you run time backwards, so why, in the real world, does time only go forwards?

Run a movie backwards, and what you see could never happen in real life: a diver never leaps feet first out of the pool onto the board, while drops of water fling themselves back in. But, as Richard Feynman explained, at the level of atoms and molecules, there is no reason why running the film backward should be absurd – our laws of physics say time is reversible at the microscopic level. Feynman argued that time’s forward motion was a macroscopic phenomenon, rooted in the universe’s relentless increase in entropy. Physicist Lee Smolin has pursued a similar (but in many ways a radically different) idea – the forward flow of time is a consequence of a network of relationships in the universe. He may be right, but for the time being, why time is not reversible is still a deep mystery.

Physics isn’t the only place where reversibility appears to be a mystery. Why isn’t life reversible? Aging and death seem inevitable for us individually, but with each birth, the clock is reset. Biological time is reversed. How is that possible?

We don’t really know. Before your children are born you age twenty, thirty, or forty years. Your DNA has been copied and recopied, accumulating damage, telomeres have shortened, and your cells are on the way towards senescence, and yet each newborn gets a fresh start. Amazingly, each successive generation of children is not born ever more prematurely aged. If the clock can be reset for our germ cells, why can’t we reverse biological time in the rest of our cells? Continue reading