On Robert Harris (Imperium, The Ghost)

I just read a good novel by Robert Harris “Imperium” about Cicero so I was curious when I saw him on Andrew Marr’s show this Sunday. As usual, the artist did not live up to the expectations as a human.
1) He thinks that democracy was “an interlude” and not a natural/aspiring state of humanity. First “they”* said that democracy wasn’t right for the Middle East and Russia, now they are waiting for the dictatorship to be rolled out everywhere.
2) Robert Harris wrote a thriller “The Ghost” that was adapted for a film, The Ghost Writer, a passable thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan and directed by Roman Polanski. When asked about his thoughts about Polansky’s conviction for having sex with a 13-year-old (after 4’5” in the clip). Harris said: “I don’t see why I should change MY position [regarding Polanski] because the fashion’s changed”.
I could have understood any excuse, for example, “these were different times” (they were). But to think that just as Harris is calmly predicting the death of democracy, he is also waiting for the return of society’s acceptance of grown men having sex with underage girls with impunity along with a return of the flared trousers.
The rule of   “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for a bull” where Jove is a talented individual as accepted by his peers was written by the same grey-haired white men who keep their ranks closed against “the others” and then use the resulting Pantheon as a proof that the others cannot do anything of value.
I don’t think I’ll be reading his other books.
*The Establishment that contains 95% of grey-haired white men
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Handmaid’s Tale, S2E2

I am always on the lookout for modern biology references in pop-culture and celebrate when they are correct. In this episode of S2 of dystopia Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a flashback to  Emily/Ofglen/Ofsteven past as a ‘cellular biology professor’. A female student asks if Archaea (a nucleus less life form intermediate between lacking nucleus bacteria and eukaryotes) found in the human microbiome.

A male student arrogantly states that Archaea live in extreme environments such as hot springs, so it’s stupid to suggest that they would live on a human. Emily supports the female student by saying that Archaea do live in nasal cavities and on the skin.

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Orange Spring Mound at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Bacteria, algae and archaea create the streaks of color. (Image by Mbz1 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Amazingly, the professor’s reply is true. Archae composes a significant amount of microbiome not only of human skin and nasal cavity but of the dental plaque and gut as well.

For example, here’s a picture from an article about the composition of the human microbiome.  Catchily named Methanobrevibacter smithii  is the most abundant archeon in the human microbiome. Almost nobody investigates Archea in human microbiome as there are no known human pathogens among them. But this study shows that M. smithii is associated with constipation and gut tenderness. In a different study, it was found in larger numbers in anorexic patients. This does not mean, of course, that the archeon causes these conditions, rather that they go together.

journal.pone.0176555.g003

Reference ranges from a cohort of healthy individuals for 28 clinically relevant species and genera. Healthy participant stool microbiome data were analyzed to determine the empirical reference ranges for each target. The boxplot displays the relative abundance for each of 897 self-reported healthy individuals, revealing the healthy ranges of abundance for the taxa in the test panel. The healthy distribution is used to define the 99% confidence interval (red line). (From  Almonaides et al. (2017))

Kudos to the writers and scientific consultants of the series for providing an accurate and up to date information. Double kudos for the not-so-subtle feminist message.

 

 

Life after science

I was born in a small town in Belarus on the border with Russia, and now I live in Manchester, UK. I came to the UK first as a PhD student and then after giving birth to my son In Belarus as a ‘highly skilled migrant.’ In 2016 I realised that I belong to a ‘global elite that destroyed the livelihoods of ordinary people.’

In the atheistic Soviet, Union science provided a coherent worldview, ways, and means of existence. As a tween, I constructed a pyramid of human occupations. The scientists and artists were at the top as the noblest pursuits of knowledge and beauty. The teachers and medical doctors were a step lower as those who taught and cared for other people. The rest of humanity was in a useful but dull mass on the third step of the ladder. I decided to become a scientist – it seemed more practical than becoming a Big Name in Literature.

I spent school years as an undersocialized nerd winning national competitions in Biology. I found my crowd at Uni and started working in a lab as a first-year undergrad (my heart fluttered so much when I went to volunteer!). When the Soviet Union disintegrated, and money for science run out  I went abroad to practice science devoutly, at least 50 hours working week. The post-soviet scientists had a reputation of hard-working people, and we looked incomprehensibly at local specialists who worked 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.

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17th Century Art on Medicine: The Candlelight Master

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A Doctor Examining Urine. The first half of 17th century.  (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

The Candlelight Master was an unknown  French, Italian or Northern European artist who worked in Rome from 1620 to 1634 (and possibly later). His paintings were attributed to famous contemporaries, such as Gerrit van Hoonthorst, Matthias Stomer, and George de La Tour. Researchers have tried to equate him with representatives of the dynasty of the Bigot painters from Aix-en-Provence  –  Trophime Bigot the Elder and Trophime Bigot the Younger, as well as with the Italian artist Master Giacomo (or Giacomo Massa).

Different art historians credit the Master of Candlelight with up to 50 different paintings, which are now part of the collections of major European and American museums, as well as private collections.

The main feature of his paintings is a religious or everyday scene illuminated by the candlelight that makes it stark and striking.

The Master of Candlelight did not paint scientists on purpose, but in the context of this blog he is interesting because of his painting «A Doctor Examining Urine». On the painting, we see a bearded middle-aged man with the lined brow. The doctor looks at us while holding a transparent vessel filled with a cloudy liquid.  In the bottom left corner, you can see the container for the vessel carrying made of some material akin to birch bark,  then the candlestick,  a folded sheet of paper and inkpot with writing feather.

Introduced by Ancient Greek physician and father of Western medicine Hippocrates urine examination is one of the few diagnostic methods that are still in use today. The pre-modern doctors looked at urine and by its state tried to diagnose a disease. For example, cloudy urine was an indication of kidney problems (now we know that diseased kidneys leak protein into urine). The urine that attracted flies due to sugar accumulation was a sign of diabetes (not that they could do anything about it, except informing relatives that they need to prepare for the inevitable).

The urine on the painting looks cloudy, the patient is probably in trouble.

joseph_wright_-_an_iron_forge_-_google_art_project

An Iron Forge (1772) by  Joseph Write of Derby. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s interesting to compare this painting with those of science and industry painter Joseph Write of Derby.  His scientific and industrial scenes also happen during dark hours and have a single light source illuminating a scene. Sometimes (An experiment on a bird in the air pump, Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight) it’s a candle,  but sometimes it’s a flask with phosphorus (Alchemist discovering phosphorus), lamp (A Philosopher by Lamplight) or red-hot iron (An Iron Forge). The time moved both scientifically and in art.

Sources:

  • Rosenberg, Pierre. Candlelight Master // France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections. — New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.  ISBN 978-0870-9929-57.
  • Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History// DK (an imprint of the Random House)   —Cambrige, 2016.  ISBN: 978-0241225967.

TV/Netflix series review: Orphan Black

 

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The five main clone characters all played by Tatiana Maslany (from left to right, top to bottom: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, and Rachel). Image from Wikipedia, fair use.

When it comes to biology, especially molecular biology,  TV and films usually show nonsense. One of the famous examples is King Kong – a case of 30 feet gorilla (impossible from the biophysics point of view, his bones would have shattered under the weight of the body). And the case of extreme interspecies romance based on very human male interest in buxom blondes. Rare examples of (sort of) plausible scenario include Jurassic Park – I saw an article in Nature about the plausibility of cloning mammoth. Surely, the dinosaurs can follow. NB Outbreak, which shows a few very real “how to”.Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series available on Netflix. I was very skeptical about it – its blurb talks about human cloning. I was surprised to find a very sober approach to the plot: a military program in human cloning in the 70th resulted in several identical women raised in different countries, mostly in the US. Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the US is the center of the world </sarcasm>.

The  10+ clones played by excellent Tatyana Maslyany, who is the main attraction of the series. There are no usual pseudoscience traps such as “cloning of soul” and “mind sharing”. The clones are biologically identical with underlying active character but have very different personalities depending on where and how they were raised – from a mad Ukrainian orphan Helena to a PhD in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Cosima. The deadlocked PhD student is also a lesbian, while the rest of the clones are heterosexual.

The underlying science of human cloning is plausible. Even better, the contemporary science that the PhD engages with is good as well. For example, clones suffer from genetic abnormalities that is possible to repair using stem cells. Of course, there’s an inevitable conspiracy centered on biomedical companies but it would be a dull series without whodunit and action.

I liked not only biology and action but especially the post-Soviet connection. The Western science in the 20th century for all its glory also embraced biological explanation to human differences and proposed radical solutions such as eugenics. The racism was postulated, confirmed and reconfirmed.

In the meanwhile, Soviet biological science was a part of a huge experiment of molding a new Soviet person. Conceptually it was based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioning, not Mendel‘s immutable genes. The Soviet ideology I was raised with believed that humans are products of their environment – you change the environment, you change the person. While the US was engaged in compulsory sterilization programmes for undesirables, the Soviets gave the ignorant free universal education and healthcare. While in the US black people were segregated on the basis of their inborn inferiority, Soviet Union declared the equality of races.

The traces of this eugenic and racist thinking are still there in the 21st century. Time and time again a few scientists, notably,  Nobel Prize winner,  James “DNA” Watson try to dust off racial and/or genetic inferiority theories. There’s also a recent trend to absolve people from responsibility on the basis of their genetic makeup – “my genes made me do it“. So it was very refreshing to see a pop-culture phenomenon that is subtly firmly in the “nurture plus nature” camp.

All five seasons of Orphan Balck are available on Netflix and I recommend to give it a go, it’s one of the best SF series of the decade.

 

Film Review: “What Happened to Monday”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,  this Netflix production flatters “Orphan Black”. Like in the Canadian TV series, one actress plays septuplets born in a world with “one family – one child” policy.  It’s thriller as well but considering the rate of siblings demise, I wondered how the authors going to sustain a series, not realising that’s a stand-alone “made for Netflix” movie.

The pace of “What Happened to Monday” is frantic but the story formulaic, nowhere near the depth of characters and ideas explored by “Orphan Black”.

The movie is a perfect illustration of New York Times article that is unsure if Netflix is capable of truly original production or will just copy what’s been done before.

Book review: “Family Trade” by Charles Stross

A readable parallel worlds fantasy/SF, despite an obvious plothole of a journalist turning into a competent assassin overnight.  A plausible description of industry journalism, a female protagonist, a romance with a tall blonde Roland.

Капиталистическое решение “проблемы Трудно быть богом“: не вывозить художников и учёных, погрязших в Средних Веках, а разработать экономическую программу замены оных веков на промышленную революцию через отдельно взятую компанию на основе изученного в Гарварде.