A Nobel Lesson: Listening to Telomerase

Earlier this month, while pundits bickered non-stop about Obama’s Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize with a profound lesson for humanity slipped by with little hullabaloo. I’m referring, of course, to the Nobel Prize for Medicine, awarded “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

Nature has much to teach us, if we’re willing to learn. When William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” he was offering solid advice.

So what can we learn from telomeres?

One of life’s basic challenges is to ensure that essential life lessons are passed effectively from generation to generation. Nature’s elegant solution, developed over several billion years, is telomeres. At the cellular level, “life lessons” are the genetic information contained in the chromosomes’ DNA. Cells that fail to pass along these lessons completely and accurately will not survive.

Telomeres are structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. During chromosomal replication, these structures safeguard the “lessons” from degradation. Cells even have a special enzyme—telomerase—that keeps the telomeres healthy and intact. Without telomeres, cells age rapidly and the organism dies.

And this is where the wisdom of the telomeres can help us. At the societal level, essential “life lessons” are passed down as values, laws and cultural wisdom. Communities, nations and civilizations that fail to pass along life lessons will not survive.

The moral of the story is that we must develop societal structures that protect the two ends of life—childhood and old age. If we fail to protect the lessons found in these two ends, we will see our society wither and die.

Although not a molecular biologist, Hubert Humphrey echoed the telomeres’ wisdom when he said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; [and] those who are in the twilight of life, the aged…”

Many of today’s most pressing policy questions deal with the beginning of life (issues such as child poverty, health insurance and pre-school education) or the ending of life (issues such as how to provide cost-effective and humane health care at the end of life). If we want to survive as a society, we must do a better job of providing structures—social telomeres—to protect these two ends.

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Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 8:13 am  Comments (1)  
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If Gov. Sandford can escape for five days, I can, too.

Governor Mark Sandford of South Carolina sure attracted attention the past few days when it was reported that he had “disappeared.”  The first story, from his staff, was that he was hiking by himself on the Appalachian Trail. But the second story was that he was in Argentina. I guess those two locations are easy to confuse–both are four-syllable words beginning with “A.” The most recent story, as of a few minutes ago, added even more intrigue, with the Governor confessing to an affair with a woman in Argentina.

I’m bringing up this particular subject right now, because I’m “going off the grid” for five days myself.  I will be unreachable by e-mail, voice mail, or cell phone, and I find the prospect a bit scary. Will I go through electronic withdrawal?

I won’t be hiking the Appalachian Trail or jetting off to Buenos Aires.  I’ll just be at the Audubon Center of the North Woods in northern Minnesota on a five-day men’s retreat.  I expect to return to the online world on Monday–with a few mosquito bites and a big dose of wisdom.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 1:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking

A blog article that I wrote for the American Chemical Society’s Careers Blog was posted earlier today.  The subject, “Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking,” is described for an audience of chemists, but the subject really applies to anyone and everyone.

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Will Scientists Leave Hedge Funds and Return to Science?

An article in today’s New York Times, “A Rich Education for Summers (After Harvard), caught my eye.  It talks about how Larry Summers worked (one day a week, earning nearly $ 5.2 million in two years) at a large hedge fund “advising an elite corps of math wizards and scientists.”

The company,  D. E. Shaw & Company, was founded in 1988 by David E. Shaw, then a computer science professor at Columbia University.  According to the NYT article, “As part of Shaw’s rigorous screening process — the firm accepts perhaps one out of every 500 applicants — Mr. Summers was asked to solve math puzzles. He passed, and the job was his.”

I’m disappointed that the world of science wasn’t able to attract and retain these brilliant individuals over the past two decades.  If they had put their creative and analytical minds to work investigating mysteries of nature rather than mysteries of high finance, I think we might be better off today.

I’m encouraged that the tide may now be shifting.  In fact, according to the Shaw Group website,  “the vast majority of [David Shaw’s] time is now devoted to his role as chief scientist of D. E. Shaw Research, LLC, in which capacity he leads an interdisciplinary research group in the field of computational biochemistry and personally engages in hands-on scientific research in that field. He also holds appointments as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Columbia University and as an Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia’s medical school.”

Let’s hope that the values and traditions in the world of science (as compared to the values and traditions in the world of banking) do a better job of effectively channeling the talents, dreams, and energy of the next generation of bright students.

Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 4:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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Minnesota Senate Recount: The First Quantum Election?

The American public, the national media, and even the Minnesota Secretary of State, all seem to agree with Albert Einstein, who famously said, “God doesn’t play dice.” Most scientists, however, now believe that Einstein was wrong on this particular point. Reluctantly, physical scientists have accepted that there are some things we can’t ever know for sure. And maybe the Minnesota Senate election of 2008 is one of those things.

Einstein’s oft-repeated quote refers to his distaste for quantum mechanics, its probabilistic nature, and its long-term implications about what we can ever hope to know. In the world of classical physics, first described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, every physical event is ultimately knowable and predictable, if we have enough time and information. If we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at any physical situation, we’ll be able to eventually describe it exactly and predict what will happen next.

In the world of quantum physics, first explored theoretically in the early 20th century, different rules prevail. And the implications of these rules are often counter-intuitive, paradoxical, and downright unaesthetic. Even when we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at some physical situations, we still can’t know everything. There is uncertainty that we will never be able to resolve. It’s not just a matter of “margin of error” due to our skill at making measurements. It’s a more fundamental uncertainty, and it’s described by the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.”

Werner Heisenberg, in 1927, stated that we can’t know both the exact location and exact speed of a small particle, like an electron. (Actually, scientists usually refer to “momentum” instead of “speed,” but these quantities are related to each other.) The very act of precisely measuring the location, for example, will yield a range of speeds for the electron. Or, vice versa, the very act of precisely measuring the speed of an electron will yield a range of locations. If we repeat the observation a number of times, we’ll get a variety of different answers. The only way to describe the system accurately is with a “probability cloud” for the electron.

In the “normal” world in which we live, these quantum effects are so tiny and are averaged out over so many particles and events, that we will never observe any differences between the world as described by quantum mechanics and the world described by classical mechanics. However, when we dive into a nano-world where we no longer look at the aggregate result—where we look instead at the tiny individual particle or event—we start to see quantum effects.

But what does this have to do with the U.S. Senate?

Let’s replace the word “electron” with the word “election”—we’re just changing one letter.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Elections, by analogy, tells us that at the micro-level, there is a fundamental uncertainty that we can’t ever dispel. The quantum election principle states that you can’t truly know the winner of the election, because there isn’t one true vote count, there is just a probability cloud of final tallies. Every time an observer goes into the voting system at the most micro of levels (for example, looking at each individual ballot and at the circumstances surrounding the casting of that individual ballot), the observer will come out with a different vote count. The very act of counting the votes introduces a fundamental uncertainty into the system.

Up until now, this principle has only been of theoretical relevance. With the Minnesota Senate recount, however, we are seeing the first experimental evidence of this principle in action.

No matter how many times we count the Minnesota Senate votes, no matter how close we look at each ballot, no matter how transparent the election process, no matter how unbiased the election officials, we can’t know the “true” winner. In fact, there is no such thing as a “true” winner.

So what do we do? Some have suggested that we flip a coin once and declare a winner who will occupy the Senate seat for the next six years. But I have a better solution.

Let’s flip a coin every morning and declare a “Senator-for-the-day.” If we really want to reflect the “will of the people,” the daily coin flip is a much better reflection of “reality.”

And wouldn’t it make for interesting politics? Maybe we’d finally achieve something closer to the mythical “bipartisanship” we seem to need in this time of crisis.

I believe we are going to be seeing more and more elections just as close as the Minnesota Senate election of 2008. Well-financed and sophisticated campaigns can fine tune their candidates’ positions to match focus group results and tracking poll data on an increasingly local level—from gerrymandering individual districts to tailoring mailings by individual zip codes to robo-calling individual phone numbers.

It’s time to recognize that, in Minnesota, we are experiencing the first quantum election. It’s time for political scientist departments to add courses on “quantum elections” to the current curricula, which only reflect the world of “classical elections.” It’s time for talking heads to bone up on their quantum theory.

And perhaps it’s time to introduce a “Heisenberg Uncertainty Amendment” to the Constitution.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (2)  
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