Ode to a Dreamer of Dreams

Dear Dr. Sacks,

Like the late Carl Sagan, you have a gentle way of magnifying everything into brilliant resolution and reminding us of our place in the universe. I always look forward to reading your books and opinion pieces, as you put which things matter into perspective. Last month, I was quite delighted to read of your love for the physical sciences, also beautifully described in Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. Beauty can truly be found in any field or context and Wilczek’s coverage of the concept reminds me of that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” in which the author pronounces, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” As Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.”

Indeed, few experiences prove as humbling as observing the heavens. The night sky brings to mind the opening lines of a personal favorite: “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Meanwhile, consciousness continues to prove an elusive idea, as you mentioned. Is it a purely biological phenomenon or does it extend into the philosophical and spiritual realms? I think the most beautiful aspect of our universe is the sense of infinite mystery surrounding it; as Anaïs Nin explains it, “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

From your stories of patient case studies to your descriptions on the benefits of musical therapy, your words offered comfort and solace amidst adversity and uncertainty. When I was struggling with my own medical challenges (though nothing as serious as your struggles), I found works such as William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” to be particularly uplifting and encouraging, and perhaps you will, too. I think the practice of medicine allows one to grow closer to his fellow brethren and fulfill the insightful words of Countee Cullen: “Your grief and mine/Must intertwine/Like sea and river/Be fused and mingle/Diverse yet single/Forever and forever.” I only hope I will fulfill my role with the same patience, compassion, dignity, and grace that you exemplify in your daily life. As one chapter closes and another begins, I wish you laughter and joy in the company of friends and family, exchanges of love among kindred spirits, courage as you confront your final battles, and peace and contentment in the knowledge that you have touched more lives than you know. From the deepest parts of my being, I thank you. Stay gold, dear Captain, our Captain.

Warm regards,

Nita Jain

Top Ten Favorite Scientists

I was recently asked to make a list of my top ten favorite scientists, and after some deliberation, these are the people I chose:


  1. Richard Feynman: While Feynman made outstanding contributions to our understanding of quantum physics and to the Manhattan project, he is perhaps most remembered for his teaching as evidenced by the still-beloved Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman even rejected a job offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center whose staff boasted luminaries like Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, because there were no students there to teach.
  2. Marie Curie: Curie conducted pioneering experiments into the nature of radioactivity and also discovered radium and polonium, receiving Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics for her efforts. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue, giving birth to the idea of radiation therapy.
  3. Isaac Newton: From his work on optics to his laws of motion and universal gravitation, Newton was a central figure in the scientific revolution. He developed the reflecting telescope as well as differential and integral calculus to explain the elliptical orbits of celestial bodies all before his 26th birthday.
  4. Rosalind Franklin: Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data was arguably the most important puzzle piece in the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. She also contributed to our molecular knowledge of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the poliovirus.
  5. Nikola Tesla: While Tesla is perhaps best known for developing the alternating current motor, the Serbian-American innovator also experimented with X-rays, performed short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Marconi, and invented the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil.
  6. Clair Patterson: Not only did geochemist Clair Patterson calculate an extremely accurate estimate for the age of the Earth using lead dating, but he also served as an activist after discovering the toxic effects of lead on human health. His persistent campaigning eventually led to a ban on the use of lead in consumer products.
  7. Linus Pauling: Pauling made incredible insights into the nature of the chemical bond, including the prediction of secondary structures such as the alpha helix and the beta sheet. Pauling also developed the concepts of electronegativity and orbital hybridization and remains the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes – for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962.
  8. Michael Faraday: It has often been said that Michael Faraday was the greatest discovery of eminent chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday established the principle of electromagnetic induction, created the first electrical generator, and even initiated the first Christmas Lectures series in 1825 to teach science to children.
  9. Louis Pasteur: Best known for his namesake process to prevent bacterial contamination, Pasteur was instrumental in disproving the idea of spontaneous generation. His work on the germ theory of disease also led him to create vaccines for anthrax and rabies.
  10. Craig Venter: When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, progress initially got off to a very slow start. In 1998, Craig Venter dramatically sped up the process using a technique known as whole genome shotgun sequencing. As we now enter the era of genomic medicine, the variable uses of the sequenced human genome are steadily unfolding.

If I were to make a longer list, I would probably include a lot more notable physicists, including Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Alan Guth. Copernicus, Galileo, Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt all helped advance our understanding of the cosmos. I would also have liked to acknowledge the many scientists who were involved in atomic theory, such as Democritus, James Dalton, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, and J.J. Thomson. Mendeleev classified the elements periodically, and Carl Woese classified life on Earth. Gregor Mendel founded the field of genetics, and Meselson and Stahl performed an experiment that supported the hypothesis of semiconservative DNA replication. Along with Pasteur, both Robert Koch and Ferdinand Koch helped found bacteriology and establish the credibility of the germ theory of disease. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the first antibiotic in the form of penicillin, and Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. On the computer science front, Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Tim Berners-Lee made significant contributions, the latter of whom is responsible for having developed the algorithms on which the World Wide Web depends. Polymaths Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin advanced our knowledge of the sciences as well as other diverse fields.

This list is just one person’s opinion, so I invite you to share yours. Who would you include in your top ten favorite scientists? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Should Falsifiability Be Put to Rest?

Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Falsifiability is a beautiful notion in that it allows us to empirically determine the scientific basis for a given theory. In other words, if a theory offers no testable predictions, then that theory has no place in the canon of science. As of late, some scientists have adopted the view that such a criterion is too stifling and actually hinders real progress toward the acquisition of scientific knowledge into the nature of reality. A case in point is string theory, classical physics’ frontrunner for unifying general relativity and quantum physics which posits that all matter is composed of tiny vibrating strings. Currently, the equipment required to test string theory’s predictions is beyond our reach and will be for an indeterminable amount of time, as string theory involves phenomena likely to to manifest themselves only at energies immensely higher than anything we can produce here on Earth. In a controversial essay published in Edge last year, Sean Carroll argued, “Refusing to contemplate [the existence of entities involved in certain theories] on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

Theoretical cosmologists George Ellis and Joe Silk worry, however, that an abandonment of the falsifiability principle will undermine public trust in the scientific method at a time when scientific results concerning topics such as global climate change and evolution, while backed by stacks of solid scientific evidence, are still on trial in the public eye. Furthermore, Ellis and Silk fear that eliminating this standard would allow for unchecked propagation of ideas with very little scientific evidence to support them and make intellectual dispute resolution practically impossible. In their Nature comment, Ellis and Silk point out that even string theory offers some testable predictions, such as supersymmetry, the idea that each kind of particle has a partner, none of which have been detected by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, narrowing the range of energies at which supersymmetry might exist. If these partners continue to elude detection, we may never be certain of their existence, and Ellis believes this uncertainty may simply need to be worked into our current understanding of the universe. “We need to rethink these issues in a philosophically sophisticated way that also takes the best interpretations of fundamental science, and its limitations, seriously,” says Ellis. “Maybe we have to accept uncertainty as a profound aspect of our understanding of the universe in cosmology as well as particle physics.”

A Wrinkle in Time: Building a Black Hole for Interstellar

Light around a wormhole doesn't behave classically—it doesn't travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as "a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time." (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Light around a wormhole doesn’t behave classically—it doesn’t travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as “a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time.” (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Adam Rogers recently wrote a beautiful piece for Wired discussing how astrophysicist Kip Thorne’s equations helped to create a scientifically realistic black hole model. Rogers explains, “Thorne sees truth. Nolan, the consummate image maker, sees beauty.” His words remind me of the closing lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Rogers himself concludes, “Most Interstellar viewers will see these images—the wormhole, the black hole, the weird light—and think, ‘Whoa. That’s beautiful.’ Thorne looks at them and thinks, ‘Whoa. That’s true.’ And from a certain perspective, that’s beautiful too.”

The Creative Power of Destruction


Franklin College of Arts and Sciences ambassadors (left to right: Abiola Fakile, Omar Martinez-Uribe, Blake Edwards, and myself) with Lydia Babcock-Adams (left) and Dean Alan Dorsey at a groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Georgia Science Learning Center on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 in Athens, Ga.

Today, I ran into a beloved biochemistry professor of mine at the groundbreaking ceremony for UGA’s new Science Learning Center. I told him about a book I’m reading called Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself by Jamie Davies and about how Chapter 17 began with a quote off a car bumper sticker: “Support bacteria–they’re the only culture some people have.” This professor had himself proposed his own idea for a car bumper sticker in the introductory biochemistry class he teaches: “HONC if you love biochemistry” (HONC referring to the general rules by which hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon form one, two, three, and four covalent bonds, respectively, in stable organic molecules).

A Double-Edged Sword
I asked him if he had heard about the researchers from Johns Hopkins who have been using modified flesh-eating bacteria as anti-cancer agents. The researchers removed the gene responsible for the production of alpha-toxin (responsible for the breakdown of cytoskeletal structures in living cells) from Clostridium novyi, which thrives in hypoxic conditions, and proceeded to test the attenuated strain in various organisms by injecting spores directly into the tumor site. In each case, the modified bacteria consumed tumor cells while leaving healthy tissue intact. Reading about this research got me thinking about the healing power of destruction at large. Similar to the way in which the Johns Hopkins researchers saw the curing potential of flesh-eating bacteria, so did Marie Curie see the potential for panacea with radium. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue. And thus the idea of radiation therapy was born (today, safer radioactive substances such as cobalt and cesium are used). Oftentimes, destruction seems catastrophic, devastating, and ultimately tragic. But destruction also holds the power to treat disease, create novel forms of life, and ultimately pave the way for new beginnings.

Life will always find a way.
In the natural world, severe disturbances to terrestrial communities, whether the result of natural disasters or human activity, often lead to a process called ecological succession in which a disturbed area is colonized by a variety of species, which are gradually replaced by other species, which are in turn replaced by still other species in a seemingly interminable circle-of-life cycle. Initially, severe environmental disturbances reduce species diversity, but life eventually reemerges. When this process begins in a practically lifeless area where soil has not yet formed, it is called primary succession. The only organisms initially present are usually prokaryotes and protists, and lichens and mosses are commonly the first macroscopic photosynthesizers on the scene. Soil eventually develops as rocks weather and organic matter from the decomposed remains of the first colonizers begins to accumulate. Once soil is present, lichens and mosses are usually overgrown by grasses, shrubs, and trees that sprout from seeds blown in from nearby areas or carried into the area by animals. Secondary succession occurs when an existing community has been cleared by some disturbance that leaves the soil intact, as in Yellowstone following the 1988 fires. Communities subject to these kinds of disturbances recover more quickly than those in which a disturbance has wiped out most of the native, resident life. Nevertheless, life always resurges.

Fossil evidence indicates that diversity of life has increased after each of the five big mass extinctions, due to adaptive radiations, periods of evolutionary change in which groups of organisms diversify into many new species whose adaptations facilitate the creation and development of new niches in their communities. Several of these radiations gave rise to adaptations that facilitated life on land. The radiation of land plants, for example, is associated with key adaptations, such as vascular systems to support against gravity and waxy cuticles to protect leaves from water loss. Even after events as devastating as mass extinctions, life, resilient as it is, picks up the pieces and begins to rebuild like the phoenix rising from the ashes.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that destruction and creation go hand in hand.
Using a computer simulation, Cardiff University astronomer Scott Balfour and his colleagues have recently reproduced the iconic and aptly named Pillars of Creation, a trio of gas columns located inside the Milky Way’s Eagle Nebula. The pillars themselves are the product of a massive nearby O-type star, but the formation of these star-creating factories has been unclear until now. O-stars are the universe’s largest, hottest stars, which lead very short lives and wreak havoc upon death. Balfour’s simulation shows that O-stars not only initiate the creation of stars in their nearby vicinity but also destroy star-forming clouds by compressing surrounding gas to initiate the birth of stars prematurely.

We are all star dust.
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the creative power of destruction is the fact that our very existence is predicated upon the occurrence of a very destructive event: the death of a star, which sometimes results in a supernova. In the beginning was hydrogen, the simplest atom that exists. Only a star is capable of synthesizing heavier elements under extreme temperatures and pressures. Near the end of their lives, heavy-mass stars collapse and explode, scattering carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other heavy elements across the galaxy. As Carl Sagan famously said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, and the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.” We are literally star stuff. NASA Astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller eloquently explains the beautifully violent act by which we come into being:

Through the Looking Glass of Science

IMG_4942 IMG_4935
“The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.”
―George Sand

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
―William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you.”
―Neil deGrasse Tyson

1) Science is a tool which indiscriminately allows us to obtain a greater understanding of the laws dictating the phenomena in our world and the universe at large.

The goal of science is to illuminate fundamental truths concerning the workings of the universe. As NPR blogger Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.” More than a subject, a discipline, or a field of study, science is a lens through which we can perceive our surroundings. As British biologist Lewis Wolpert expounded, “I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is.”

2) Closely attached to the practice of science is the cultivation of skepticism and the need for empirical evidence.

“The skeptic does not mean he who doubts, but he who investigates or researches, as opposed to he who asserts and thinks that he has found.”
―Miguel de Unamuno

“A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable.”
―Carl Sagan

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Richard Feynman

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”
Stuart Firestein

Much of the beauty of science lies in its objectivity. Science advances on a foundation rooted in empirical observation, painstaking data collection, accuracy, and reproducibility. Commitment to the scientific method is not a matter of faith. That being said…

3) Science is nourished not only by reason and observation but also by imagination. Science makes use of that wonderful blend of curiosity, skepticism, and imagination to create and innovate.

I believe in intuition and inspiration…Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorismsp. 97 (1931)

“It is, I admit, mere imagination; but how often is imagination the mother of truth?”
Sherlock HolmesThe Valley of Fear

“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it…No! Don’t laugh―it’s really true!”
Richard Feynman

“It is important, at the present time, to bear in mind that the human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.”
―Victor Hugo, “William Shakespeare”

Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in the department of physiology at Oxford University, writes about the complementarity between knowledge and imagination: “At both group and individual levels, knowledge facilitates community and continuity, while imagination facilitates change. Knowledge binds us to a sometimes-oppressive existence; imagination helps us escape it. However, imagination evolved as a tool for facilitating survival. Imagining, we take a step beyond what we know into the future or into another world. We see alternatives and possibilities; we work out what we need to reach our goals.”

Imagination and creativity often fuel the fires of scientific innovation. In the process, ideas previously considered impossible often become reality.

4) Science only adds to the mystery, wonder, and excitement; it cannot subtract. Sometimes, not having all the answers is part of the fun.

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
―Richard Feynman

“The possession of knowledge does not kill
the sense of wonder and mystery.
There is always more mystery.”
―Anaïs Nin

“Music and physics are nourished by the same sort of longing.”
―Einstein’s character, Einstein and Eddington

 When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

 When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
 When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
 When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
       measure them;
 When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
       applause in the lecture-room,
 How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
 Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
 In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
 Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

–Walt Whitman

The poem that Joan Feynman references is actually written by Walt Whitman. Nevertheless, I couldn’t disagree more with its fundamental claim: that science somehow robs nature of all its wonder and beauty. On the contrary, I feel that the science and math behind the laws of nature have a certain elegance of their own. The scientific beautifully complements the aesthetic, and for this reason, I will never be a proponent for the perpetuation of the “two worlds” ideology; science and the arts are two sides of the same coin. Rather than reduce the universe to a bunch of facts and figures, science frees the mind to experience the universe in all its glorious fullness, as it really is.

Friday the 13th Brings Full Honey Moon

honey moon

The June 2013 “Honey Moon” Rising (Photo credit: Stephen Rahn)

Triskaidekaphobics may be staying indoors this Friday, but this Friday the 13th also brings a beautiful celestial event. This Friday the 13th will coincide with a full honey moon, which will reach full moon phase at 12:13 a.m. EDT on Friday morning for eastern North America. However, its honey hues will shine most brightly in the early evening.

The amber color is due to the scattering of longer wavelengths of light by dust and pollution in our atmosphere. “It is a similar phenomenon as seen at sunset, when sunlight is scattered towards the red end of the spectrum, making the sun’s disk appear orange-red to the naked-eye,” says astronomer Raminder Singh Samra of the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

The monthly full moon always appears as a large disk, but because its orbit around the Earth is elliptical rather than perfectly circular, there are times in the lunar cycle when the moon is at its shortest distance from Earth (called perigee), some 224,976 miles away (apogee refers to its farthest distance from Earth).

This month the perigee just happens to coincide with the full phase, which may make it appear unusually large to sky-watchers. “The moon illusion should be more prominent during this full moon as it will graze closer to the horizon than at any other time of the year,” Samra says. “This will make the moon appear more amber than other full moons of the year.

A full moon coinciding on Friday the 13th is not all that uncommon, occurring every three or so years. But a honey moon coinciding with Friday the 13th is rare, last occurring on June 13, 1919, according to Universe Today. The next one won’t occur until June 13, 2098.

honey moon, Saturn

The rising Moon just hours before full phase on Thursday June 12th. Note Saturn to the upper right. (Image Credit: Universe Today)