Author Archives: Mike White

Mark Ptashne on the “incoherent and counterfactual world” of epigenetics

Ptashne again cuts through epic epigenetic confusion of transcription factors versus histone marks, cause versus effect.

“The Chemistry of Regulation of Genes and Other Things”:

As I have described, where the activated gene encodes the activator itself, we have memory: a self-perpetuating state of gene expression transmitted by regulatory proteins distributed to daughter cells as cells divide.

These now obvious ideas seem to be hard to accept for some. Ignoring the specificity problem and in the search for some alternative solution to the memory problem, they have created an incoherent and counterfactual world, one in which chromatin structure determines the activity of transcription factors (recruiters) rather than the other way around. Chromatin structure is usually meant to imply histone modifications, which somehow have acquired the name epigenetic modifications. The literature is replete with studies of histone modifications presented as studies of “epigenetics,”… Continue reading

Our hunt for human-specific genes won’t explain why chimps can’t do algebra

It sounds like exciting science: the hunt for the genes that make us human. But are we learning all that much about our biology by tracking down those parts of our genome that are unique to us?

In my Pacific Standard column this week, I argue no – at least not yet. The search for human specific genes, or those parts of our genome that show signs of rapid evolution, called “human accelerated regions” hasn’t really yielded much insight into what makes us different from other species, particularly our closest relatives. For the most part, we’ve discovered genes and regulatory elements that are somehow associated with brain function, but we can’t say much more than that. Continue reading

Sunday Science Poem: The Number Pi

“The Number Pi”, Wisława Szymborska (1976)

While in Chicago for the Drosophila genetics conference last weekend, I managed to visit some Polish bookstores. My haul included a volume of poems by the late Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. Many of Szymborska’s poems engage with scientific ideas and their connection to our experiences of the world, and as it turns out, she wrote a poem about the number Pi.

The poem grapples with the mind-blowing idea of an infinite sequence of digits. Pi is woven into the poem, where it interrupts the narrator’s effort to draw comparisons to snakes, bird nests, comets, and stars. These comparisons fail as the number flows on, and they are replaced with numbers and fragements of the real world, including phone numbers, pocket change, and quotes from the Polish poet Mickiewicz and the bible.

And so, to finish off Pi day weekend, here is probably the only poem about this number by a Nobel Laureate.


The Number Pi

Admirable number Pi
three point one four one.
All its following digits are also initial,
five nine two, because it never ends.
It won't allow itself to be embraced six five three five by sight
eight nine by calculation
seven nine by imagination,
and even three two three eight by jest, or by comparison
four six to anything
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth, after a dozen or so meters peters out.
Likewise, though a little later, do fairy-tale snakes.
The procession of digits that make up the number Pi
doesn't halt at the margin of the page,
it manages to pull itself over the table, through the air,
through the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, the clouds, straight to heaven,
through the entire inflated and bottomless heaven.
O how short, downright mouse-like, is the braid of a comet!
How frail the star beams, that bend around the bounds of space!
And here two three fifteen three-hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size
the year nineteen seventy three the sixth story
the number of residents sixty-five grosz
hip circumference two fingers a charade and a code,
in which my little nightingale, fly, crow
as well as you are requested to keep calm,
and also heaven and earth shall pass,
but not the number Pi, no way no how,
it is continually its still not too bad five,
that no mean eight,
the not final seven,
urging, yes, urging a slothful eternity
to persist.

Translated from the Polish by Michael White

Indy SF Month: M.J.A. Watney’s Kybernos

KybernosLately I’ve been reading enough SF from small independent presses for a review series. And so over the next few weeks it will be Indy SF Month here at The Finch and Pea, which will include one of the recent nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick award, a fascinating, non-horror zombie apocalypse from one of my new favorite small presses, and a collection of fascinating stories by a long-time local (St. Louis) SF author.

First in line is M.J.A. Watney’s Kybernos, a self-published work that was a quarter-finalist in 2014 Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Watney provided me with an ARC of this intriguing work, which, like a good fraction of the indy SF we’ll discuss in the upcoming weeks, is better described as speculative rather than science fiction.

Kybernos is part of a tradition of SF stories that play with the direction of time, not time travel so much as questions of reversibility and causality. Hard SF usually comes to mind when we think of this theme – Gregory Benford’s great classic Timescape explored the idea of trying to change the present by sending messages to the past via tachyons, faster-than-light particles that travel backwards in time. Unlike Timescape, Kybernos is not hard SF, but it explores some of the same questions about alternate time trajectories and the reversal of cause and effect. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1912: A Naturalist End of the World

Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912)

ScarletPlagueWe’re all familiar with classic scenes of a brutal post-apocalyptic world like this: A group of refugees from the pandemic is holed up in an abandoned building with a cache of food and arms, firing on a gang of assaulting raiders. Or, a former professor of English Literature, clad in goat skins and huddled around a fire, is telling his dirty, illiterate grandsons about life before civilization vanished.

Today these scenes are standard fare in post-apocalyptic fiction, from The Road to The Walking Dead. But when Jack London wrote them a century ago, they weren’t. The genre itself had been around for a long time, and many of the classic themes, settings, and catastrophes had already been introduced. However, nobody before Jack London had described a collapse of civilization so violent or an aftermath so squalid. In the century since, images of a gritty and brutal world in ruins have become almost a requirement in this genre. Continue reading