Monday, November 3, 2008

In which I place myself beyond the pale of civilised discourse

Firstly, an observation on scientific models, coagulated in the enthralling world of emulsion polymerisation:

Whenever you are trying to model some complex phenomenon, the fit of the model to the data can be improved by adding more adjustable parameters. A complex phenomenon will usually be dependent on a large number of factors, but the fact that the model fits the data better when you incorporate an additional factor may or may not mean that new factor is important: it might just mean that the additional parameter(s) you have incorporated are improving your fit. This is another thing the David Sangster told me: ‘With enough adjustable parameters, you can fit a camel.’

So there is a tension between the complete model, which contains all the factors that ought to be physically important – but might be meaningless because of all the guesstimated parameters you have put in to quantify these factors- and the simple model, which ignores things that might be physically important, but also avoids adjustable parameters. If you go too far in one direction, you get a model that can fit any possible data; too far the other, you get the well-known ‘assume a spherical horse’ punchline.

This also means that when you are modelling a complex phenomenon, you will tend to base your model on the processes that are best known, where you don’t have to pick numbers out of the air for your adjustable parameters, and you will ignore if you possibly can the role played by processes that are less understood, which would force you to bring in rubbery parameters.

Now to place myself beyond the pale. Some time ago I made the assertion:

‘Anthropogenic global warming is a fact, but we shouldn’t do anything about it.’

The second part of this statement is a considered opinion, based on facts and reasoned deductions from them. The first part of this statement, I have realised over the last few months, is based on an irrational mood.

That is: in the laboratory, and considering the atmospheres of the planets in toto, there is a perfectly splendid mechanism by which increasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide should increase temperatures. It is a really good mechanism, based on rock-solid physics. But is there any evidence that this mechanism is responsible for observed temperature change globally? Evidence, in the scientific sense, is where a model has predictive value: it does not just fit the data we have, but tells us what future data is going to look like. I did not examine this question before I made the statement above. Instead, I relied on the irrational mood that it seemed like wishful thinking that there was some sort of feedback mechanism providentially cancelling out this Greenhouse warming effect.

Let us consider these two famous graphs:

What do they tell us? They show us a correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and average global temperature. They also tells us, very clearly, that there are factors other than carbon dioxide which contribute to the world’s temperature.

We could also draw graphs that show some sort of a correlation between sunspot activity and global temperature, and earthshine and global temperature, and the number of pirates and global temperature. The last of these three graphs would be a joke circulated by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The other two are graphs where it is easy to construct a testable mechanism for how the correlation might work. These mechanisms are not as solid or as well understood as the Greenhouse mechanism. They rely on more rubbery adjustable parameters. If we ignore them, do we have a spherical horse? If we include them, do we have a camel?

What is signal, and what is noise, in the Hadcrut3 temperature curve?

An idea that was in fashion when I was an undergraduate was the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock. You don’t hear much about it nowadays. You might remember that it was all about negative feedbacks keeping the global ecosystem in balance, life keeping things tickety-boo for life. I bring it up here as a hand-waving justification for a recent shift in my irrational mood: given that there is a grain of truth in Lovelock’s ideas, it now seems to me reasonably likely that there would be a negative feedback mechanism tending to minimise the effects of any carbon dioxide we add to the air.

I must now revise my assertion:

‘Anthropogenic global warming is a conjecture with limited predictive value, and we shouldn’t do anything about it.’

And I have to apologise for some of the slighting references to global warming denialists I have made previously.

And unfortunately I have nerfed one of the major motivations for establishing this blog, which was to use any perceived authority associated with my real name to push the line that we shouldn’t take any action to stop anthropogenic global warming. By denying AGW to be a fact, I have placed myself outside the pale of civilised discourse and disqualified myself from making any statements on the issue that will be taken seriously.

Son cosas de la vida…

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

14% more First Year students agree balancing redox equations is fun!

In a striking improvement over last year's already high student enthusiasm for balancing redox equations, the proportion of students agreeing that balancing redox equations is fun has risen to 83%!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A little note about chain transfer to butyl methacrylate

For good or evil, this paper, which I began writing in 1999 at the request of Professor Bob Gilbert, is finally published. It is a tremendous pleasure to finally be a co-author with David Sangster, the eminence d'or of Australian polymer science. He is the source of the quote which informs my every waking action:

'Just because the model fits the data, it doesn't mean the model is true.'

I have today (10/11/09) found a splendid biography of David Sangster on the website of the University of Sydney.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Royal Society Discussion Paper, Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Part Two.

The RSC discussion paper explains the division of ocean waters between an upper zone, where calcium carbonate formation is possible, and a colder lower zone, where it is not possible. The fact that mass transport between these zones is very slow is stressed. The paper does not actually give a pH profile of the ocean, but here is one:

(The little dark dots are the data from today; the big circles are attempts to figure out the situation at various times in the past, which is what the paper I sourced this from is about.)

Note that the vast majority of the volume of the ocean is cold, and relatively acidic. This deep ocean is where an enormous amount of carbon is stored. Transport of carbon dioxide out of or into this layer will not be controlled by thermodynamics (i. e., where carbon dioxide it would most dearly love to be), but by kinetics (i. e., how fast it can get there). Thus, it does not matter to this zone whether or not we are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate unparalleled in Earth’s history or not, because that will not control how fast it gets there. It has to run the gauntlet of the warm water- where it may or may not be converted into calcium carbonate- first.

Remember the figures in the last post on how the carbonic acid equilibria change with temperature. I am now going to make the assertion- which I should now go out and try to verify- that the deep ocean is more acidic *because* it is cold.

To qualify this as-yet-unverified assertion of mine, I should say that I have not yet found any data on the pressure dependence of the pKa values in solutions of reasonable ionic strength, which is also likely to be important.

I suggest that the temperature gradient of the ocean is probably what generates the pH profile, and because transport of carbon dioxide into or out of the ocean is slow compared to how much is already there, it is the temperature dependence of the carbonic acid equilibria which control the speciation observed. Note also that the boundary between the carbonate-forming zone and the non-carbonate forming zone, from our figures below showing what the equilibria do, is going to be dependent both on the pH of the upper layers and their temperature.

Now… if climate change means anything, it means the oceans warming up. Heating the ocean and reducing the pH will pull the carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium in different directions. I don’t know which is likely to be more significant.

Because the historical record does not show carbon dioxide spouting out of the ocean immediately as temperature increases, but lagging about 1000 years, I am not at all worried about degassing of carbon dioxide starting some feedback loop of badness : until that cold lower ocean where most all of the carbonic acid species are sitting warms up, there is no reason for significant amounts of carbon dioxide to leave the ocean. That is, if degassing of the ocean *is* the reason for the increase in carbon dioxide lagging historical temperature changes. It might not be.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Royal Society Discussion Paper, Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Part One.

My thoughts keep returning to the ‘de-alkalinisation of the oceans’. I started thinking about this the other day, first because I came across that article on coccolithophores in Science, and second because one of my students is writing a review article on the use of polymer additives to stop scale formation in desalination plants. The main scales formed in these plants are calcium sulfate at high temperatures, but at somewhat lower temperatures calcium carbonate or magnesium hydroxide.

The first thing you want to know about, if you want to stop scale forming, is what are the characteristics of the solution it is forming from. So early on in the draft appears this table:

(TDS is ‘total dissolved solids’.)

I went back and had another look at the Royal Society discussion paper that I referenced before. This is the paper referenced everywhere in the web where people are fretting about ocean de-alkalinisation. The range of pH values quoted in this table is greater than the range shown in the pretty map in the Royal Society report. In fact, the range of pH values in this table is greater than the size of the maximum change in surface water pH they predict for Figure 5.

So my first thought was, if changes in surface seawater alkalinity are likely to cause bad effects, we ought to be able to see these effects already in ‘canary in the coalmine’ water bodies- shallow, warm places like the Persian Gulf. The reefs there don’t seem to be in particularly good shape but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that seawater alkalinisation is contributing to their woes. Anyway, this table got me thinking about the problem again.

In discussing the formation of calcium carbonate scale, my student had to talk about the dependence of the equilibrium constants K1 and K2 on temperature and the total ionic strength of the solution, and had referenced this paper by Millero et al., where the following figure appears:

The Millero et al. paper also summarises data from a lot of previous work and gets it all to fall on the same line- see this, for instance:

In case you don’t remember,

pKa = –log10(Ka),

and in this case, K1 is the equilibrium constant for the reaction:

H2CO3 HCO3 + H+

and K2 is the equilibrium constant for this reaction:

HCO3 CO32– + H+

These figures are telling us that in seawater (where I0.5 ~ 0.83), the equilibrium position of both these reactions is further over to the right hand side than if they were happening in common or garden distilled water. And they also tell us that the warmer the water, the further the equilibrium will be over to the right hand side as well.

I plotted up a graph showing how the speciation of pH should change in seawater using the values in this paper and got this figure:

The Royal Society Figure 2 is pretty much the same as mine. It shows carbonate kicking in at a slightly lower pH, but there are different K2 values floating around in the literature and I'm not sure what value they used.

Zooming in on the pH range important for discussing what is going on in the oceans:

Getting rid of the log scale, and looking at the carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium only:

More to follow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

C'est la vie

A while ago the prolific Anonymous asked me:

What do you think about the de-alkalinisation of the oceans. Anything ruinously doom and gloom possible there? Is adaptation of water species quick enough by your reckoning?

I have recently been thinking about this a lot, due to work I am doing on calcium carbonate formation in desalination plants, and will offer a substantial critique of this particular bugbear soon.

But in the meantime, I came across this nifty figure in Science the other day and thought I would share it with you. If someone had asked me, 'how will marine organisms respond to changes in total carbonic acid species concentration?', I like to think I would have been prescient enough to draw a figure like this one. Find a niche and fill it: such is the way of living things!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Simplicio: Have you heard? The Powers wish to reduce the amount we teach, so that we will have more time for research, and thus will produce more and better research.

Sagredo: I think the second part of your syllogism does not follow from the first.

Simplicio: Why, how is that?

Sagredo: One of us cannot have more than twenty-four hours in a day. But if one has a single intelligent and dedicated postgraduate student, then one has forty-eight. If one has two, one has seventy-two, and so forth. It is the many hours that come from having many students that enable us to produce more and better research.

Simplicio: True, but I cannot see how having a few more hours for research can hurt us.

Sagredo: Where do you suppose postgraduate students come from?

Simplicio: Most of them are from places like Tartary and Hind, are they not?

Sagredo: Yes, many of them are. They are attracted from diverse foreign lands by the splendour of the learning in our land. But many other places of learning seek also to attract them, and day by day the scholars of their own lands grow wealthier and more astute, so that one day no more will come to us.

Simplicio: That would be a calamity! So where else do they come from?

Sagredo: We raise them here, by teaching undergraduates.

Simplicio: Aha! There is no problem, then. Under the new system we will surely continue to teach undergraduates.

Sagredo: Simplicio, do you suppose all undergraduates are suitable to become postgraduates?

Simplicio: I guess not. Some are damnably simple.

Sagredo: Yes, it is only the few who hunger and thirst for knowledge that are suitable to become postgraduates. If we give our undergraduates half as much as we did before, and other places of learning continue to offer a full cup of learning, where will undergraduates like that go?

Simplicio: You think they will not come here?

Sagredo: Many of them will not.

Simplicio: But surely there are many who would not leave our lovely place of learning for the City of Dreadful Night or other distant places?

Sagredo: Yes, we must pin our hopes on such as those. But consider: if we teach them half as much, what will we need to do when they commence as postgraduate students?

Simplicio: I am not sure. I recall there are forms to fill out?

Sagredo: Besides that. We must perforce teach them the other half, if they are to work as well as postgraduates in the City of Dreadful Night work. And when we have done that, what must we do?

Simplicio: I suppose we must fill in some more forms.

Sagredo: Yes, for by then the first year of their candidature will be over.

Simplicio: It would seem, then, that you think this change will diminish our chances of doing more and better research, rather than increase them?

Sagredo: Most certainly. Why would a student who would make a good postgraduate in Physics or Chemistry do an undergraduate degree at a place of learning that does not take that discipline seriously?

Simplicio: Then I suppose the Powers wish to reduce our teaching hours for some other reason?

Sagredo; That is what I had thought.

Simplicio: Perhaps it is that they must be reduced because of this thing that has come from Bologna?

Sagredo; Ah, but the places of learning that have already gone down that path teach many more hours than we do.

Simplicio: Hmm. Perhaps it is, Sagredo, that those studies they wish to cut are only those where the numbers of undergraduates have been falling, so that we may conserve our resources, as our wealth wanes?

Sagredo: That would be a sensible course of action- but you see, Simplicio, it is the studies where numbers of undergraduates are holding steady that the Powers wish to cut back.

Simplicio: Ah.I see. Perhaps- no, that makes no sense. (sighs)
I wish Salviati was here to explain what was going on.

Sagredo: So do I, Simplicio.

Simplicio: It is a pity the Powers never replaced him, when he took his renowned research group to Brescia...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two Cultures are Better than One

I have been asked to read this document in preparation for a meeting of the School Research Committee. It would be cruel to ask you to do so as well, but if you want to, please go ahead. It is basically a proposal for muddling the 'Two Cultures' back together in a porridge by structuring humanities studies around 'evolutionary theory' and stressing that 'evolutionary theory' is a 'form of narrative that functions within its social and historical context'.

I assert that:

Inappropriately mixing poorly-thought-out ideas from biology with the humanities gave us the First World War, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.

Inappropriately mixing poorly-thought-out ideas from the humanities with biology gave us the only comparable man-made catastrophe of the second half of the 20th century, the famine associated with Mao's 'Great Leap Forward'.

Let's not go there.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Things I don’t understand: The ‘Collapse’ of the Wavefunction

(NB: Let it not be supposed that the long delay since I last wrote something headed ‘Things I don’t understand’ means that there are not many, many, many, many other things that I don’t understand.)

In chemistry, the results of quantum mechanics that we are interested in are spectra. Whether these are lines in the ultraviolet/visible region corresponding to transitions between electronic states, or lines in the infrared region corresponding to transitions between vibrational states, or lines in the microwave region corresponding to transitions between rotational states, they are all transitions between energy states which are quite nicely defined.

We cannot ‘observe’ a chemical system in a particular state. We do not make a ‘measurement’ to see what state it is in. What we observe, what we measure, is its transition from one state to another. It seems entirely useless, as well as nonsensical, to say that a particular molecule was not in its first excited vibrational state until we hit it with a photon to give an anti-Stokes Raman peak.

In fact I am really quite vague about what sort of experiment you would do, in the traditional orthodox quantum mechanical sense, to measure the state of a system in such a way that its wavefunction ‘collapses’.

I don’t like the ugly discontinuity that the ‘collapse’ of a wavefunction introduces to quantum theory.

I don’t like the appearance of a privileged status for an ‘observer’ it introduces.

I especially don’t like the whole elaborate mass of New Age piffle that has been erected on this privileged status, a mass which has infected and compromised the otherwise splendid ouevre of Greg Egan, for instance.

A while ago I first came across de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory, and was impressed in my naive chemist’s way by the straightforward way it cut through the paradoxicality of the two-slit experiment. I wanted to know how this model had been developed since de Broglie cast it aside, and how the ‘collapse of the wavefunction’ looked in the pilot wave model. I couldn’t find anything then, because I didn’t know enough to look for the ‘de Broglie-Bohm’ model.

Apparently the collapse of the wavefunction is not a problem in the de Broglie-Bohm model. So it is non-local. Big deal. Every 1s hydrogen orbital wavefunction we tell our first year students about has a non-zero value at every point in the universe (though Excel, bless its heart, says with 15 digit precision that it is zero more than about a nanometre away from the nucleus). Better non-locality than mystical Copenhagen interpretation waffle about an ‘observer’, or worse yet, the deeply dippy ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation.

But why the de Broglie-Bohm model doesn’t get into trouble with the wavefunction collapsing- that’s something I don’t yet understand.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Down to four out of six

This letter, to The Australian's Higher Education Supplement, didn't get published either. So here it is:

I was saddened to read Barry Brook's endorsement of the cry 'Don't feed the troll!' If you are in the business of science education, you should treat every comment on your blog as a legitimate inquiry from a seeker-after-truth and respond politely. If your science is good, it will be obvious to your other readers if their response is to "sidestep valid critiques and ignore counter-evidence". If your science is good, it also doesn't matter how many times you repeat yourself. You will be improving the delivery of your message all the time.

It doesn't do any good to call people who disagree with you names ("sceptics, denialists, contrarians, delayers or delusionists" ... "cut of the same anti-intellectual cloth") or accuse them of being on the take ("Groups with vested interests in business as usual..."). If you are trying to communicate with those who are not already in your camp, such ad hominem attacks are worse than useless.

I thought it was unfortunate that an article entitled 'Science must prevail' contained no actual science. A calm 622 words outlining the physical mechanism of the Greenhouse Effect and the observational evidence for anthropogenic global warming would have been a much better use of space.

Best regards,

Chris Fellows

Monday, June 9, 2008


I heard this on the radio this morning.

I direct your attention to this fragment in particular: can creep along just using the electric motor which is great, you have zero emissions...

Well, no, if you creep along just using the electric motor, eventually you will run out and stop moving. From my vague understanding of how these things work, you need to run the gasoline engine to charge up the batteries.

I worry how much these sort of fuel-efficient vehicles are affected by what we might call the 'low-calorie pretzel' effect. The diet snack food has fewer calories, so you eat more of it. You are already 'doing the right thing' by driving your gee-whiz environment-friendly car, so you take it on trips where a person with a vehicle which is more expensive to run might walk, bike, or use public transport to save money...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

We are our most valuable resource

The monthly publication of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Chemistry in Australia, has just printed my reply to an article they reprinted from Chemical and Engineering News a few months ago. It is not on the Web, and I don't have the scanner attached at the moment, but this is what I said:

Just felt compelled to write in response to the reprinted article by Rudy Baum, ‘Too many people?’, in ‘Your say’.

I grew up in the desert of Arizona, and I too have been saddened to see that landscape submerged under urban sprawl. I have no doubt that rising global temperatures will shift Earth’s arid bands further from the equator, making Victorian rangelands and many other environments more marginal for agriculture. I mourn every species lost as we humans have spread across the arid landscapes of America and Australia with our livestock and feral animals.

However, I think there is no evidence whatsoever that we need a ‘new economic paradigm’. In my lifetime, I have seen our current economic paradigm deliver incredible benefits to the peoples of Asia, and more and more countries reach a standard of living where responsible environmental management can become a duty, rather than an unaffordable luxury. As standards of living rise, population growth rates fall. In Europe today I understand only Albania and Iceland have birth rates above replacement level. Even countries like Iran are rapidly nearing zero population growth. At some point in the next fifty years, on current trends, world population growth is going to stop. This will be long before we reach the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Long before we even come close.

The suburbs of Phoenix may be ugly, but the density of population in the Arizona deserts is less than historical population densities in many Asian deserts. Furthermore, population density need not correlate directly with environmental degradation. Those suburbanites are not grazing goats in the desert. They are not collecting firewood there. I confidently venture that they are using much less water per capita than Australian suburbanites are. You would need thousands of them to make the same impact as one irrigated cotton farm- cotton farms like the ones that used to line the highway between Tucson and Phoenix, and which were all gone the last time I was there.

Not long ago I visited another desert landscape rapidly being covered by urban sprawl, in Dubai. I didn’t find it depressing. I found it exhilarating, and was filled with wonder at the capacity of human beings to create, to build, to adapt. As we humans change the world, we adapt to the changes we make. The richer we are, and the better-educated we are, the better we adapt.

There is no need to run around calling for a new economic paradigm. Why should anyone listen to us, anyway? We have no special expertise in social engineering. If we want to change the world, let us do it in the time-honoured way that scientists have been changing the world for centuries: by figuring out interesting things about the universe that can be used to solve technical problems. There are cost-neutral or cost-saving actions that we can take to reduce the waste associated with our economic system by orders of magnitude. All that is required is that we continue to think imaginatively, and in an evidence-based way.

I guess what I am trying to say can be summed up in the words: ‘half full, not half empty’. Even the shift in the arid bands further from the equator is very far from being an unmitigated catastrophe - when was the last time you heard about drought in the Sahel?

(Why was there a reprinted editorial from Chemical & Engineering News in ‘Your say’, anyway? Don’t we have any opinions of our own, making it necessary for us to import American ones? I at least have been a naturalised Australian since 1996.)

Best regards,

Chris Fellows MRACI

Unsafe at any speed

Our Chancellor has said:

'UNE is lagging behind all other Australian Universities in one area – it is the most dependent on Federal Government grants. I perceive this as a high risk – and one that must be quickly addressed by opening up and attracting other sources of funding, particularly in the areas of research and development, from sources other than the Federal government.'

It has always been true that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'.

But given that the piper must be paid by someone, what entity should do so?

I think it is obvious that it should be the entity that most shares the values of and is most accountable to those listening to the tune. An ancient and venerable private university ought perhaps to be funded by rich alumni. A Catholic university ought to be funded by the Catholic Church. And a public university ought to be funded by the voters.

For a regional university, the obvious source of funding which will be accountable to stakeholders will be the State Government. For a university with pretensions to national importance, the Federal Government is just as good. It is not 'high risk' for a public university to be funded by the Government. The public sector is, rightly or wrongly, cushioned against the slings and arrows of the market. This is why the economy of a city like Canberra is so placid and stable compared to the economy of a city like Cairns. And public funding cannot be withheld or redirected on ideological or economic grounds with the same ease as other sources of funding- because ultimately, the State and Federal Governments are accountable to the electorate.

It is high risk for a public University to receive a large proportion of its funding from:

* Corporations which are accountable ultimately to institutional shareholders overseas, rather than the Australian electorate.

* Overseas fee-paying students whose numbers will wax and wane with the vagaries of the market and the whims of foreign governments.

Parenthetically, I am one of those staff members who have no confidence in the Chancellor. He is not properly carrying out the task he was appointed to do (for instance, he has attended only 13 of the last 24 graduation ceremonies) and instead he is trying to do a job he was not appointed to do, subverting the authority of the Vice-Chancellor. He should go. Now.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Show me the metabolism! Part Three.

Kauffman is chiefly concerned with reproduction as the defining feature of life. He makes only a superficial discussion of metabolism that does not consider its central thermodynamic requirements. But ultimately, metabolism is what is most important. Without petrol, the most splendidly engineered automobile will just sit there. Without a plausible metabolism, the most elegant net of autocatalytic reactions is an empty exercise in symbol manipulation.

Kauffman’s network and Eigen's hypercycles are susceptible to the well-known ‘747 Argument’ of Fred Hoyle et al. and can only plausibly have arisen in two ways:

(1) Through a long and complicated process of prebiotic development containing all the most interesting parts of the story of the origin of life.

(2) As a system created by someone or something.

I don’t intend this as an argument in favour of intelligent design [see definition 1], still less of Intelligent Design [see definition 2]. Ockham’s razor suggests we should stick with explanation (1) unless we should find some very compelling evidence for (2). At any rate, the essential requirements of the pre-biotic processes leading to life based on the chemistry we know are going to be the same as the requirements of pre-biotic processes leading to life based on different chemistry.

What I am arguing is that both the ‘RNA world’ and the ‘Protein world’ are historically late phenomena, and that the critical events for the origin of life lie much deeper. There is no reason to expect that living systems today preserve the same chemistry of the first living systems. It makes much more sense that we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, as one phase of pre-biotic evolution succeeded another, perhaps as one phase of pre-DNA-life succeeded another. At each stage, we have doubtless destroyed our history more effectively than any Red Guards- for all less successful implementations of life qualify as food. Looking at RNA and Protein is the equivalent of looking under the streetlight for the keys we dropped out in the darkness.

It is as though we are trying to reconstruct the invention of the telegraph, knowing only the mobile phone. Arguing about whether RNA or Protein came first is something like arguing: Which came first, the handset, or the system of towers dotting the landscape?

As far as the ultimate origin of life is concerned, it is useless to try and work backwards. We need to work forwards, by considering the necessary requirements for a CSCP to arise and where and how such a system might realistically arise. If we want to understand where chemicals came from, chemistry is useless to us. We need to use physics. If we are researching the origins of culture, anthropology itself is little help. We need to use evolutionary biology. If we are researching the origins of life, then biochemistry- with its specific, fragile, optimised reactions, the product of ever-so-many years of pre-biotic and biotic evolution- is not the place to start. We need to plant ourselves on a solid base of physical chemistry, stop worrying about designing elaborate systems for allowing pre-biotic reproduction, and concentrate on nutting out a possible proto-proto-metabolism simple enough to arise spontaneously.

Definition 1: ‘intelligent design’ = ‘life as we know it was created by entities based on some different sort of chemistry’

Definition 2: ‘Intelligent Design’ = ‘life as we know it was created by God in some ‘supernatural’ fashion’

Show me the metabolism! Part Two.

What are the requirements a catalytic system of complex polymers (CSCP) must have in order to be relevant to the origin of life?

The CSCP must be secured from the overwhelming tendency of matter and energy to become more randomly distributed in the universe.

Condition 1: An Edge.

The easy part of securing the CSCP from the tendency of matter and energy to become more randomly distributed is the barrier to separate the system from the surroundings: something to draw a surface around the CSCP and keep it together. Kauffman mentions vesicles and protein coacervates as possible CSCP microcontainers for the early terrestrial environment, and plenty of other possibilities have been canvassed. It is not very hard to think of a plausible container that could possibly arise to keep polymers in.

Condition 2: A Proto-metabolism.

The hard part is allowing the CSCP to increase the disorder of its surroundings in order to persist in time. The energy to maintain the CSCP must be coming from somewhere. The CSCP must be part of an overall system of spontaneous reactions that is converting a relatively unstable chemical reactant (or reactants) into a relatively stable chemical product (or products). The CSCP polymers must be intermediates in this net of spontaneous chemical reactions, somewhere on the path between energy-rich ‘food’ and energy-poor ‘waste’.

Condition 3: A Selectively Permeable Edge.

The energetic requirements of this net of reactions also make the easy part- the physical barrier around the CSCP- less easy. The low molecular weight intermediates have to stay in, not just the polymers. The ‘food’ has to get in. The ‘waste’ has to get out. Some selectivity is therefore required in the barrier separating the system from the surroundings. Biological membranes have evolved extraordinarily complex ways of getting the right things in and keeping the wrong things out. I am having a devil of a time trying to make a non-biological membrane to do just one thing: let ethanol through more readily than water. The tendency of matter and energy to become more randomly distributed makes generation of selective membranes a tricky business.

Condition 4: A Complexifiable Proto-Metabolism.

Not just any thermodynamically favourable driving reaction will do. This central driving reaction must proceed relatively slowly, so there are plenty of intermediate molecules around. This reaction must also have many steps, with many intermediates capable of being transformed in various ways. A great deal of complexification of the net of reactions must take place before we arrive at a CSCP. Before a CSCP can form, all of its constituent parts must be present as intermediates in this net of thermodynamically favourable reactions. I have only shown a few intermediates in the picture, but very many are required...and the relative sizes of the energy barriers and depths of the energy wells must be such that reasonable quantities of all the substrates present for making catalytic polymers are present.

I believe these requirements allowing a CSCP to persist in space and time are very difficult to meet. Nothing approaching them has ever been observed, except in two instances:

(1) Living systems

(2) Systems we have designed ourselves with a great deal of effort.

The question of how systems meeting these requirements can spontaneously arise is the key question for the origin of life.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Show me the metabolism! Part One.

Being some comments on ‘The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution’, by Stuart A. Kauffman.

I thought I would expand my central criticism of Kauffman’s model a bit in the hope of clarifying what I was saying and starting a fruitful discussion.

My thesis is that the network of catalytic polymers and substrates that Kauffman postulates as an initial self-organising complex system which can give rise to more lifelike systems is so inordinately complex and unlikely that it in no way addresses the crucial problem of the origin of life.

Specifically, what is first needed is not a mechanism for self-replication and complexification, but a plausible metabolism enabling some tiny corner of the universe to dump entropy outside itself and accumulate order within.

My initial statement of the thesis:

Marco sometimes has to contend with people who find the evolutionary transition monkey → man as implausible as the transition unlife → life. If I were arguing with one of those people, then a clear exposition of how a ‘primordial protoplasmic globule’ (PPG) might have unfolded into the bewildering variety of life we know on Earth today might be of value. In the 19th century, or in the darker corners of the 21st century, a layman might suppose a PPG simple enough to have arisen spontaneously. For such a layman, an exposition of the pageant of evolution from the PPG to the diverse biosphere we see around us might seem to be a complete materialist description of the history of life.

To the biologist, this pageant is far from a complete description. The biologist knows the complexity of the prokaryote, the PPG, and finds the unfolding of its descendants almost trivial. The PPG is not the simple explanation: it is the complicated thing that needs to be explained.

In a similar way, to the chemist, the unfolding of Kauffman’s ‘complex system of catalytic polymers’ (CSCP) to give rise to something recognisable as life seems almost trivial. The CSCP is the complicated thing that needs to be explained.

Kauffman’s statement: ‘the origin of life, rather than being vastly improbable, is instead an expected collective property of a complex system of catalytic polymers and the molecules on which they act’ should become: ‘the origin of life, rather than being vastly improbable, is instead an expected collective property of a vastly improbable complex system of catalytic polymers and the molecules on which they act’.

I do not think I am alone here. I think if you were to show Kauffman’s system to any chemist anywhere in the world, there is a 99% probability they would find it unsatisfactory. Not because such a system could not exist, but because ‘it just happened’ is an entirely implausible explanation for its existence. Saying 'it just happened' is hardly more satisfactory than pointing at a functioning cell and saying 'it just happened'. (The remaining 1% would be those who have a quasi-religious faith in the self-organising properties of matter.)

Any chemist would ask: 'What is driving this cycle of reactions? Where is the energy coming from? What is preventing this system from dissipating?'

There is no such thing as 'Order for Free'. That is the Law. If you want order at point A, you need to dump your disorder at points not-A. Should anyone claim there is such a thing as 'Order for Free', let them be unto you even as the homeopaths and the creationists.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Some graduation ceremonies are very dull. Others are dead interesting, and provide enough material for numerous anecdotes. If you are Jenny, you already know two anecdotes about the graduation ceremony I went to a few weekends back. This is a third one.

The main speaker at the graduation was John Ellice-Flint, distinguished alumnus, ex-CEO of Santos, and 2020 summiteer. He talked about climate change. He did it ably enough that he never had me offside. I shall give a very rough paraphrase of his speech, as it is not the done thing to take notes, and my memory is not what it once was.

He didn’t waste any time emoting about environmental catastrophe, and stated at the outset that he was going to set to one side the whole debate about the nature and extent of global warming.

He pointed out that the large developing nations were not going to abandon fossil fuels, whatever we did: we would have to accept that fossil fuels were going to be a major part of the world energy mix for some time to come.

He gave an internet factoid about the number of wind turbines China would have to build every day in order to equal the number of coal-fired power plants it was building.

He said the only way we could hope to make an impact on carbon dioxide emissions in the short-term was to throw barrow-loads of money at scientists and engineers- the one outcome of Global Warming hysteria that I have always felt to be an unqualified good.

He said he felt confident that the new government would rise to the challenge of providing these barrow-loads of money, and that in achieving world-class expertise in these areas Australia would soon earn it back many times over.

He talked a bit more about renewables, and a bit more about carbon-capture. I forget exactly what he said. I was waiting for him to mention the ‘N’ word.

But he didn’t!

Not once.

The word ‘nuclear’ did not pass his lips.

He is obviously on top of the whole big picture of greenhouse-gas abatement. He is obviously a clever bloke. He is obviously well-connected.

And it is pretty obvious that the nuclear option is one that is going to be adopted by a lot of our neighbours in our Near North, whether or not an ice age starts tomorrow, because we are going to run out of coal eventually, no matter how clean it is. It seemed obvious to me that the arguments he made with respect to developing expertise in renewables and carbon-capture applied equally well to expertise in nuclear power. And it seems obvious to me that since we are already involved in the nuclear industry as a supplier of uranium, we have not only an economic opportunity but a moral duty to take responsibility for the whole fuel cycle: to provide processed fuel to our customers (to reduce proliferation concerns) and to take back their waste (because it was ours to begin with, because we have ideal political and geological conditions to store it, and again, to reduce proliferation concerns).

But Mr Ellice-Flint didn’t mention nuclear power at all.

I am sure it didn’t just slip his mind.

I am sure he had some perfectly good reasons not to mention it.

But unfortunately, by not mentioning it, he couldn’t help but come across as someone pushing a narrow carbon-capture agenda, rather than an honest broker surveying the challenges of our energy future.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Myth of Terra Stasis

I never seem to actually take pictures of the things I end up wanting to talk about later. Last week I was just outside of Broken Hill, walking around some splendid desert landscapes at a place called the Living Desert. I took lots of pictures of plants for a post I will possibly get around to writing on convergent evolution, but I didn’t take a picture of a set of brush shelters, nor of the sign describing them.

You will have to imagine that if you turned around from where you were standing and seeing this, there they would be, looking quite shady and inviting at that hour of the afternoon.

The sign describing the shelters did something that is relatively common in things written about Aboriginal culture for popular consumption but which always irritates me as a pedant.

It said something like: ‘The Wiradjuri people have used shelters like these for 20,000 years.’

This cannot possibly be true.

It is sloppy shorthand for two things that are almost certainly true:

(1) The Wiradjuri people used shelters like these.

(2) Traces of shelters like these have been found dating back to 20,000 years in this area.

It should say: ‘The people of Wiradjuri country have used shelters like these for 20,000 years’.

If you were in Spain and you saw a sign on a replica shepherd’s hut that said ‘The Spanish people have used shelters like these for 5000 years’, you would automatically read ‘Spanish people’ as ‘people who lived in what is now Spain’, and think it was a bit of an odd way of putting it.

Here is a worse example, as near as I can remember it, from a newsletter put out by my old university many years ago:

‘The original meaning of these images [in 4000 year old rock art in the Chillagoe region of North Queensland] is unknown because the Aboriginal people of the area were removed to Palm Island and their stories were lost.’

It is a very real tragedy that the stories of these people were lost. But there is no way they had any idea of the ‘original meaning’ of 4000-year-old images. You wouldn’t dream of writing:

‘The original meaning of the Uffington white horse is unknown because the villagers of the area were removed to make way for a motorway and their stories were lost.’

We know that the oral history of England is not trustworthy over thousands of years. We know that peoples have come and gone, and that there is no real memetic link between the people that made the Uffington white horse and the people who happened to live near it in the 20th century.

Why should we believe the oral history of North Queensland could be trustworthy over thousands of years? Why should we believe that peoples have not come and gone, and that the people who happened to live near Chillagoe in the 20th century had any memetic link to the people who lived there 4000 years ago?

These are only two examples of the denial of Aboriginal history.

Here is a third, which is not just of interest to pedants, because it means potentially interesting and important science is being ignored.

I was recently at Lake Mungo National Park. The visitor’s centre made no mention at all of the controversial mitochondrial DNA studies that appear to show that the 40,000 year-old ‘Mungo Man’ remains are genetically distinct from all modern humans- something that I had heard about and was keen to know more about.

Instead, there was stuff along the lines of what is quoted in this article:

“Non-indigenous Australians too often have a desperately limited frame of historical reference. The Lake Mungo region provides a record of land and people that we latter day arrivals have failed to incorporate into our own Australian psyche. We have yet to penetrate the depths of time and cultural treasures revealed by those ancestors of indigenous Australians,” [Prof Jim Bowler] says.

“The messages from the ancient Mungo people challenge us to come to terms with the history and dynamics of this strange land, especially with the rights and richness of their descendants.

“Indeed it is those descendants, in the person of the three traditional tribal groups of the Willandra region (the Barkandji, the Mutthi Mutthi and the Nyampaa) who facilitated and cooperated closely with this project. This represents an important new phase in the collaboration between science and traditional owners. Science and the Australian community owe them a special debt of gratitude.”

If you were excavating 40,000 year-old remains in Spain, you wouldn’t expect them to shed any light on the ‘rights and richness’ of present-day Spaniards. Pretending that the present inhabitants of an area that has experienced dramatic and extensive climatic changes necessarily have memetic or genetic links with the people who lived there 40,000 years ago is not endearing and culturally sensitive.

It is unscientific. It is deeply irritating to pedants. And what is more, it is insultingly patronising.

The Aboriginal population were not part of the scenery, waiting around in the same place doing the same things for thousands of years so that white folks could turn up and history could begin. They had a history that was surely every bit as rich and interesting as the pre-Colombian history of North America. People moved around. Cultures changed. Peoples replaced other peoples. Interesting history happened. We don’t know what it was, and to a large extent we can never know. We have yet to ‘penetrate the depths of time’. But it is an important and interesting part of human history that I would love to know more about.

Update: I went back two years later, and here they are:

Things I learned in Canberra

First, there is mitochondrial DNA.

All eukaryotes have mitochondrial DNA.
This DNA codes for things that are useful in mitochondria.
This set of things, however, is different across different species.

Over all species, however, there is not one thing useful in mitochondria that is not coded for in nuclear DNA.

Second, I learned that there is extremely good evidence for transposons acting to transfer a beneficial characteristic from one species to another- specifically, to transform an inert species of fungus into a wheat pathogen. I always thought this sort of thing was a theoretical possibility, but I had never heard any good evidence of it happening in eukaryotes before. Voila, it happens!

Third, I learned that I need to learn a lot more about plants.

Green plants are more complicated then us. They have larger genomes, on average, and have chloroplasts with their own DNA as well as mitochondria with their own DNA. They make an awful lot of things that we have to get by eating other things, so they have more complicated metabolic pathways. Our sense of how natural selection works is also skewed by us usually thinking of animals rather than plants, despite all that rigmarole with peas back in Mendel’s time: one animal individual crosses with one other individual to make some offspring. But consider your typical tree, covered with gazillions of flowers: it is more like one individual crossing with the whole population within ever so many kilometres to make some offspring. Actually, don’t a lot of animals in the ocean do the same sort of thing?

I learned specifically that I need to learn more about the immune system of plants. It seems plants have no acquired immune system. Each plant cell is autonomous, and just has the genetic potential for immunity that it started out with. A plant can’t acquire antibodies to something new and strange the way we can. (Memo to self: how do we actually do this, again? I need also to revise what I sort of kind of once knew about the immune system of us.) You would think, without any acquired resistance, plants would need a rapid turnover of generations to have any chance of adapting to pathogens. Sure, a lot of plants do seem to have a rapid turnover of generations. Yet, we have these things called trees that live for hundreds or thousands of years. How do they do it? They are likely to be facing a completely different pathogenic environment at the end of their lives than at the beginning. They are supposed to have no more resistance than what they were genetically programmed with.

Action: Learn about the molecular biology and evolutionary biology of plants. It is interesting.

I ought to point out that Marco's thoughts about evolution were rattling about in my head while I was learning these things.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Talk to some National Youth Science Forum Students, 8/2/08

Where am I?
What’s going on?
These are not just questions I ask myself when I find myself up in front of a roomful of people, but questions I ask myself every day of my life. If I ceased to ask myself these questions, I would cease to be a scientist. I would become a non-scientist: or ‘muggle’ as we call them in the trade.
But, it is not enough to ask these questions. I could ask these questions and still not be a scientist. I might be a mystic, or an astrologer, or an internet conspiracy theorist.
What makes me a scientist is the way I try to answer these questions.

I haven’t been able to find this quote in the original German, but in English I think it is a perfectly dandy little quote. It is very measured and pedantically accurate, as a scientific quote ought to be.
It doesn’t say that everything else is rubbish: it says that everything else is poetry, imagination, two fine and splendid things. And it doesn’t rule out other means of knowledge: it doesn’t say there is no such thing as divine revelation; it doesn’t say that knowledge *won’t* be beamed directly into our brain by the Cephalopod Overminds of Omicron Ceti. But there is no possible way those possible means of knowledge can be considered to be ‘at our disposal’.
The only thing this quote lacks, as a description of the scientific way of trying to answer the question ‘what’s going on?’ is a definition of ‘experiment’. And here is the best definition of ‘experiment’ that I have come across:

An ‘experiment’ is just a small, controlled bit of ‘experience’. That’s all.
Because I endorse these last two quotes, I was moved to amend a third quote, which I found on a whiteboard in a student office:

The successful scientist and the raving crank are not separated by the quality of their inspirations. There is no mystical attribute of ‘quality’ that raises the scientist above the muggle. I would argue that most successful scientists spend a great deal of their time thinking up stupid ideas. Linus Pauling- another Nobel laureate- has said that the way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.
We decide which ideas are bad not by appealing to the Church, or the Central Committee of the Party, but by the procedure outlined in Feynman’s quote. That is what makes us scientists. What makes us ‘successful scientists’ depends on how you want to define ‘successful’.
You will note that these quotes seem biased in favour of what are called the ‘experimental’ sciences. The experimental sciences where you can take a small piece of the universe that you pretty much control- a test tube, or a nuclear reactor, or a bit of perfused llama liver- and do pretty much the same thing over and over again, with you controlling the conditions, until you discover a new physical law.
The historical sciences are things like astronomy, geology and biology where you are trying to make sense of somewhat larger pieces of the universe that are beyond your control. You can’t go out and blow up a star, or drop a few finches on an island and come back in a million years, or squash two continents together to see what will happen. But this doesn’t mean the historical sciences are not sciences.
In the historical sciences, you are observing experiments that nature has done for you.
You don’t have acccess to the experimental logbooks showing exactly what happened with the ancestor of the moa arrived in New Zealand, or when India started running into Asia, and you know that a lot of unique historical events, impossible to predict, went into the speciation of the moas and the exact shape of the Himalayas. So you can’t make the kind of exact predictions that you can in the experimental sciences. But on the other hand, nature has done a lot of these experiments and left them lying around.
The first principle that makes the historical sciences sciences, rather than history, is uniformitarianism. This means that we assume the same physical laws apply everywhere in space and time.
Our explanation of the stars have to use the same physics that we have figured out using light bulbs and nuclear reactors.
Our explanation of the moa has to use the same biochemistry and physiology that we have figured out using chickens and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis.
Our explanation of the Himalayas has to use the same chemistry and rheology that we have figured out using test tubes and corn starch.
Now, this is just a guess, as in Richard Feynman’s quote. It is the simplest guess we could make, which is why we made it.

Einstein never said this.

[Note 1]
And William of Ockham never said this. (This is a late Mediaeval Latin way of saying the same thing; ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’).
We made this because it was the simplest guess we could make. But it is a good guess.
We have never found anything yet- out there among the stars, or back there buried under kilometres of limestone in the distant past- which cannot be explained using the physical laws we have figured out here and now. We have found things that can’t be explained by anything we actually see happening now, but we can postulate processes that make sense, that follow the same rules, that explain those things.

[Note 2]
This is just a picture to remind me of the dangers of hubris. [Note 3]

[Note 4]
Now, when I was growing up I was captivated by the historical sciences. I still am.
When I was growing up, a man named Carl Sagan was on the television talking about this incredible sweep of cosmic history, these countless galaxies like grains of sand,everything spewing out from an ancient singularity, and the accidents of history making Earth like Earth and Venus like Venus.
A man named Stephen Jay Gould was writing these articles in ‘Natural History’ about this incredible sweep of biological history, everything radiating out from a primeval protoplasmic globule, and the accidents of history giving us penguins and Staphylococcus aureus and whatnot.
And as for geology- well, my grandfather is a geologist. My father is a geologist. My brother is – now - a geologist. So I can never remember not knowing that I lived on a thin crust of rock trundling inexorably toward Asia, can never remember not having this vision of the continents scuttling about, mashing into one another and splitting up again, the accidents of history making the world we know.
So, why have I ended up in an experimental science, instead of a historical science? There are some trivial, historical reasons for why I ended up where I am – which may be the real ones - and a more profound one which I may have made up many years later.

[Note 5]
In Queensland twenty or twenty five years ago, the way to get a good score to get into university was to do all the maths and science subjects in years 11 and 12. But I wanted to keep doing German, which I’d done up to the end of year 10. And I figured from what we did in year 10 that biology was a subject that was easy enough that I could learn it all out of books by myself. So I did German instead of biology. Not that I can remember very much German now. Doof bleibt doof, da hilfe keine Pillen.
I’ve found that there have been times in my life when I have worked really hard at things, and at these times I have usually done well. First semester of year eleven was one of those times, and in first semester year eleven I topped the class in Physics - which I never did in any other semester, mind you - so I got this idea in my head that I would go on and do Physics.

[Note 6]
I didn’t have any concrete plans for where I wanted to go in the future and wanted to keep my options open, and when I got to uni I did physics, maths, chemistry, and- this was a mistake- computer science. I don’t know why I did computer science. I can’t remember. Maybe it was peer pressure. I was useless at computer science. I should have done something biological or geological...and then maybe I would have ended up in the historical sciences. But there I was in first year, not doing any historical sciences.
I found- this is just me- that while high school physics had been easy, uni physics was really really hard. This was mostly because I did not work hard enough at my maths. On the other hand, the physics pracs were great. I had a lot of fun in the pracs and did really well- but the exams were about as much fun as eating broken glass. Chemistry was the other way around. I found- this is just me- that the exams were easy, but the pracs were terrible. There was real, not metaphorical, broken glass everwhere.
So I ended my first year still uncertain, a little bit disspirited about how badly I had done in physics. And with no strong motivations, liable to be batted one way or another by small influences.

In between 1st year and 2nd year I read this book about Quantum Mechanics – an example of what I would now call the nitwit’s interpretation of Quantum Mechanics - and this inspired me to keep going with physics.
Second year was more of the same. Good pracs and bad exams in Physics, Bad pracs and good exams in Chemistry. I finished the year still uncertain, still at the whim of the winds of fate.

And in between 2nd year and 3rd year, I happened to read something about the discovery of the structure of DNA- I think it was this famous book- and I thought, aha! I will do biochemistry. Biochemistry really is the science of the 21st century. It is where the big discoveries are being made that will cure cancer and give us potatoes that grow plastic instead of starch and let us genetically modify ourselves so we look like Klingons.
So in the next year I did 2nd year biochemistry and molecular biology and some 3rd year chemistry and maths units.
And the next year I did 3rd year biochemistry and molecular biology and the rest of the 3rd year chemistry units.
And over this time, I discovered that biochemistry pracs were even worse than chemistry pracs. With chemistry pracs, if they didn’t work, you usually could figure out why. Biochemistry pracs didn’t work for no reason. 50% of the time. Again, this is just me. I had thought molecular biology was all shiny machines that buzzed and clicked and spat out beautiful numbers, but it turned out to be all artsy-craftsy, full of messy polyacrylamide gels that never worked out properly. Of course, it is better now, I expect.

[Note 7]
And sometime around then, I happened to do a subject called ‘Advanced Physical Chemistry’ which was basically a reading list and a two-week project in a research lab. I did a project with A/Prof Ernie Senogles which involved playing with liquid nitrogen and fire, and it was a lot of fun. Exactly what I was doing there I’ll tell you after you’ve had another couple of years of science, because it will take too long if I start explaining now, and people will suspect me of trying a hard-sell to get you all to do chemistry.
But physical chemistry is more or less the exams of chemistry combined with the pracs of physics. And I decided this would probably suit me pretty well. When I looked at all I had done at uni, physical chemistry was pretty much in the middle, with wings stretching out to biochemistry in one direction and 1st year computer science in the other.
Those are the trivial, historical reasons I ended up where I am, I guess.
Now for the deeper reason that I may have made up years later.
I don’t think I really picked physical chemistry because it was in the middle of the things I had done up until then, or because I was good at it. I think I picked it because it was a field where I could actually *do* those experiments and edge closer to truth. I realised I would rather work in a field where I got to do my own experiments, rather than look at the results of experiments nature had done for me. And the first of those experiments I met happened to be in this subject area in the middle of my degree, and involved playing with liquid nitrogen and fire. Because everything I had done in the lab up until that project, with the liquid nitrogen and the fire, had not really been an experiment, had been, in a way, something inherently pointless, because we already knew what should happen in the experiment, and it had been done so many times that the only possible explanation for an unexpected result was that I had stuffed it up. Real science is not like that; real science is doing experiments where you don’t know the answer.
So I went on and worked with Ernie Senogles for five more years, and came out with a PhD in physical chemistry and could call myself ‘Dr Chris’. During this time I went to a talk by Jean Marie-Lehn, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1987. He said this:

What he meant was, once we understand what is going on with the physics, the basic ground rules of the universe, and once we have nutted out precisely what is happening with the sort of life we have on our planet that is all based on a very, very, very, small subset of the possible chemical reactions, we can go off and create things that are as complicated as life, but that use different chemistry. The buzzword ‘nanotechnology’ is a first little prefiguring of that 25thcentury that Jean Marie Lehn is dreaming about.

After I finished my PhD, I went to the University of Sydney, and I worked there for five years, with some very interesting people, and some very smart people and some people who were scary beyond reason. And that was a very exciting place to work and we did a lot of good science.

But since I grew up in a provincial city, under balmy tropical skies, living in Sydney for me was too much like living in a box full of starving weasels, and I couldn’t possibly see myself living the rest of my life in *that* sort of place. [Note 8]

And then I came here, to the University of New England, and I’ll have been here four years in April, working with some very interesting people, and some very smart people and no scary people as yet. This is an exciting place to work and we’re doing good science here, and I intend to keep going until they pry my test tubes from my cold, dead hands.
So that is how I got where I am. And a bit about what’s going on.
But, if the truth be told, I find monologue really boring.
I think dialogue is much more interesting.
So, if we have time, I would love to answer some questions.

1: The font is Baskerville, an allusion to William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’
2: The picture is ‘The Death of Smaug’. If you don’t get the reference, you need to re-read ‘The Hobbit’.
3: I was thinking that there was one problem that seemed obvious, after I had written that no mattter how far back in time we go we haven’t found exceptions to the laws of nature we’ve figured out, because we have these highly peculiar initial conditions for what we call ‘the universe’. I prepared a slide in case anyone asked me a question about this and tacked it on the end, but nobody asked me about it.

4: I was hoping someone would ask me about this picture in the question time. Nobody did. Looks a lot like Shoalwater Bay, doesn’t it? It’s not.
5: This is a picture of Pimlico State High School. I found it on a website in Brazil.
6: This is a picture of the Molecular Sciences building at James Cook University. Thanks to Maree Hines for sending the photo!
7: This is actually an experimental set-up where one of my current PhD students is doing something similar to what I used to do with liquid nitrogen and fire.
8: Technically, my fixed-term appointment was not renewed, and I was casting desperately about for a job somewhere, anywhere- South Dakota, Izmir, Bermuda... But I think my manifest lack of enthusiasm for the big city was one of the things that did me in.

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