Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Ode to Boring Science

Photo from umjanedoan

I've never been that into dinosaurs and fossils. When I think of space, I think of coldness and emptiness, not "boldly going where no man has gone before". Neuroscience baffles me and as such I have little interest*. And yet, a large amount of the mass media coverage of science revolves around developments in these and select other fields. Not that they're unimportant, but I find it tiresome that the coverage of science is so one-sided.

I would like to see more emphasis on ordinary, bread-and-butter research out there. It seems that if the news isn't covering classic post-Sputnik science such as robots, rockets, and space, it's something contentious like stem cells, vaccines, or climate research. Big news to the media outlets out there: there's more to science than fighting over embryos and forecasting doom! And they often miss great stories, those stories may just unfortunately be a little harder to tell.

I want to celebrate "boring" research. The ordinary, non-press release research that constitutes the bulk of what one will find if they open up a non-Nature or -Science journal. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking bad research; good-versus-bad is a different classification altogether than sensational-versus-boring research - there's lots of crap at the top and bottom. I want to talk about what you find when you flip open a textbook. What is published on a regular basis in the hundreds (thousands?) of respected journals out there. Just because it's ordinary science doesn't mean that it can't be fascinating once one gets into the details.

Boring research is interesting research that does not necessarily promise to change the world or advance our ultimate understanding or cure AIDS or discover the Caramilk secret. Boring research makes up the bulk of what is published, and while the loudest stories are cried out over the crowd, the progress of boring, everyday research moves forward. It is the blue chip stock in world of science, where the big trading happens in cloning, robotics, and gender studies.

I would like to see the story of boring research told. Research that perhaps is not ground-shattering** but still tells us important things about the world. Things that in time are more valuable than isolated studies that make major headlines. Things that are established to the point that even scientists ignore the interesting story behind them. I want to to celebrate the unsung heroes of research, and what it contributes to scientific progress.

Finally, it should be noted that this research isn't boring to me, nor should it be boring to you. If you think it is, I'd like to change your mind. Dig a little deeper and there is often a story to be told. By celebrating the tons of quality ordinary science out there, we see the true elegance and amazing subtleties of the world around us.

Here's to boring science!

Image from velorowdy

*Hypocracy acknowledged by this biochemist
**Keep in mind many Nobels have been awarded for work not appreciated when it was done

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lüttje Lage - drink of the Niedersachsische Hauptstadt

See above the preparation of a round of Lüttje Lage, the traditional drink of the German city Hannover. Hannover is the capital of the state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and where I spent my last summer. Note the lesson on proper drinking etiquette occurring in the background, as is common to see where this drink is served.

According to my extensive research on the subject, Lüttje Lage (pronounced loot-cha lahg-a) traces its roots back to the 16th century, to the Broyhan brewery, which established a tradition of drinking spirits with beer. German efficiency being what it is, the Hannoverians decided to do it at once. But it can't just be as simple as mixing them together. Oh, no. What followed was the formation of an amusing and bizarre way to drink beer.

Despite the oddness of it, the drink has persisted to present day, and every summer young and old take advantage of this traditional drink to celebrate their hometown pride. There's a lot of tradition surrounding the drink, and costumes. There's even a local men's club that among other things, preserves the culture of the drink. The local tourism authority offers Lüttje Lage tours a couple times each year, which are of course topped off by a sample.

So what is the drink itself? Well, the big glasses you see are 5 cL glasses full of beer, typically a variety specific to the purpose. The small glasses are 1 cL of corn schnapps. It tastes about as good as that sounds. However, people don't consume the drink for it's taste.

Lüttje Lage is mostly seen at local fairs, most notably the Hannover Schützenfest and Maschseefest. Purists would grit their teeth to hear this, but the drink is pretty much a novelty, specific to Hannover, or more specifically, Hannover's festivals. You'll find few who drink it on a regular basis, or at home. People travelling to Hannover from other parts of Germany will most likely have never heard of the drink. That being the case, when in Hannover one must have one, or you did not truly experience the city. Berlin has the Berliner Weiße, Cologne (Köln) has Kölsch, and Munich has, among other things, the Radler, but those are much better known and widespread. Lüttje Lage is strictly unique to Hannover, and no where else.

The best thing about the drink is the method in which it must be done. Typically, it requires practice, and a lack of prior impairment. One must hold the two glasses in one hand, and tip them properly so that the schnapps flow into the big shot as it then goes down. Things can get messy at the best of times. Step-by-step picture instructions are here.

Should one like to try for yourself, and just can't wait until you find yourself in this fair city, the site offers to sell you everything you need. Not that I would recommend it, you may as well just make your own.

One can see it all properly done here, which appears to be at Schützenfest. Of course, this style of drinking is not unique to Hannover, but the class and prestige at least pretended to be associated with it is. Also, keep in mind there's nothing that restricts one to a single schnapps glass........

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

There's-a gonna be some changes round here

Pay attention, all 4 loyal readers. With my undergraduate classes drawing to a close on Thursday

>>break for celebratory dance<<

it's time for some changes in my life, and of course the most important thing for me to consider is how I run this blog*. Unfortunately it has not been quite what I had hoped it would be when
I started. That being said, I started with the intentions of updating friends and family on my goings-on in Germany this summer, but decided to keep on with it indefinitely. Because of this setup, though, I haven't established a particular style**, or carved out any specific niche.

While a number of posts of quite widely varying format have appeared on here as I test out what works and what doesn't (at least in my mind), I have not been able to make postings as regularly as I would like, and I often find I have interesting things to write but am too busy, lack the inclination, or just plain forget. I am particularly proud of a few articles, and not so much with some others. I hope that a bit of a reworking might help out, and a commitment to a specific style. I also hope that a consistent style.

Expect a change of pseudonym. After having surveyed the various other blogs out there, I notice one thing I seriously lack is a cool-ass name. While one can get an idea of me from the profile information provided, I feel a cooler science-y name would much better express my attitude than a paragraphs would. I just need to figure out what that might be.

Another thing I will do my best to stop doing is saying (even if it's just to myself) that I will write something in the future***. While I continue to say that I'll fill in the stuff and post pictures from the summertime, I have come to realize that it's been a while, and no one really cares that much anymore. I had a blast, and it was great, saw lots, did lots (and had a difficult time this fall coming down from that 4-month high), but when it's so far removed now as to be silly. There are stories to be told still, and they will eventually make their way out, but I'll stop being in such a hurry when I don't actually get it done. I've got some ideas now, but I'll keep those cards close to the chest for now.

Interestingly, while this started last time I had exams in April, the first time I will have felt I have the time to sit down and write out thoughtful stuff is now the next round of exams. In some ways, I'm just an anti-student, I guess. While my peers are pulling all-nighters in the library, I'm bored in between tests and take to writing online. I dunno.

So onward I go to my final batch of exams. I must value this time, as some complaints about other students may only be valid while I am still an undergrad. My time to still whine about my peers is shortening. I must make haste. Oh, and perhaps I might benefit from doing just a little studying. We'll see if I can fit it in.

*The first of many changes, I am owning up to what this is. Though I wish someone would have come up with a better word for it.
**Any suggestions are, of course, welcome. Whether I use them or not is up to me.
***A post on amino acids is still forthcoming, however. I don't have the impact to get it to those that probably might benefit the most, but it's good practice for me in several ways, all the same.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

No pressure.....

So I just handed in the major project for my "Protein and nucleic acid structure" course, the notes for which will essentially be the rules I live by for the next few years at least. Being interested in doing pretty much exactly what I just submitted more or less full time, it means I better have done a good job. But who knows.

I'm not happy with my submission, a lot more could have been done, and a lot was omitted that
a) I spent a lot of time on and
b) is relevant given enough space to explain it
We'll see. I'm not happy with it, but that doesn't mean I'll do poorly.
I've left tests before that I thought I failed and in fact aced them (albeit following a generous bell curve). Let's hope this assignment is like that too. With the expectation that I do well, even an 85% might be a disappointment, though. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All laboratory research ever has just been invalidated

Well, not quite.

Researchers have found that ordinary laboratory plastics contain contaminants that can greatly affect results of biochemical and other research.

Two things:

1. Of course they do! Plastics and the things we put in them are organic molecules, and biological systems use organic molecules extensively.
2. Why hadn't researchers, or more importantly, manufacturers, thought of this before? I know some definitely have, but

This makes me think of classic situations where one person gets results that no one else can replicate under supposedly the same conditions, or someone gets a result once and can never repeat it, or cells that were happily maintained spontaneously die with no discernible reason. I know that in my experience that if needed, different types of tubes, tips, can typically be used interchangeably, without needing to worry about controlling for this source of variation.

The good news is that researchers can hopefully take this effect into account and more effectively troubleshoot, finding the sources of error. Who knows, this could even reverse some file-drawering, and research "cold cases" could be reinvestigated if whatever shelved the research may have been plastic contaminants.

The bad news is this opens the possibility for some published research to actually be incorrect, as a common (and necessary) assumption in research is that your tools and implements are essentially contaminant-free.

Though this comes as a big "duh" moment, i.e. no one can be too surprised that this is the case, the publication of real data shows that plastic contaminants can be a real problem. In the past researchers by and large haven't been too concerned about this possibility. Maybe now they should be.

Science 322 (5903): 917

On Wired:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why they call me crazy

Most people shudder when you say the term "Organic Chemistry". In fact, I just shouted it out loud in a communal study area, which resulted in cries of anguish, weeping, 3 attempts to jump out the nearest window, and one student setting himself on fire. When I tell people that I am taking extra upper-level courses in it "for fun" or, if it needs to be at least partly plausible, for the skill set I gain from the courses, many think me batshit insane. Well, maybe I am.

The weird thing is, for a subject so feared and despised by pre-medical and pre-pharma students, I actually sort of enjoy it. To me, organic chem is in many ways the closest you can get to playing with Lego, yet still earn advanced academic credit for it.

It's problem solving, as in:

I have this compound

And I need to make this one

Using the tools available to me, and some tricky maneuvers that chemists have invented to circumvent problems that biological systems often find when trying to synthesize compounds. If one can't figure it out, it can be downright maddening, but if one is willing to work at it, it can be incredibly rewarding to be able to come up with the right answer.

While I could be taking apiculture (beekeeping) or intro English as a bird course to round out my degree, organic chem is just more fun. I'm glad to have taken it. Perhaps I am nutso.

Whatever they tell you, I am NOT in this to learn to make designer drugs. I am NOT planning on moving to Columbia upon finishing my degree, and putting my skills to use, unhindered by regulatory agencies. And I am certainly NOT hoping to come up with a hallucinogenic dust that will induce irrational fear in citizens of Gotham city in order to take it over and establish my evil empire. Anyone who says otherwise is Batman.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Quirks of the Deutsche Sprache

At times, the German language can be quite funny in how literal it seems to a native English-speaker. Perhaps I need to just take a better look at English as well, though. Following is a short list of things that are sort of odd in the German language from an English perspective. Given more time, effort, and initiative, I could definitely add to this, because I know there are TONS more examples. Feel free to add suggestions.

Glove = Handshue

Yes, that's hand + shoe

Mietwagen = Rental Car

And if a butcher rents a vehicle to make deliveries, well then I guess it works in both languages.

Nachrichten= News

Nothing special, but the interesting thing is you can use Nachricht as a singular, as in

Ich habe ein gutes Nachricht für Sie
I have a good "new" for you.

Leiter = Ladder
Feurzeug = Lighter

This has caused confusion several times, like when I got confused stares for needing a ladder to start a Bunsen burner

Food and drink = Lebensmittel

Literally, the medium of life. Which is, of course true.

Meat = Fleisch
Body = Korper

It's not just the accent. Some things in German just sound more offensive because they sort of are.

Protein = Eiweiß

Ei is egg, weiß is white - so yes, protein is actually called eggwhite.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Congratulations to those south of the border, you have made the right choice. The rest of the world now breathes a sigh of relief.

Glad that I took up an offer to go to the pub, because I would hate to answer "Where were you when history was made" with "reading for school". How boring.

Anyway, I'm finally a little bit optimistic about the future. I like how Jeremy Kinsman puts it, from a Canadian perspective:

"The rest of us [Canadians] should just celebrate the fact that our neighbour and closest friend has chosen the kind of leader that Canadians can instantly recognize because he operates in what used to be a very Canadian way of seeing and dealing with the world."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pizza Crazy Dog

Ugh, this is terrible. I still have backlog of things from the summer I wanted to write about then and started posts of, only to stop after a few sentences. Here I start to remedy that.

During my last week of work, the boss happened to be gone on vacation, and so several informal gatherings and such were set up to just hang out without the pressure of a PI breathing down your neck. One of which was a pizza lunch, where we ordered in from the local place.

You may have heard how pizza in Italy is nothing like pizza in the US (Canada here falls in the same with the US). Well, while German pizza falls somewhere between, it is also in a way genuinely distinct. I was lucky to get to try out "Pizza Crazy Dog", which was just bizarre, with crisped onions, sliced hot dogs, pickles, and ketchup. Or rather I got to try half of one.....

During the lunch, the reality that I was leaving all the friends I had made for the summer behind hit me, and fast. Which will really kill your appetite. So, I left my food in the fridge, knowing that that meant I could save on lunch the next day (funds were starting to look extremely tight for me for the rest of my stay in Germany).

How absolutely terrible that the following day, my second-to-last day of work, I went to get my leftovers from the fridge, and empty box. After already in a lousy mood from the day before, this just sent my spirits crashing through the floor. Who the hell steals food from their coworkers?

This following the theft of the bicycle generously lent to me by one of my coworkers, I was not a happy camper.