Subscribe to Feed            Add to your Favourites

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, December 22, 2006

My First Uncyclopedia Entry!

An article that is long overdue. Since no one has written on that terrible scourge of humankind yet, I've decided to do it myself.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cool Weather

Ah... the year end weather is nice and cool, all thanks to the thunderstorms from the northeast monsoon. Instead of a blistering 32 degrees in the shade, we now have a more humane 24 degs.

Here's a picture of low clouds rolling over Bukit Timah hill to give you that rainy day feeling.

I'm only happy when it rains, I'm only happy when it's complicated.

That's a song by Garbage, actually.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Cruel Irony Of Fate

Tomorrow, on the 10th of December, American scientists Dr. Andrew Z. Fire and Dr. Craig C. Mello will be receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine from the King of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

They are sharing the prize because they worked together on the same research project, and discovered from their experiments on the worm Caenorhabditis elegans that specific stretches of double-stranded RNA can inhibit the expression of genes effectively (RNA interference). Their finding was published in the prestigious journal Nature in February 1998.

This important discovery increased our understanding of cellular processes, provided an experimental tool for genetics researchers, and formed the basis of a new generation of medicines which have recently completed phase I clinical trials.

We can imagine the mutual joy and excitement of these two colleagues when they receive the prize.

In stark contrast, exactly one hundred years ago in Stockholm, the 1906 Medicine prize was also shared between a pair of scientists, but the mood could not be more different.

The tension in the air was palpable.

That was the first time that the Nobel prize was shared among two recipients. Dr. Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Dr. Camillo Golgi both won the prize “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system”, but in reality these scientists were rivals of each other who believed in opposing theories.

In the late 19th century, there was a controversy in the emerging field of neuroscience. Some scientists believed that the nervous system consists of cells that are linked together in a diffuse, continuous nerve network. This was called the Reticular Theory. Others believed that the nervous system consists of cells called “neurons” which are physically separated by tiny gaps. This was the Neuron Doctrine.

Golgi had invented a chemical process that only stained a small percentage of the nerve cells, so that fine details can be clearly seen under a microscope. Cajal used Golgi’s stain and further improved it, allowing the nerve cell to be seen in its entirety and used these results to support the neuron doctrine. Golgi, on the other hand, firmly believed in the reticular theory and considered Cajal’s results to be inconclusive.

By 1906, although there was strong experimental evidence from many scientists in favour of the neuron doctrine, the Nobel committee for medicine decided to award both Cajal and Golgi.

When delivering his Nobel lecture, Cajal updated the audience on his latest experimental results and noted that:

True, it would be very convenient and very economical from the point of view of analytical effort if all the nerve centres were made up of a continuous intermediary network between the motor nerves and the sensitive and sensory nerves. Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

Golgi however used his lecture to attack the neuron doctrine. He insisted that:

At this point, while I shall come back to this question later, I must declare that when the neuron theory made, by almost unanimous approval, its triumphant entrance on the scientific scene, I found myself unable to follow the current of opinion, because I was confronted by one concrete anatomical fact; this was the existence of the formation which I have called the diffuse nerve network.

While he respected the older Golgi greatly, Cajal was clearly disappointed at Golgi’s behaviour at the ceremony. He later lamented:

What a cruel irony of fate to pair, like Siamese Twins united by the shoulders, scientific adversaries of such contrasting character!

Sadly, this controversy would not be fully resolved until after the deaths of both illustrious scientists. Direct evidence from electron microscopes in the 1950s finally confirmed the presence of tiny gaps, called synapses. The neuron doctrine is correct – Cajal had laid the foundations of modern neuroscience.

It is easy to dismiss Golgi as a stubborn fool. However, if there can only be a winner in this story, then who is it?

Golgi was no less intelligent, hardworking or productive than Cajal. In addition to his contributions to neuroscience, Golgi had also done important research in many areas such as malaria and histology. In fact, he is better known to most life science students because he discovered the Golgi apparatus in 1898, coincidentally one hundred years before the discovery of RNA interference.

Thus, despite their differences of opinion, Cajal and Golgi embody the same spirit of discovery which is also present in their modern counterparts when they receive their prize tomorrow.

But in a much happier mood, of course.

Would you like to know more?

- about how Golgi shared the 1906 Medicine with Cajal

- about other stories of the second best -
1. Swiss vs British Everest teams
2. Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Science In Singapore: Part II

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the life science endeavour in Singapore?

Strengths include:

1. Strong governmental support
US$8 billion over the next five years in R&D, mainly in the biomedical sector. This immense investment helps build infrastructure and provide research funding for many projects.

2. Investment focus and strategy
State agencies have worked hard to bring in large pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Schering-Plough and Novartis, some (such as Novartis) which have a R&D department here in addition to their manufacturing plants . So far most of the economic growth in this sector has been due to these drug companies. A few small biotech companies have also been enticed to come to Singapore.

3. Educated workforce
In addition to funding research, the government has also spared no effort to provide training opportunities for the people. The good science and maths performance of our school children is already fairly well known, and this strong educational foundation is enhanced with updated life science knowledge from secondary school all the way to the PhD level.

Specialized life science degrees are offered at local universities and students are strongly encouraged to enter graduate school in this field. In fact, A*Star intends to train about 1000 PhDs by 2010.

4. Research focus and strategy
To make the best of our limited resources, identifying niche research areas where we show high competence is crucial. These include genome science, stem cell biology (especially embryonic stem cell research which is severely crippled in the USA), research on infectious diseases common to the region, and clinical translational research. Local research centres have also formed strategic alliances with renowned institutes overseas, such as the Karolinska Institutet.

5. Other strengths
These include the freedom of research projects (within the areas of focus), respect for intellectual property and a well-defined bioethics framework. In addition, scientists who come from countries with bitterly cold winters, will be attracted to Singapore, which has year-round summer temperatures.

The above strong points have already given the life sciences in Singapore promising start. However, in order to reach sustainability, the life science effort in Singapore has to face a number of important challenges:

1. Powerful global competitors
Of course, the United States of America continues to be the R&D powerhouse of the world, producing more than 30% of the whole world's scientific output by publications. However, scientific research in Europe and Asia is on the rise. Recently China has overtaken Japan to become the 2nd biggest R&D spender in the world.

As a small city state we can never match their resources, so the emergence of these new powerful players in the life sciences presents a serious challenge.

2. Talent retention/oversupply
Human capital is of the utmost importance in science, and managing this valuable resource will be a constant headache. Good foreign scientists are attracted to Singapore with generous pay and research grants, but keeping them here will be difficult because our global competitors may be willing to offer even more. Other tangible and intangible benefits gradually become more important.

Also, the flipside of training thousands of PhDs is that they become the most mobile workforce segment, since postdocs are welcome everywhere. They can leave to another country or leave science - either way the talent pool shrinks.

And it is not only the shortage of trained personnel that can become a serious issue - oversupply can be just as problematic albeit in a different way. Some life science graduates are already facing difficulties finding jobs in the life science field. As the entire industry matures, it will no longer grow as rapidly and employment opportunities will get harder to come by, whether you have a PhD or not.

3. High biotech startup attrition
For the life science endeavour to become self-sustaining, some of our scientists will have to quit academia for industry or to start a company. Biotechnology is a new, 20-year-old industry that has seen strong growth in the US, mainly from established biotech firms like Genentech.

Unfortunately, starting up a new biotech company is a very risky venture with a high attrition rate. There are many reasons for this - management issues such as the struggle for control of the company between the businessmen and the scientists, and technical issues regarding the effectiveness of new, untested technologies. I know of a senior academic who had started four biotech firms, which all failed.

Despite government encouragment, venture capitalists and private investors are generally wary of biotech startups. Only a handful (out of a total of about 30) local biotech firms have had significant success so far.

4. Lack of creative milieu
Creativity is an important aspect of science in general. In Singapore, creativity is encouraged on paper, but the actual space permitted for creative expression is limited. The growth of the arts and entertainment industry has been painfully slow - this is relevant to science because the roots of science and the liberal arts are closely related.

Thus while the more "industrial" aspects of the life science endeavour will surge ahead, truly original, bizarre ideas that have the potential to transform the world are unlikely to arise in Singapore. The deeply-rooted pragmatic, industrious spirit here that sparked the spectacular start of the life sciences is a double-edge sword - it is so efficient that it may prune away revolutionary ideas and regard them as useless. Local scientists are obsessed with hard work and are not receptive to fresh approaches.

For the life science endeavour to become entrenched as part of our society, I believe a spirit of playfulness such as the Chindogu spirit is a necessity. This runs counter to the official purpose of the life science industry in Singapore, which is not to produce Nobel prize winners, but simply to create jobs and generate revenue.

5. Other weaknesses
These include lack of entrepreneurial and scientific tradition in Singapore. Our general population is still bewildered by this quickly emerging life science endeavour. Scientists are often confused with doctors and biology is confused with medicine. A sizeable proportion of the people still believe in various superstitions, visit traditional healers and use folk remedies. This is however not a serious drawback since the younger generation of Singaporeans are less susceptible to such beliefs.

As for the weather, visitors from colder climates are often taken aback by the heat and humidity here. They are also surprised at how violent our lightning storms can be. Depending on your personal preference, our weather can be either a strength or a weakness.

We have come a long way since that critical discussion between Mr. Lee and Dr. Brenner more than 20 years ago. The traditional mobile clinic is gone; in the horizon new symbols of our nascent scientific prowess arise.

Where will we go from here? Unlike a work of fiction, this real life story has no predefined ending, and nobody can predict what the turns and twists ahead will be.

But when they happen, you know you can catch it right here.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

It's How You Use It

Jake Shimabukuro playing George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on a ukelele.

Most impressive.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Science In Singapore: Part I

I still remember the smell of the medicated oil and the whirring sound of the generator.

The year is 1984.

I was a little boy accompanying my grandmother to a mobile clinic providing traditional Chinese medical services such as Tui Na and acupuncture to the elderly.

It was just a simple van packed with various medicated oils and powered by a portable generator. My grandmother suffered from chronic joint aches and was consulting the TCM practitioner there. So I sat on a stool at the car park and waited while she was being treated.

I could not have known at the time, but right then two very powerful people were having an important discussion. The Prime Minister of Singapore Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and the Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge Dr. Sydney Brenner had this conversation -

Dr. Brenner: "You must have an institute of molecular cell biology where people can be trained in research. You can't do biotechnology without it."

Mr. Lee: "We are a nation of technicians."

Dr. Brenner: "If you do not take up this path, you will remain a nation of technicians forever."

The Institute of Molecular Cell Biology (IMCB) was established three years later with little fanfare, signaling a modest beginning to Singaporean science. This new institute provided job opportunities for an early batch of Singaporean scientists.

One of them (who is now an associate professor) once lamented to me that research positions practically did not exist prior to IMCB. He worked as a manager in a media company before an opportunity arose to do science at IMCB, and he has been doing research ever since.

While IMCB and the universities have been steadily producing good science for years, the Life Science endeavour really took off only at the turn of the century.

With the completion of the American-led Human Genome Project just on the horizon, in Sept 2000 the chairman of the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) Mr. Philip Yeo announced that the 21st century would be a "biocentury" filled with exciting new opportunities for bio-industry.

The life sciences will be the next wave in Singapore's economy. Local universities began to offer life science degree programs in 2002. Construction began in late 2001 on a new, multi-million dollar research complex called Biopolis, slated for completion in 2003.

There was much excitement among the general public about this new vision.

But I was rather worried. Around that time, the boom has enticed many young people to take up computing and engineering, only to face unemployment when the bubble burst. Will the life science endeavour suffer a similar fate?

To be continued...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Vending Machines And Expensive Restaurants

We have two vending machines in our institute, one dispenses cold drinks, and the other dispenses snacks such as potato chips and cup noodles.

Every Wednesday they get replenished. By Tuesday, they are nearly empty, especially the snacks machine. It is especially hard to get your hands on a cup noodle since they are immediately snapped up once they have been refilled.

As a related observation, the Biopolis complex has a number of pricey restaurants which are nearly empty every day, while the cafeteria is packed with people, sometimes with lines that are more than ten people long per stall.

Many others rather eat at the food centre at Holland Drive. In fact I know that one of our deputy directors likes to eat Yong Tau Hoo (Stewed Tofu) from the Holland market.

People, regardless of nationalities, prefer not to eat at the fancy eateries here. Of course it's no surprise that cheap food is more popular. But the expensive restaurants are really deserted. I often wonder how long they will survive. Some eateries have already closed not long after opening.

I also wonder who decided to put those expensive restaurants here? There must have been some misunderstanding going on. Of the approximately 2000 staff in Biopolis, only a handful of people are rich enough to eat at such places regularly.

Most people are "salarymen" getting by on a few thousand a month. Students are even poorer. The market size for expensive restaurants is already tiny.

To make things worse, scientists are not in the habit of spending frivolously. I know a senior scientist who wears a black plastic Casio watch to work every day.

Years of living on very little have taught them to be cautious with money. Especially foreign scientists whose home countries were not that generous with science budgets.

So, unlike business people or administrators or lawyers who drive big cars and live large, even top scientists watch their expenditure closely.

And the biggest problem about putting fancy restaurants in a science complex?


Scientists don't have it.

One of our group leaders doesn't even eat lunch until recently. He once said that time should be spent doing experiments rather than having lunch.

I know he is exaggerating, but it is true that most people would rather quickly grab a sandwich or a packet of rice and head back to the lab. It's hard to imagine anyone having the time to leisurely chit-chat for hours in a fancy restaurant while your experiments are brewing in the lab.

Which is why vending machines, for all the cardboard nutrafood that they provide, are still so popular.

Somebody must really be disconnected with reality.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Cool shit.

Pipe Dream

By Animusic.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What A Week

I just recovered from a serious bout of food poisoning. Body aches and diarrhoea for a few days.

It was very painful.

Now I just generally feel weak, but it's not just the illness - truth be told my health hasn't been that great these few years.

While resting at home, I was thinking about Fresh Brainz and noticed that this blog has become more impersonal, obsessed with top ten lists and drifted gradually towards American rather than Singaporean concerns.

By omitting the local environmental and cultural context in Singapore, I have completely failed to communicate just how strange and novel the nascent scientific endeavour is to our tropical island nation.

I plan to rectify this.

To reveal the hopes, the excitement, the triumphs, the worries, anxieties and disappointments of the pioneering batch of Singapore life scientists in all its genuine, weathered colour.

Presented in the same chirpy language style, as always.

Only here, at

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Top Ten Misunderstood Terms in Biology

If you ever had the misfortune of sitting next to a bunch of biogeeks in the cafeteria during lunch, you might overhear such frightening terms like "cloning" and "transformation" casually thrown about like nobody's business.

Are they growing an army of Boba Fetts in a giant vat?


At Fresh Brainz we have long realized that the truth is always funnier.

Thus, we have compiled a list of the top ten most misunderstood terms in biology just for you!

10. Probes / Microsatellites

Everyone knows that biologists are really wannabe physicists who failed their maths but don't suck enough to become social scientists. As such, fanciful terms from such real sciences like astrophysics may enter into their vocabulary.

Probes for example, are neither anal implements nor interplanetary spacecraft - they are simply short, specific stretches of DNA or RNA that are tagged with some kind of labels (chemical or radioactive tags). They are used to help pick out the large sections of DNA that you want.

Likewise microsatellites are not the latest cost-saving inventions from NASA; they are repeat sequences in genomic DNA which are unique to every person, thus useful for forensic identification.

9. Transformation

While this term immediately brings to mind the howls of a werewolf on a full moon night, those of us born in the 70's know that it actually reflects the struggle between Autobots and the Decepticons.

Not really.

Transformation has two meanings in biology.

The more routine meaning refers to the process where bacteria cells are made to take up plasmid DNA (a circular form of DNA), usually using heat shock or an electric pulse. They can then be used as a tool to produce more of these plasmids for research purposes.

When talking about mammalian cell culture though, transformation has a more scary meaning. Transformed cells in this case resemble cancer cells - they don't form a monolayer and they divide uncontrollably. These cells are the basis of long-term cell lines which are helpful research tools in the study of cancer and many other biological processes.

8. Clone

The string of such intellectual flicks as Judge Dredd and The Sixth Day have firmly implanted the images of giant vats and fast-growing embryos into the minds of the public consciousness whenever the term "cloning" appears.

Either that or a sheep with giant boobs.

Anyway, the routine meaning of "clone" is simply a process to copy a piece of DNA using bacterial plasmids. "Clones" are usually tubes of bacteria carrying that DNA (as a matter of convention a "whole" DNA clone should contain one gene worth of material, otherwise it's a "sub-clone").

Of course Dolly the sheep is also a "clone", at the level of a whole organism. But she wasn't grown in a vat. I hope people are aware that in this context, a clone has the same meaning as an identical twin.

7. Library

Not a depository of knowledge as such, but a collection of DNA fragments that have been randomly chopped up and inserted into either bacteria or lambda phages.

For example, the zebrafish genomic library contains the entire zebrafish genomic DNA cloned into millions of bacterial artificial chromosomes (BAC). You have to sequence this library or screen it using probes in order to extract useful information.

6. Media

Although not inclined towards publicity except when they win Nobel prizes, biologists do use media every day.

Which are simply solutions used to grow stuff in.

Luria-Bertani (LB) media, a yellow solution that smells vaguely like chicken soup, is used for growing bacteria. Dulbecco's Modified Eagle's Medium (DMEM) is a red solution often used as part of the mixture for growing mammalian cells.

And to the horrified receptionist who asked about the contents of DMEM a long time ago:

No, it does NOT contain any actual eagles.

5. Literature

In addition to their obsession with media, all scientists read up their literature often. However, none of these works will ever win a Pulitzer Prize for literary excellence.

Their format is too stiff, the vocabulary often unintelligible and there is no stylish prose to speak of. In fact, most of the time their contents are not even written in English - instead there is a smattering of technical terms amidst huge blocks of mathematical equations (damn you structural biologists!)

Literature refers the vast body of research publications in the scientific community.

I don't know what's the history behind this, but yes, I do think it's a cruel joke to consider scientific papers as "literature".

4. Selection

I understand that when Charles Darwin coined the term "natural selection" he was comparing it to the artificial selection process that dog breeders use. This, however was an unfortunate choice of words that has encumbered evolutionary biologists ever since.

Nature isn't actively "selecting" anyone - individuals that make it to reproductive age are simply survivors in their environment. People have suggested "natural preservation" to make this process sound less personified.

In daily use, "selection" is often accomplished using plasmid DNA containing antibiotic-resistant genes. Only bacteria containing the DNA we want will grow in media that contain antibiotics.

3. Design

A term often used by professors in class, "design" in biology refers to the organization of the biological process or structure. It doesn't mean that the structure is purposely designed to fulfill its current function.

Regrettably, just like "selection" suggests a selector, so "design" hints at a designer - an implication not lost on Intelligent Design supporters desperate to "mine" the quotes of famous scientists.

2. Theory / Model

Used in everyday language to describe a mere hunch, "theory" in science has a far more substantial status.

It is equivalent in rank to "Law" or "Fact". Only well-supported ideas, with plenty of evidence gained using different approaches, can be promoted to the rank of Theory.

"Guesstimates" in science are called hypotheses, or models.

Sadly "models" in common-speak refers either to the "assemble it yourself" variety found in toy stores, or the "can disassemble anytime" type found in fashion shows.

1. God

And most misunderstood term in biology (perhaps in all of science) is: God.

Top scientists, even the not-so-religious ones, sometimes mention God when describing biological processes to the general public.

To many scientists, God essentially means Nature. When they use this term, they allude to the more mysterious, currently unknown mechanisms behind the wonders of Nature.

Unfortunately, in the common language, God refers to a specific deity, who is associated with specific belief systems, who exists outside of Nature but yet is directly involved with the personal lives of every single human being on this planet.

So whenever a scientist mentions God, there will be many people interpreting this as an expression of support for their own belief system.

Take for example, my belief in a God of Chocolate, which is strengthened every time a prominent scientist says "God".

Oops! That's not what they really meant.

Would you like to know more?

- about terms in molecular biology
- about
Einstein's God
- about the
most abused catchphrases in science

Friday, November 10, 2006

Take A Break, Have A Nobel Prize!

Which science geek has not fantasized about walking up a red carpet and receiving a prestigious medal from royalty?

No, not this award. Dudes I'm talking about the real world here!

On Monday, I had a few hours between classes, so I decided to visit the Nobel exhibition, which is in town for a few months.

This traveling exhibition commemorates 100 years of the Nobel prize, and has already been to 11 cities around the world, starting with Oslo (Norway) in 2001.

Since it will be featured in only 15 cities globally, I think Singapore is at least somewhat important to the exhibition organizers. Sigh, 12 out of 15 is still better than none out of 15.

You are thinking, "Man are you obsessed with meaningless rankings."

Hey, it's not my fault. It's a national pastime ;)

Anyway, Fresh Brainz takes you on a tour of the Nobel exhibition!

Here I am at the entrance. I'm wearing silly grin because admission is free for students.

Nah, it's just because I'm silly.

Upon entry I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by a couple of young, enthusiastic museum guides. There weren't many other visitors, so they gave me a personal guided tour.

Oh guys, you shouldn't have! I'm just a rank-less fellow student.


Sadly they declined to be featured on this blog, thus missing their only shot at fame in the Singaporean science geek scene. Which currently consists of me and... um... like two other people.


This is the deathmask of Alfred Nobel himself. He died in 1896 at the age of 63 years, which isn't that old by today's standards. I remarked to the guides that the mask revealed that Nobel looked rather young at that time.

Not many wrinkles.

They just continued to hit me about more important facts.

Fresh Brainz is not about facts. We only deal in fluff.

Let's start by checking out some newspaper clippings!

Ah. How can a Nobel exhibition be complete without Albert Einstein? I'll bet you the last dollar in my wallet that Einstein is the first (and probably the only) name that pops into everyone's head when "Nobel prize" is mentioned.

More about him later!

Of the five Nobel prizes (the prize for Economics is not really a Nobel prize), the prize for Peace is one of the most controversial. Originally intended for peace activists, the first statesman to be awarded this prize is US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Since then many other powerful world leaders have been recommended - even Adolf Hitler!

Luckily he wasn't awarded the prize.

I think this emphasizes how tough it is to make predictions in the world of politics. Powerful people have the potential both to do a lot of good and a lot of harm. The Peace prize committee is the smallest of the five prize committees, consisting of only five experts who have to make this difficult decision.

What gives you greater pride than winning a Nobel prize? Turning it down, why of course!

French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (who once said "Hell is other people") was awarded the Literature prize in 1964, but he declined it.

His reasons? He had always refused official honours, and he didn't want to be turned into an "institution".

Sartre, you are one crazy-ass fool for turning away one million Kronors just to laugh at the Establishment.


*tears welling up*

Now for some artifacts. This is a letter that Einstein wrote in reply to the Nobel Physics committee for awarding him the 1921 Physics prize. Their decision was actually announced in late 1922 when Einstein was away on a trip to Japan. He penned this letter on the return trip to Europe in early 1923.

That was no internet generation, my friends.

What's the significance of this short letter, you might ask.

Oh, Einstein was off the coast of Singapore when he wrote this letter, hence the words "Nahe Singapore" (English = Near Singapore).

Not like he actually set foot on our island or anything.

Like stamps or money, it's important details like this that elevate the value of a piece of paper immensely.


And now I will be more serious for two seconds. [serious] This simple bottle of penicillin represents the monumental achievement of Sir Alexander Fleming, who won the Physiology or Medicine award in 1945 for his work on antibiotics.

In my opinion, his discovery has a greater impact on human health than any other discovery in the 20th century.[/serious]

Was that two seconds? Man you read fast!

To sum up Sir Fleming's effort, a wise professor once said, "The use of antibiotics has reduced childhood mortality so effectively that we can all look forward to a long, slow death from neurodegenerative diseases."

Look! A Cornell University dinner plate. A memento that symbolizes the playful spirit of physicist and all-round nice uncle Richard Feynman who won the Physics prize in 1965. You can read about the significance of the plate here.

Feynman once said:

... I thought to myself, I haven’t done anything important and I’m never going to do anything important. But I used to enjoy physics and mathematical things and because I used to play with them it was very short order (that I) worked the things out for which I later won the Nobel Prize.

Well, I'm playful too...

*starts fantasizing again*

As I mentioned earlier, the Nobel Peace prize is often disputed. However, Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union during the "glasnost" years, is commonly accepted as the architect of peace who finally ended the Cold War. I believe he truly deserves his 1990 Peace prize.

I put this photo up because I remember Gorbachev, the birthmark on his forehead, and the fall of the Berlin Wall as a kid.

I am that old.

No actually I put this up because at that time everyone spelt his name as Gorbachev, although they pronounced it as Gorbachov. Now they finally spell it Gorbachov!

I know you don't care.

This year's winners for Physiology or Medicine are Andrew Fire and Craig Mello. They discovered a process called RNA interference (RNAi), which is a method that cells use to fend off invasion from viruses. Their discovery allows scientists to use the same mechanism to turn off specific genes.

A useful experimental and future therapeutic tool.

RNAi works to a different extent in different species of life. In worms it is especially effective and permanent, whereas in mammals it is more variable and temporary. Even so, it is quicker and much more convenient to turn off genes by RNAi than by traditional methods like homologous recombination.

You can learn more about RNAi from this video, produced by Nature magazine.

And finally - the JUICY part of the exhibition!

Imagine YOU won the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. What will you actually receive?

OK, stop drooling and pay attention.

You will get one of these fine Swedish-designed medals (Peace prize medals were designed in Norway) which is made of solid 18K gold, plated with 24K gold for that added shine.

On the obverse side you will see uncle Nobel's face.

On the reverse side you will see this. Notice that little blank section at the bottom of the medal?

Yes, my friend. That's where YOUR name be engraved.

You are one lucky, lucky, smart dude.

Your medal will be presented to you (by the King of Sweden, no less) in this fine medal box emblazoned with your name.

You will also receive a diploma just like this one, presented to Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, in 1933.


Which reminds me - since the Nobel prize cannot be given out post-humously, Schrodinger's Cat cannot receive it because we cannot tell if it's dead or alive without opening the box.

That was so insider.

Just a few more things to mention. Here are the photos of 16 aunties who won various Nobel prizes. Out of the 768 individual laureates to date, only 33 are women.

Of course as more women enter science, literature and politics, this number is set to go up. Soon I will be able to write more stories of Nobel auntie lectures, in addition to Nobel uncle lectures.

To showcase all of the Nobel prize winners to visitors, the exhibitors have constructed this bizarre-looking device that "parades" the banners of every single winner on curved rails, two banners at a time. It takes more than 5 hours to complete one whole cycle.

It's strange to see pictures of people moving around in a cold, metallic contraption that makes lots of clicks and clattering noises.

In fact it's rather eerie.

I found the Francois Jacob's banner slotted somewhere in there, but I was too impatient to wait for it to come out for a photo opportunity.

Just as I was about to leave the exhibition, I noticed this on the information counter.


That is so wrong.

Which is why I bought ten. I gave nine of these to my fellow lab members.

I shared the remaining chocolate Nobel with my family; it's made of dark chocolate and is quite good actually.

So... if you are in Singapore, why not pop by the exhibition and pick up a handful of Nobel prizes to enjoy after lunch?


Would you like to know more?

- about the Nobel prize
- about the Nobel Museum
- about other previous exhibitions

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ted Haggard Haiku

Thought you pwned Dawkins

Thought you pwned God, but alas

You pwned your own Ass

Would you like to know more?

Be Very Afraid

Thanks A.H. for the tip!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Top Five Reasons Why Science Is T3h L33t

A long, long time ago, scientists were called "natural philosophers" and squatted together with inventors, artists, political activists and other crackpot dreamers at the fringes of society.

Which is usually a pub.

Where they would drink too much and amuse each other with insider jokes.

Science was cool.

Then came the invention of Industry, and scientists suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with businessmen, lawyers and politicians. Gradually, as the scientific enterprise required more and more resources, it drifted away from its underdog roots and became an essential part of the Establishment.

It became a part of The Man.

Which isn't at all cool.

Today Fresh Brainz revisits the roots of the scientific endeavour and digs out the top five reasons why science is still t3h 1337 today!

5. Science can investigate (nearly) anything

From "touchy-feely" subjects like love, to "don't touch with a forty-foot pole" subjects like cannibalism, science can be used to study them all. Take for example this McGill University study of human sexual arousal, where scientists aim thermal cameras at the genitals of volunteers to find out which gender gets horny faster.

Why? Why? How can anyone get paid for doing that sort of research? More importantly, why am I not doing that sort of research?

You can study nearly anything, as long as you can formulate a clear hypothesis. And it can't be unethical or illegal, of course. Although science only deals with Nature, it is not limited by what people believe is natural. Not that long ago, such ethereal phenomena as the movement of the planets, the tempestuous weather and the workings of the human mind were considered supernatural.

Today we have natural explanations for all of these. And the truth turns out to be even more awe-inspiring and bizarre than the original supernatural postulates.

4. It works

Anyone can dream up any explanation for anything. But no matter how simple and aesthetically pleasing your pet hypothesis is, Mother Nature is the boss. Your idea must be supported by evidence from Nature, be it direct observations (such as astronomy) or experimental results (such as molecular biology).

Science-fans often quote Ockham's Razor: the simplest solution is usually the best one. Scientists, on the other hand, know that the best solution is often neither simple nor elegant.

Not convinced? Here is a chart of the molecular processes in a cell:

The best solution is the one that fits the data best, no matter how painful it is to study or look at. If your hypothesis is not supported by data, no amount of mental gymnastics or appeal to personal "feelings" can save it.

3. It's reliable

About a week ago, there was an article in a local newspaper about a number of people who won the lottery because they obtained a winning number from an altar of the Tua Pek Kong(Chinese = 大伯公) deity. Since then more devotees have gone to that altar to pray for "true" numbers (真字).

I have no doubt in my mind that one of these devotees will win the lottery one day.

But when? Who will it be? And how many people will go home empty-handed?

Unlike lottery results, the validity of scientific findings cannot be based on a few chance hits. Experimental results must be repeatable by other groups. Similar results must be obtained many times, using different approaches and techniques. Your confidence in your pet hypothesis should only grow after you have robust evidence to support it, not before.

To ensure the reliability of their results, scientists must also perform experiments that control for alternative explanations. They must be careful not to be misled by experimental biases, placebo effects and random effects.

In contrast, this notion of reliability is missing (or explained away by playing word games) in the pseudosciences such as astrology, geomancy and numerology. This is one major reason why these subjects are not considered part of real science.

2. It's self-correcting

Like any other human activity, science has its own share of quacks. However, the scientific community has a self-correcting mechanism to limit the impact of shoddy research or deliberate fraud.

First, when a scientific manuscript is submitted for publication, it has to go through a peer-review process, where errors and omissions are usually detected.

Next, after the paper is published, other research groups will try to replicate the results. If nobody can repeat these findings, then the community will not consider the results trustworthy. There are many instances of supposed scientific breakthroughs that are caught at this stage.

On top of this, in my opinion, the scientific culture itself is the best safeguard against errors and cheating. Since scientific facts are not immortal truths and must be revised when better evidence comes in, these facts tend to become more and more accurate over time.

1. It knows its own shortcomings

Now for the Number One reason why science is t3h h4xx0rz - it is aware that it doesn't know everything.

In many medieval world maps, uncharted territories are often embellished with drawings of mythical creatures such as dragons and hydras.

Later, the term "terra incognito" (English = unknown land) is used to mark unexplored areas. This may appear to be an tiny change, but it represents a huge leap in the maturity of human thought.

For the first time, people became aware that there can be terra that is incognito. They realized that there are limitations to human abilities, perception and understanding. Instead of relying on vague, cosmic-scale myths that seek to explain everything at once, they started to examine Nature more carefully, one small piece of the puzzle at a time.

Thus, science is like a tall building that is made of bricks. Although each brick is tiny, it is quite strong because it is made using a reliable method.

Brick-by-brick the building grows. With each completed floor, the bricks are improved and strengthened. Building techniques become better refined in order to reach greater and greater heights. The role that each brick plays becomes clearer as the building begins to take shape. Whole floors can become readjusted.

How high will the building go? What will be its final shape? The scientific endeavour thrives on mystery and knows that there is always room for improvement.

One baby step at a time, scientists created a tool for humanity to reach the sky.

However, even today there are many people who sneer at this ugly patchwork tool, because they think that something that is always incomplete does not satisfy their need to have an quick explanation for everything.

They believe that they can reach the sky in one magical leap. So they'll sit on the ground and hurl abuse at the stoopid builders until that day comes.

Ok, that's cool, if it ever happens.

I won't bet on it though.

In the meantime I'll be up here guzzling beer and making me own shiny new brick, sUx0rZ.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Sexy Scientists Part II : Readers' Choice!

Hi Fresh Brainz fanz! Thank you for your submissions on the hottest real scientists and engineers ever. We didn't receive much stuff about hunks, so we will be focusing on the hot babes instead.

So... here they are - the Fresh Brainz Readers' Choice!

*drum roll*

Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000) : Movie Star, Inventor (Electrical Engineering)

A Hollywood screen siren in the 1930s, Ms. Lamarr co-invented a "frequency hopping" system with George Antheil in 1942. Originally intended as a guidance system for a radio-controlled torpedo that would be less susceptible to jamming, her idea was way ahead of her time. It would later become the basis of modern wireless communications.

Ms. Lamarr's Patent No. 2,292,387.

Christina D. Smolke : Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Smolke works on biomolecular engineering, modifying RNA and other bioactive molecules into modular technology platforms for medical applications. She has published in prestigious journals such as Nature Biotechnology.

Danica McKellar : TV Star, Mathematics summa cum laude 1998, University of California Los Angeles.

Better known in her role as Winnie Cooper in the hit TV series The Wonder Years, Ms. McKellar co-authored a mathematics paper with her professor Lincoln Chayes and fellow undergrad Brandy Winn. The results of this paper is also known as the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem.

Kirsten Sanford : Post-doctoral Fellow (PhD UC Davis), Neurophysiology, University of California Davis.

Dr. Sanford was trained in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology, and she is best known as the host of the popular science radio show This Week in Science. She was awarded the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship Award in recognition for her work on the show.


All I can say is - Fresh Brainz readers have excellent taste!

*Updated on 22 June 2007

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Lame Joke

One day, a professor was teaching introductory genetics to a bunch of first-year undergrads.

"...and so big 'B' stands for the dominant allele. Can anyone tell me what the little 'b' stands for?"

"I know! I know!" a student cried out.

"What is it?"

"It's the submissive allele!"

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sexy Scientists

You know, I don't actually watch much TV drama. I especially dislike "science" shows like CSI. Everything is over-dramatized and hyped up.

I mean - coloured eppendorf tubes? Why? Why?

And it's not just the stuff they use, neither.

Look at all these "scientists". How many scientists you know look so damned good?

Just look at my ho-hum face on the right sidebar, and you instantly realize that science folks normally look, well, normal.

Or so I thought.

Until I stumbled upon this gem of a blog called Sexy Science Version 1.0.

The resident blogger there keeps track of the hottest guy scientists she knows.

Like this one.

Stand aside, Gary Sinise. Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a real scientist - a solid-state chemist, in fact.

And more importantly, he is so aw... aw... CUTE!!!

Wait a sec dudes. I'm a dude.

So I am delighted to bring to you the Fresh Brainz - Three Hottest Women Of Science!

*drum roll*

Here they are (in no particular order) :

Tara C. Smith : Assistant Professor, Epidemiology, University of Iowa.

Dr. Smith studies microbial pathogens. She is also a prolific science blogger, writing her own blog called Aetiology at Seed scienceblogs, and contributing articles to the Panda's Thumb.

Titia de Lange : Professor, Cancer Biology, Rockefeller University.

Prof. de Lange works on the structure and function of telomeres. She is an elected member of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and has won many awards (such as the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research) in her illustrious career.

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz : Professor, Developmental Biology, Gurdon Institute (Cambridge).

Prof. Zernicka-Goetz studies polarity and patterning in early mouse embryo development. She has numerous superb publications and is an editorial board member of the journal "Cell Fate & Determination".

That is my list.

Don't agree?

Then send me a photo link of your favorite hot scientist or engineer!

Can be a hunk or a babe. Please give me a short description of his or her research field.

Just put the link in the comments or send it to me by email.

I'll collect them so that we can all vote on them later!