Monday, April 30, 2012

The search for the god particle

Today I opened my regular news sites, and one greeted me with this news:

"Super-collider team discovers new subatomic particle"

I confess, while I can pretty much alternate my chemist's and biologist's hat seemingly seemlessly, I would not dare put on a physicist's hat. If my kid tells me she wants to be a physicist when she grows up, she'll have no dinner that night...until she explains quarks, the Pauli-Fermi principle, the Drake equation and identify what particle's been discovered of late.  And I anticipate that she might try, so I try to keep up with the latest news in the field too.

If 15 years ago you told me that there were more kinds of particles outside of neutrons, electrons and protons, I would have told you that you're full of it. And then, flash forward to today, I'd be writing you one hell of an apology letter.  However, if you find yourself (like me back then) reading "Large Hadron Collider" and "Higgs Boson" in an article, and saying "What. The. Heck.", then have I got the solution for you via some links and a cool video.

With the help of the Large Hadron Collider, physicists have found the 12 particles of the standard model of particle physics, but have not yet found the elusive Higgs boson which has been referred to as the 'god particle' - although it's been reported that some do not like it when the holy grail of particle discoveries is referred to as such. So, while this new discovery of the neutral Xi-b baryon is exciting, we are still waiting with bated breath for the discovery of the Higgs boson and to prove that it is real.

Large Hadron Collider

Much has been written about the Large Hadron Collider. Its presence is hard to ignore. For starter, this machine lies in a tunnel that is 17 miles in circumferences at 574 feet deep near Geneva, Switzerland. It's been referred to as "an atomic peashooter more powerful than any".  In scientific term, it's a particle accelerator.  It's goal is to find out what the universe is made of. Basically, two beams of particles race along the 17 mile ring, and converge, or "crash" if you will. This collision transform the matter into energy,which soon condenses back into some never before seen particles. Cooooool! If you want to know more about the large hadron collider a.k.a. the 'big bang machine' in Geneva, and the big questions addressed by it, here's the link.

So, then, why the interest in the Higgs boson? Well, mainly because its existence can help explain why some particles, like protons and neutrons, have mass and others, like photons, don't. The Higgs boson is said to be THE particle that gives mass to matter.  I guess that's why the  nickname, in spite of Peter Higgs, the man who proposed the boson's existence, being an atheist. Knowing that it doesn't have anything to do with religion, however, allows me to spell 'god' without feeling too irreverent.

Ok, so for the moment you're waiting for, here's the video that explains the Higgs boson.  It's animated which makes it so much more interesting than hearing it in a lecture hall or a chalk-talk in a classrom. Plus, it's only under 8 minutes long.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Who's the host?

With Passover behind us, I can better reflect on a thought I had during the seder.  One of the rituals that I have always found fascinating is the hand washing (u’rchatz) before eating the karpas. While the ritual is meant to wash away “impurities,” I view this ancient custom as a great precedent for modern hygienic practices. Maybe we Jews were ahead of the curve! In fact, this practice may have singlehandedly helped the Jews suffer fewer deaths than other ethnic groups when the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in 14th century. Five points for humanity, no points for germs, right?  Well, not so fast.

You don’t really think that the occasional Purell gets rid of 99.99% of the germs in your body, do you? It may sanitize your hands - which frequently contact transient germs - but what most mysophobes fail to accept is that our bodies serve as choice dwellings for microbes.  Thirty-seven degrees? Check. Nutrients? Check. We humans are ideal incubators, aren’t we?! You see, while a human body comprises about a trillion cells, it also happily hosts TEN trillion bacteria. Those germs account for 2 - 5 pounds of our weight. (I knew it wasn't just the Passover cookies!) An average person has 30,000 human genes and 3,000,000 bacterial genes, which, if you think about it hard enough, means that each one of us is only 10% human, and 90% germs. The gut flora alone includes a few fungi, a handful of protists, and 500 different species of bacteria that comprise the majority population of our microbiota. In essence, our intestine is like a hotel with very different guests!
How do we co-exist with these microbes? Before you go rushing to the bathtub to scrub your skin raw, you must know that these bacteria help keep us alive.  Bacteria get a lot of bad press for all the disease they cause, but they also serve to protect our skin from the environment, assist in food digestion, produce vitamins, and train our immune systems. We really do have an amazing interaction with these critters. And I hate to break it to you, but we’re pretty much at their mercy. Fortunately, what works for us is the intricate balance between tolerance and immunological response.
Mimicking our society, an individual bacterium can’t cause much impact. However, when they form a critical mass, interesting things begin to happen. Kind of like a minyan. What's more? They're miniature yentas! Indeed, I think it's time to stop thinking of these critters as asocial individuals, when in fact, they love to talk.
Speaking of talks, one of the great talks that stuck to me in my research years was a presentation on quorum sensing by Dr. Bonnie Bassler from Princeton. It made me feel big and vulnerable as she went on to explain how bacteria talk.  With "quorum sensing," each bacterium releases a signaling molecule to be counted in the roll call, letting the group know that they can proceed with undertaking an activity. As in society, each voice counts. So an individual pathogen may not be harmful, but it can turn deadly with peer pressure.  When bacteria sense that they are in a large enough group – a quorum – they can mobilize to attack the host, triggering the onset of disease. 
If you find this germ-talk fascinating, then prepare thyself: bacteria are bilingual! One type of compound lets them communicate with their species while another let them have chat with other species. After all, in order to work together in communities, they need to get to know their neighbors too. In keeping with a societal model, they fight with each other, eavesdrop, and cheat so that one guy's molecule doesn't get delivered to his pals. It may not be a pretty picture, but then again, it is a great way for checks and balances.
Can you imagine if all the bacteria spoke only one language? I think even the five lions of Voltron uniting wouldn't stand a chance. It also reminds me of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis.  According to midrash, the hubristic humans built the tower as an act of defiance to G-d. But as easily as the tower was built (at least in my mind), the humans flitted away, confused, when G-d confounded their speech. To me, this story emphasizes not only the importance of diverse languages, but also of diverse ideas. However, if there's anything our little bacterial guests teach us, it's that one voice can make a difference in putting the community to action. But the main take home message for me is this: some musings on religious rituals are best left unshared over the holiday meal.

*Published in Etz Hayim's Chronicles, May 2012 issue

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I fought the Slaw, and I won

Jen's slaw
I shall name thee "The-Coleslaw-That-Others-Wish-They-Were-Having-Right-Now". Or... The Better Slaw for short.  

It's been a while since I've posted any kitchen creations here. So, tada!... I'm not really a big fan of coleslaw, but yesterday, I could no longer ignore the presence of the cabbage that's been glumly sitting in our fridge. Outside of stews, Pancit, and curried cabbage, we just don't have a great big selection of cabbage recipes. And with this "realization" came the opportunity to come up with one.  So, if you're like me who's not a fan of coleslaw, give this novel synthesis (ahem) a try.

One head of cabbage + 1-2 pears + a handful of raisins + a few stalks of celery + half a fennel bulb. Julienne-cut all the veggies. Season with a bit of salt and pepper, a sprinkling of nutmeg, and for the secret ingredient - a dash of cumin. Don't forget the mayo (light), but don't overdo it too, otherwise you won't taste anything else. I also added a little apple cider vinegar to dilute the creamy mayo texture.

You might be wondering about the proportions. Frankly, you're not in a laboratory, and none of those combination will ever explode - and don't go trying to disprove me. Just don't be afraid to adjust to suit your taste.  For me, since I have a sweet tooth, I decided to add another pear. Heck, I would have added some marshmallow too, but that would have been be too weird.

For those of you who keep a Kosher home like we do, it's probably obvious that this recipe is Pareve. But tonight, since we're having a dairy meal, I'll toss in some Feta cheese to the remaining slaw. I might as well add some walnuts too to give it a different texture. Yummm. 

Hmmm. So, what should you have this as a side of? May I suggest some meatloaf and potatoes for an All-American meal like we had yesterday? Also, take Spring as your inspiration, and put some color on your plate. For my meatloaf, I used the other half of my started fennel, and added Trader Joe's Soyaki to give it that nice brown, caramelized color when it's cooked. I rolled it up in foil, embutido-style, and it's good to go in the oven.  I usually put a peeled stick of carrot in the middle, and call it "meatloaf surprise", but I was pressed for time, and carrot, last night. 

And no, Sir-ee! Idaho potatoes won't do. Get some purple potatoes for that pop of color and more. These potatoes may cost you an arm and a leg, but they still cost a lot less than gas prices these days. What's "more"? A recent study has shown that purple potatoes can decrease blood pressure by about 4 % without causing weight gain. That decrease may seem insignificant to you, but it's been deemed sufficient to potentially reduce the risk of some types of heart disease. 

Purple potato wedges - yet to be seasoned and roasted (Photo by me)
I prefer marinating them with italian herbs and olive oil then roasting. If you want to do greek-style potatoes, just add some lemon juice. So, if you want to plan a simple (yes, trust me, I'm a mom) menu for tonight, this is the one to try. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Amazing Discovery

CREDIT: collectSPACE/Ben Cooper
There she goes. Today, the space shuttle Discovery mounted NASA's Shuttle Carrier 747 aircraft and flew from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which was its home for three decades to its new home, the National Air and Space Museum's Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

It was only 2 months ago that we went to this museum and saw the Enterprise, the prototype orbiter, which never flew to space. The Enterprise will relocate to New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. A must-see for Trekkies in NY since this shuttle was named by the franchise's fans.

Enterprise at Udvar-Hazy; Amazing photo if I may say so (taken by me)
Saying goodbye is never easy.  But thanks to the prime location of my office, and the double decker aircart flying at only 1,500 feet, I managed to do just that while the shuttle was in mid-flight. Since I knew that a lot of my friends will surely post wonderful pictures taken with their DSLRs, I didn't even bother with my little blackberry camera. I just appreciated the precious seconds of history unfolding before my eyes.  I realize that, since the Shuttle Era has come to a close with the last trip of Atlantis from space, this is the closest to shuttle flying as I will get to see in my time. And, oh what a beautiful sight it was. 

And sure enough, my friend Arnaud did not disappoint.  Here are some awesome pictures he took. The yet unscrubbed shuttle piggybacked on its carrier is a sight to behold as it circled the district's monuments. In the second photo, you'll even see its escort plane. I'm glad it got the VIP treatment it deserved.  And special thanks to the 747's captain for circling a few times to ensure that as many mere mortals as possible see this extremely rare air show.

Discovery Photos courtesy of my friend A. Carpentier
I am itching to go back to the bigger Air and Space museum to see Discovery. This is the very same wonder that launched the Hubble Space Telescope, after all. Mileage logged: 149 million. After it gets its necessary scrub  down (I think), it will take its place at center stage along side the other great retired aircrafts that made history.  Until my visit and yours, why don't we enjoy photos of its future companions?

Space capsule, aircrafts and misile at Udvar-Hazy center; Photos by me

Update: How did I miss this must-see tribute?? 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Real Scientists

My husband always complains about how scientists are depicted in the movies.  And for good reason. Whenever we see scientists in films, in the very rare times that we watch, we both end up hysterical - which is not necessarily a good thing. Oh, the stereotyping is really killing us! Scientists are depicted as either bald or with wiry hair like Einstein, with glasses and thick brows, and you know they're up to no good with that fuming flask of green goo. There they are, hunched over the lab bench in their pristine lab coats, and when they're not poring over their notebooks, they're punishing your ears with their maniacal laughs.  Here's a list of mad scientists in movies to prove my point. The scientists range from awkward 'Doc' Emmett Brown to, of course, Dr. Frankenstein.  

Now, let me open your eyes.  Here's what scientists really look like. Wasn't that nice? Don't you wish you were one? Especially marine scientists, in my opinion. Also, if you're a scientist, you can submit your mug to this website too. Er, as long as you don't post one with you in your lab coat and with a flask of goo. Feel free to pass on so we can change the views of Hollyweird. If seventh graders can change their perception, surely adults can too.  

Cave Diving - Courtesy of National Geograhic Society

How about flipping sides? If chemists were to make the movies, or at least do remakes, they've already got their eyes on which. Some of them will be so worth the popcorn in my book. How do I sign up for Netflix again?