Saturday, July 16, 2011

Life is a circus, Charlie Brown

by silvermom 

I remember looking in the mirror in my 3rd trimester of pregnancy and seeing my huge self in a bright green dress.  All I could think of was how I resembled a circus tent, and the baby inside me, doing some complicated acrobatic turns, only made it much more comical.  It never occurred to me, that this show was just about to begin, and that I’m the biggest draw of all - to an audience of one.

By 3 months old, she was already laughing even though still without sound.  I found out that she cracked up even more when I made funny faces, and all other non-flattering faces in between. Step right up, folks! The clown’s been sent in, apparently.  The way I see it, better me than her.  I resent it when people ask, “what tricks has she learned?” My response has always been the same: “She’s not a performing monkey. I, on the other hand, have lots of them up my sleeve.” Only, this show is exclusive. 

I have never really seen myself as a comic.  I didn’t have a whit of timing for jokes, and they always fall flat in whatever language I tell them.  So, for someone who would not pay to see slapstick comedy, I am embarrassed to admit that I resort to it fairly regularly. 

My show has a rather extensive and ever-changing repertoire. I do pirouettes, juggle alphabet blocks, with vegetables on the side, and sing in operatic voice.  She never disappoints. I always get a giggle. I don't even have to bathe in pink dye. I know I’m having a great night when she starts thumping her legs on the floor, clamoring for more.  I resort to magic acts, doing three-cup monte with her stacking cups, and hiding Ogbert the octopus in one of them.  She squeals at the final reveal.

Now, my biggest, and perhaps the only admirer of my comic genius, is 9 months old.  The fanaticism has been sown, and her eyes light up as soon as The Entertainer walks in the door.  She starts hooting, er… cooing.  And the show begins.

The sun has set, the little tummy has been fed. I’m done with my spiels, ending with the um, not-so-fat lady singing Iggle-Piggle.  As always, I brought down the house.  She’s in dreamland land now; the circus has to close for the night.  And the best part is, I get to do it again tomorrow. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pac-mecium: The game of life?

by silvermom (June 2011)

        The golden age of electronics is here, and science is embracing it with open arms.  The whole world, or at least the whole Internet, is in our pockets.  And with the star walk application, a guide to the night sky on our gadgets, we can navigate our way to the heavens.
But the endless possibilities for science in a console are not limited by cyberspace or outer space. Physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team developed a game called Pac-mecium that is hitting the virtual world.  Only, the game is not as virtual as it seems. Pac-mecium is pacman with a twist: a paramecium assumes the game’s starring role. Players direct the protozoan’s movement inside a fluid chamber by changing the polarity of an applied electric field. The live image is projected in real time to a computer screen wherein the fluid chamber is superimposed with a Pac-Man game board.  Players guide the paramecium to eat virtual yeast cells and avoid a big yellow fish.  The game even keeps score!  Better yet, single-cell gamers are not limited to munching Pac-dots.  In addition to Pac-mecium, there is biotic pinball and pond pong.  Take your pick.
       All of the science enthusiasts that I know needed to have their jaws collected from the floor after hearing about these biotic games.  But the general public irately wags their pointer fingers, raising an ethical debate.  Are we scientists playing g-d by controlling the movement of these unicellular organisms?
A quick review of elementary biology will tell you that paramecia are akin to amoebas.  They cannot see, taste, touch, or hear. Although they respond to signals, and discriminate between brightness levels, they neither have a brain nor a heart. They can move and eat and reproduce by splitting themselves in half.

     The biotic game engineers went beyond the norms of virtual reality games by incorporating living cells.  They see the games as educational tools that can further knowledge in biomedicines and biotechnology.  But the negative public feedback counters that science has yet to determine the limit of sensory perception and information processing in living organisms. Detractors are concerned that the paramecia may have consciousness despite almost a hundred year’s worth of research to the contrary.
In my opinion the idea of biotic games, while clearly a good start, is wasted on the paramecium.  Pac-mecium is a good teaching tool, likely to elicit questions from young minds regarding life forms that are invisible to the naked eyes.   But it is the logical next step that gets me excited.  Using live imaging techniques to track bacteria and viruses, scientists might pique the curiosity of the young and get them interested in the complex pathways of the cells and infection, how viruses usurp the cell’s energy storage, and perhaps even inspire new paradigms in preventing infectious diseases.  Maybe invent a new game dropping drug bombs, angry bird-style, on fluorescent viruses and watch them disappear. 100 points per virion! But unlike directing the paramecia that move senselessly around, the objective would be to block infection and kill the pathogens.  Or would that be unethical too?