Wednesday, June 2, 2010

There's a bionic penguin on the telly!

They swim and fly, they skip and jump, they like to pick wild flowers...

Seriously though, this is all my worst nightmares come true. Amphibious, skin-changing, lightbulb-unscrewing robot penguins from Britain. Look at 'em, flying around all pretty in their antigrav fields like some avian led zeppelins. I'm watching you, penguins...

Actually, biomimetics, or the modelling of human creation after nature, is a fascinating shortcut to building a better robot. Even Asimov never broke out of the idea that robots would look like us, but how well suited are we really for climbing, running, flying, or pretty much any athletic activity at all? Why use a human as a model at all, or worse yet, start from scratch with calculations of how to make something move efficiently when you can study snakes, cockroaches, and, most disgustingly, worms to see what makes them go?

It's an exercise in humility: not only humans are poorly designed ourselves, but we can't design anything better than what evolution has given us. We seem to be getting better at being mockingbirds though, the grace of the bionic penguins' wings is pretty incredible. Nice job, guys.

Oh, and if you didn't get the title:

(skip to about 2:20)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

PCR 101: A Collision, er Crash Course

Decided to excerpt from my blog from about a year ago when I worked at FHCRC. It was not a good day. It still amuses me and the sentiments are about the same now, though I think my writing has improved a bit in its rambling nature.
Sunny days are rare in Seattle, and I spend this one handling gooey fluorescent molds of gelatin with strategically placed holes. No, it is not an adult toy, it is actually how molecular biology works. We stick little pieces of DNA in expensive plastic tubes which we make hot, then cold, then hot, ad nauseum, for about three hours. This is known as PCR. I consider myself to be extraordinarily skilled at it. If I ever enter a Miss America pageant, I'm going to run PCR on stage for the talent portion.

For the three hours during which it runs, we stare blankly out the window, watching puppies running around in the courtyard, jealous of how much more meaningful their lives are than ours. When the PCR is finished, we stick the DNA chunks in the gelatin, hook up some wires, run hundreds of volts of electricity through it until alarms start going off (well, that's what I do anyway), treat it with cancer-causing agents, and take pictures of it. If there is a tiny line on the gel, we get all excited.

These lines are actually called amplicons, but I call them Little Orange Bands of Joy. This is because when you get one, everything starts to sparkle, rainbows pop out of the gel and Skittles pop out of the rainbows, and Barack Obama rides a unicorn around your lab.

Science is cool like that.

What isn't cool is like last week when I got a Band of Joy and it turned out to be a plasmid contaminant and not a Band of Joy at all, at which point the unicorn gave me an annoyed look and pooped on the lab floor and then Robert Plant popped up out of nowhere and sued me for copyright infringement.

Today is not a good day for that, however. My gel is devoid of bands, joyful or otherwise. I cast it away, cursing disproven God with my ethidium-stained fist, and stumble back through endless pretentious corridors with the blue sky mocking me outside. Once more into the breach, dear friends: more PCR.

Speaking of PCR, I think the worst acronym is PC: whether standing for politically correct or personal computer (i.e., not Apple), it pisses me off. Out of frustration with having to use one in this lab while I wait for my reaction to finish, I play with Google and fill the browser's history with troubling imagery from obscure David Bowie concept albums so that the next user, probably some poor undergraduate, will voice their concerns about my strange behavior to our ombudsperson. (Our particular research center's ombudsperson just happens to be a man, but it's very important to note that he has a title that dispels any disparagement of the ability of women to serve equally well, if not better, at the time-honored art of ombudsing. I don't think ombudsbeings of either gender have the ability to prescribe drugs though, unfortunately for me.)

And to go further off-topic, here is where the medium of blogging fails me, for if I were writing in a journal right now I would fill it with gratuitous doodles of eyes, Rorshach-esque shapes, and cryptic beatnik haikus in the margins. Maybe a spatter from some mysterious dark liquid too.

Anyway. Back to the PCR. I sit for a while, considering where I went wrong. Maybe I just didn't use enough tubes?

You see, working in a molecular biology lab is something like working in Barbie's universe in that everything is plastic. Much of this plastic is even pink. (Incidentally, it is also analogous to Barbie in that some of us wear lab coats with nothing underneath, but we don't talk about that.)

Anyway, I spent a whole box of plastic tips and a small bag of plastic tubes running my PCR that didn't work. These were promptly discarded in the trash. Pretty soon, the non-biodegradable plastic piles up to WALL-E like proportions and someone has to come haul it away. To kill time while this is happening, we write emails and clever posters lambasting Bush for his anti-environment policies.

Somewhere, a tuskless rhinoceros cries.

*Disclaimer. I do not approve of cyberpunk art-murders unless Brian Eno is providing the soundtrack.
*Furthermore, I always wear gloves when I handle ethidium bromide and you should too. Otherwise you WILL get cancer and you WILL die.
*P.S. Rhinoceroses are cute.
*P.P.S. So are penguins.