Petri Dishes VS Giant Particle Colliders

I’m glad the Large Hadron Collider is getting so much press; it’s a rare day that physics takes center stage in the minds of everyday people. Searching for fundamental unifying forces of the universe by smashing atomic particles at near-light speed into each other inside the largest machine ever constructed by human beings is pretty damn awesome. The cutting-edge discoveries that come from it (or the ones that conspicuously fail to) will undoubtedly play a large role in our understanding of the most illusive workings of the universe. So you might be surprised to know that I find research that began 20 years ago with some bacteria in a jar to be even more exciting.

Richard Lenski’s research at Michigan State University is breathtaking. The procedure is stupefyingly simple but the results are stunningly elegant. Not only has he observed evolution in a laboratory setting, but he’s provided snapshots of every step along the way. And when a novel ability was eventually coughed up by natural selection, he rebooted from past generations to see exactly where and how it happened.

It all went a little something like this:

In 1988 Lenski and his team started out with a single microbe of E. Coli, allowed it to divide, and from its offspring he started 12 colonies. They were kept in separate containers, each filled with a glucose-citrate solution. Every day, samples from each colony were frozen and the solution replenished. (E. Coli feed on glucose, but it is an identifying attribute of the bacteria that they can not consume citrate because they are unable to pull it through their membranes.) This process provides a record of genetic change every 500 or so generations that can be resurrected and compared to bacteria at any other stage.

From Carl Zimmer’s article A New Step in Evolution:

Over the generations, in fits and starts, the bacteria did indeed evolve into faster breeders. The bacteria in the flasks today breed 75% faster on average than their original ancestor. Lenski and his colleagues have pinpointed some of the genes that have evolved along the way; in some cases, for example, the same gene has changed in almost every line, but it has mutated in a different spot in each case. Lenski and his colleagues have also shown how natural selection has demanded trade-offs from the bacteria; while they grow faster on a meager diet of glucose, they’ve gotten worse at feeding on some other kinds of sugars.

But then… after 33,127 something weird was going on.

Read the rest of this entry »


LHC Frustrations

I’ve been following the LHC project for quite some time now and I was really excited about it starting up yesterday. It’s been getting lots of press in the last few days regarding the crackpots who think it’s going to result in a black hole and destroy the world. Obviously, this hasn’t happened, but it seems it’s all the media care to focus on when talking about it. Never mind the possibility of actually finding the Higgs Boson and unifying fundamental physics. My frustration with the apocalyptic stylings of the media has just hit critical mass thanks to this:

Phil Plait over at BadAstronomy brings to our attention an Indian girl who killed herself out of fear of the LHC. Apparently the Indian media has really blown this one up and coupled with their heavily superstitious culture has created a bit of a panic over there. Plait doesn’t play the blame game though, placing responsibility squarely on us and really hammers home the need for critical thinking:

All over the world, in all different countries, people are raised to believe in superstitious nonsense, and raised to believe with all their hearts that it’s real.

And when we do that, we do far more than remove people from reality. We leave them vulnerable to all manners of nonsense, from believing in fairies to truly and honestly thinking the LHC will destroy the planet. People don’t learn how to think critically, and then they drink homeopathic water instead of taking real medicine, they chelate their children, or they deny their children vaccinations. And when that happens, people die. Children die.

I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not what to think, but how

Most people don’t see critical thinking as an important faculty in daily life, or they consider their “common sense” to be adequate. Stories like this make it very clear that that isn’t the case. “Common sense” just isn’t enough. All beliefs, superstitious or otherwise, must be continually examined and updated to reflect reality as best as possible. Critical thinking is critical in every sense, and relinquishing it would be to doom us in a way untouchable by any mere partical accelerator.

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