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“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!

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!


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fresh Brainz Gets Hate Review!

It is with twisted pleasure that I announce yet another Fresh Brainz exclusive - our first hate review!

A few days ago I wrote this tongue-in-cheek rant about why doing scientific research sucks. I've discussed this issue on a forum and so far all the biologists and some physicists there agreed that the article is an accurate (albeit incomplete) portrait of the reality of a science career.

Then someone put my article on another forum, and a poster called Stas Bush has this to say about my article (his response is in bold) :

Posted: Fri Oct 27, 2006 9:10 am Post subject:

Science doesn't suck. It's fucking idiots who suck.

Quote: Your performance is always being assessed, so it's hard to tell how long you can stay employed.

Oh for the love of Pete. This is exactly what's good about science/technics. You can't just sit there and be a fucking asshole, still earn a lot of money. You have to fucking prove you're a smart, educated scientist, or you fly off real fast. If career building in America is built around "how much money I can get" instead of "how can I realise myself intellectually", no wonder american science is degrading.

Quote: And the Number One reason why science sucks is - the long duration of training.

Number One only for stupid, anti-intellectual shitheads who belong to the monkey type of primates, not the fucking human type, who cannot endure even some 5-6 years of training. To these people only a big fuck you.

Quote: Which means that there is no guarantee of success.

Which means whoever wrote this is a scared consumer-mentality shithead. Of course there's no fucking guarantee. But there's the chance of getting new horizons. For most who go into science, that's enough. Being there. Cutting the fucking edge. Is that so hard to understand? Fucking losers.

Quote: It can become too much sometimes. BORING!

Oh fuck, someone who can't just get his ass down and work. Color me impressed. That's not an objection - that's a self-worthlesseness note.

Quote: Not quite a battle-hardened veteran yet, but certainly no starry-eyed puppy.

This man is a fucking disgrace to science. I've known such. Worthless piece-of-shit cowardly scum. Better to kill yourself that live such a worthless, science-hating life. There are plenty of people who enjoy science and get a kick out of it, people who work in nuclear physics, constructions, biotech, anywhere - this guy is a fucking loser and disgrace. "No puppy"? He's just a piece of puppy shit.

Erm... thanks?

First of all, Stas my friend, I'm not American. This fact was stated twice in my article.

And I obviously don't hate science. In fact, Fresh Brainz is the ONE and ONLY science blog in Singapore. We publish the best and most entertaining science fluff for everyone!

Dude you need to chill.

Friday, October 27, 2006

All The Best, Shaw!

A hardworking researcher in our lab is leaving for another appointment, after more than 2 years with us.

Good luck and all the best for your future endeavors!

Another Demotivational Poster

Remember my post about "demotivational" posters three months ago?

Here's another one from Barnze's Muses:

The truth is always funnier...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Top Five Reasons Why Science Sucks

I know you're thinking, "Dude, aren't you like, doing this science thing man? How can you diss it?"

My friend, I've been in this business for five years. Not quite a battle-hardened veteran yet, but certainly no starry-eyed puppy.

So I know what I'm saying. I'm not denying that some parts of science are fun. Like when an experiment works out perfectly and the data matches your expectations. And those entertaining, bawdy intellectual discussions between fellow researchers.

Then there are... the other parts.

Fresh Brainz counts down the top five reasons why doing science sucks!

5. Moolah: The Lack Thereof

Few people do science for the sake of getting rich. Even so, I think people fail to realize just how little money they will make by this career route. This is especially painful when you're in graduate school.

When I saw my first student stipend, my heart sank. It was about the same as the salary of a factory worker. I'm telling you, being a geek, I had always thought that money didn't matter to me.

I was wrong. That hurt.

Should you intend to do science, there will come a day when a "less educated" friend drives up to you in a shiny new Honda, complete with an impressive job title, exclusive club memberships and wads of dough.

While all you have is instant noodles to keep you alive.

Did your eyelids twitch there for an instant? Please think twice.

4. What Job Security?

I know some Singaporeans look down on contract work. They prefer to be offered a permanent position.

Here's the real deal: in science there is no such thing as a permanent position. Research assistants typically get 1-3 year renewable contracts.

Post-doctoral fellowships last three years each. Even assistant professors are on three-year contracts. Only tenured professors get some semblance of permanence.

Very, very few scientists become tenured professors.

Your performance is always being assessed, so it's hard to tell how long you can stay employed. This is one reason why researchers always try to save money when they can.

In Singapore, administrators drive big cars and eat at fancy restaurants, but scientists - even the directors of research institutes - take public transport.

3. The Devil Is In The Details

When I was a little boy I loved drawing, so my mum took me to an arts class.

I drew stars as little dots because I knew they are faraway suns. My teacher insisted that they should be drawn with five corners, because "we" see them with five corners.

Well I don't. And I have never drawn stars with five corners ever since. I told my mum, "I don't want to have more arts lessons. If I learn too much about it, I will not love art any more."

Unfortunately, doing science is all about details. You have to check all of the nitty-gritty bits about your research. Previous work, the methods: technology, reagent, protocol, experiment approach, conclusion... lots and lots of painful details. There are often exceptions and ambiguities.

It can become too much sometimes. BORING!

Ultimately, Mother Nature is the Boss. A complex, messy model that is supported by evidence is always chosen over a simple, elegant model that is unsupported.

Amidst all these rules and details, is there any room for creativity in science?

Pffft, sure.

It's like manoeuvering a unicycle on a tightrope.

2. Failure Inc.

Do you like failure? How do you like it ten times in a row? Or 100 times? Science is about the cutting edge. Which means that there is no guarantee of success.

To make things worse, experiments usually have numerous steps. If you're lucky, failure strikes you at the first step. If you're not... there'll be a massive amount of troubleshooting to do.

Many times in your research career your self-confidence will be tested to its limits. In fact, my own morale was so devastated after my qualifying exam that I created Fresh Brainz out of sheer frustration!

The public fantasizes about smart people in white lab coats having a quick answer for everything. They have no idea how much work is required just to understand a tiny detail in science.

I think this is the main reason why scientists loathe creationists / intelligent design theorists so much. Those assholes think that "doing science" is sitting on a high pedestal and criticizing everything that scientists do while producing absolutely no experimental evidence of their own.

No it isn't.

1. Where Did My Youth Go?

And the Number One reason why science sucks is - the long duration of training.

Young, chirpy idealists enter the profession with dreams of greatness. A few years as an undergraduate. A few years of graduate school. A few more years as a first post-doc. Then the second post-doc...

Year by year your youth trickles away.

One day you will look back and discover that while other people were spending the best years of their life building their families, gaining wealth and generally having fun - you were alone in the lab accompanied only by flasks of bacteria.

Always waiting... waiting for stuff to equilibrate, incubate or terminate.

Not like I am trying to be discouraging or anything. ;)

Haze Is Over

The rain is back.

The haze has been quelled.

But alas, it will come again next year.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wee Shu Min

Today, when I went to Technorati to check on my blog's non-existent rank, I saw this:

Hmm... I recall seeing this name when I scanned the Straits Times this morning. So I thought - "Cool! A Singaporean is a top search item on Technorati!"

Turns out that Miss Wee Shu Min is a young blogger and daughter of a politician. She made a rather unpleasant comment on another guy's blog (Mr. Derek Wee) regarding a topic that many Singaporeans are deeply concerned about: long-term job security.

Resulting in a quite a buzz in the local blogosphere.

You can read more about this here:

Original article by Derek Wee

Comments by Wee Shu Min

Or if you have no time to read, here's a hilarious video that tells you what happened:

I will not go into the details here - Fresh Brainz is not that sort of blog!

However let me point out something relevant to biology that both authors mentioned in their posts. Derek Wee noted that (italicized by me) :

Onus is really on the government to revamp the society. A society that is not a pressure cooker. A society that does not mirror so perfectly, what survival of the fittest is. But a society, where it’s people can be committed, do their best and not having to fear whether they will still wake up employed tomorrow.

Wee Shu Min countered (italicized by me) :

if you're not good enough, life will kick you in the balls. that's just how things go. there's no point in lambasting the government for making our society one that is, i quote, "far too survival of fittest". it's the same everywhere. yes discrimination exists, and it is sad, but most of the time if people would prefer hiring other people over you, it's because they're better.

What a coincidence - I just wrote an article a few days ago that the term "survival of the fittest" is one of the most abused catchphrases in science.

Abused yet again.

Take that Darwin! TWACK!

*an anguished murmur from beyond the grave*

Sunday, October 22, 2006

2002 Unique Visitors!

My BlogPatrol stats tells me that sometime this morning, our 2002nd Visitor (since September) strolled by and enjoyed a free waffle.

Yet another milestone reached!

Although we are still a fringe phenomenon, Fresh Brainz would like to thank everyone for supporting us - the second best kept secret in the blogosphere.

You may be thinking, "Well then, what's the best kept secret in the blogosphere?"

Sorry guys, that blog... erm... it's not work safe.

I'm not telling you where it is.

No seriously, I won't.

*sticks fingers into my ears*

Tra-la-la-la I can't hear you!

Which reminds me: fellow bloggers, if you are having trouble getting traffic to your site, why not join a blog community like BlogMad or BlogExplosion?

Not only will you get a boost of confidence when you get some visitors, you also get to check out other interesting blogs.

That way you can learn how to write better and make your site more attractive. You can also exchange links with other novice bloggers.

Personally, I find that I get more traffic from BlogMad. On the other hand, BlogExplosion has more fun features. It's entirely up to you.

Sounds like a plan? Just click on the buttons in the "Blog Tools" section of my sidebar to sign up (referred by me).

Or if you prefer to sign up by yourself, just click the below links.



Happy Blogging!

*I've hidden its URL somewhere in this blog. Just one random pixel. You will never find it. Never! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Most Abused Catchphrases In Science

Today we count down to the most abused catchphrase in the history of science!

4. Survival Of The Fittest

Misattributed to: Charles Darwin
Actually coined by: Herbert Spencer

The phrase "survival of the fittest" has a negative reputation, because it has been used in the past as an excuse for eugenics, racism, and genocide.

However, to Darwin, having "fitness" is not about having huge muscles or looking like the perfect Aryan Superman. It is about being well adapted to your environment, and surviving long enough to make babies. This is why fish that can't see and birds that can't fly are still considered very "fit".

Herbert Spencer, who was trying to link social evolution with biological evolution, invented this phrase. He was thinking more along the lines of Lamarckian selection, rather than natural selection. But even Spencer did not intend the phrase to mean a struggle for survival between human beings, he was more concerned about the influence of the environment.

Unfortunately, because it is short, sharp and provocative, "survival of the fittest" has been associated with biological evolution ever since.

3. Everything Is Relative

Misattributed to: Albert Einstein
Actually coined by: ?

Where this phrase comes from is a mystery, since Einstein himself never said anything remotely like it. In his Special Relativity, he proposed that an observer travelling at a fixed speed will always measure the speed of light to be the same, not matter how fast or which direction she travels.

His bizarre idea shattered the common view at that time that there are absolute frames of reference and that time flows the same for everyone.

But not "everything" is relative. For example, the speed of light is absolute - it doesn't change no matter what your relative motion is.

Whatever its origin, the "everything is relative" quote has been used to support all sorts of ideas outside of physics such as moral relativism, spiritualism and New Age mysticism.

If it came from Einstein's mouth, why, it must be true!

This shows that even 101 years after the publication of Special Relativity, in the minds of ordinary people, Einstein's brand name still far exceeds the substance of his discoveries.

2. A Quantum Leap

Misattributed to: Physicists
Actually coined by: Poets and Journalists

In the early 20th century, physicists realized that one of the assumptions of "classical" physics - that you can measure any physical characteristic with infinite precision - is wrong. No matter how good your instruments become, very tiny quantities come in fixed "steps". There is simply no in-between values.

A photon is a fixed packet of energy, no more and no less. Electrons move between fixed energy levels. It is not a smooth range of values.

Thus, physicists invented the term "quantum jump" to describe the absolute smallest change in a physical value.

Unfortunately, this was transformed by journalists into the catchphrase "quantum leap" which describes huge advancements in science or technology.

The exact opposite meaning of what the physicists intended.

Even so, this phrase is so popular today that even scientists use it often to emphasize big improvements.

I think this suggests that people simply prefer to worship very big things rather than very small things. This is why it took us so long to realize that tiny things like bacteria and viruses can kill people so effectively.

1. The Big Bang

Misattributed to: Georges Lemaitre
Actually coined by: Fred Hoyle

Now for the Number One most abused catchphrase in science - "The Big Bang". The inflationary model of the Universe was conceptualized by Georges Lemaitre, but in a cruel twist of fate, it was his opponent Fred Hoyle who came up with the popular name for it. He called it the "Big Bang" model just to make fun of it.

And it stuck. It was another short, sharp and provocative phrase.

Unlike "survival of the fittest", "The Big Bang" actually describes the inflationary model quite well. So why is it the most abused catchphrase in science?

Because Bang in American urban-speak means rough sex.

You have no idea how many puns have been made on this play of words.

Man, that is so wrong.

Reporting On Reporters

No, fellow biogeeks, I'm not talking about luciferase assays. I am talking about those human reporters who write news stories.

Yes, that was a lame joke. Ha.

On Tuesday, the Straits Times (Singapore's grand dame newspaper) invited people who contributed letters to its forum for a celebration bash at its headquarters. I wrote a letter to the Straits Times a few months ago about science, technology and creativity, so I was among them chirpy guests.

There were about 60 of us, and boy did they treat us fine!

We get to ask the editors direct questions about the Straits Times. We get to hear a song performance. We get a guided tour of the newsroom. And we get free dinner.

With chocolate eclairs.

What did I do to deserve this? *tears welling up*

Anyway I should comment on the title of this post.

This is probably the strangest article in the Fresh Brainz collection so far, because I am literally reporting on the reporters.

To make it even more bizarre, on the Wednesday edition of the Straits Times, there was an article describing this forum gathering itself.

So the reporters were reporting on how I was reporting on the reporters.

My head is about to explode.

Quick, distract me with some photos!

Ah... better. This is Mr. Kong Soon Wah, the forum editor. He is a nice uncle. If he didn't choose to publish my letter, then I wouldn't be invited. So he is the reason why I got free food.

Of course you may ask - "But how could he not choose your awesome letter? That glorious exemplar of cogent excellence?"

OK, you'd never ask that.


Yes my friends, that's Nick Fang himself.

He is taller and looks more handsome than the photo at Stomp Starblog. He was the MC for the event.

Unfortunately I might have pissed him off when I mentioned Xiaxue's name during the Q&A session.

Hence that reluctant smile.

I forgot that not everyone shares my love of that bawdy princess blogger!


We were led on a guided tour of the Straits Times newsroom. During the tour I discovered these AMAZING FACTOIDS!

I know you like trivia.

1. The Straits Times costs $1.20 to make. Advertising brings the price down to 80 cents (70 cents for subscribers).

2. Sports reporters only have about 5 minutes after an event to finish a report. To get around this, they dictate their reports over the phone while the event unfolds.

3. The printing press produces 1 million copies of newspapers in two hours. The printing machine costs about S$250 million a piece.

4. Reporters are issued with laptop computers because they are constantly on the move. Subeditors get desktops.

5. The newsroom has two hot babes wearing little black dresses while working at 10pm. Why? Why?

Not that I'm complaining.

6. The Straits Times has one of the most advanced resource libraries in the world. Latest photos from large news agencies like Reuters are automatically uploaded into its database system.

7. The Straits Times is 161 years old. This is the first issue on Tuesday, 15 July 1845.

And how can I let up a chance to take yet another panorama? If you look carefully, you will find that every desk is cluttered with stuff.

It looks so... busy.

*start messing up my own desk*

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Manufactured Beauty

Just check out this video.

Incidentally, I found this blog called Bulletproof Bracelets which is chock-full of unflattering photos of celebrities.

What you see on-screen and what celebrities see in the mirror every morning can be rather different.

Which may be the reason why celebrity marriages never last.

But I will still love Kirsten Dunst forever.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Caught In The Crossfire

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Fresh Brainz is very pleased to bring you an added convenience - we are now at

Fellow bloggers, why not check out the domain service that makes this possible?

The entire Fresh Brainz editorial team consisting of me, myself and Fran Stalinofskivitchdavitovichsky would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our readers (yes, all five of you!) for your continued support.

We believe in service with a snarl.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Interview With A PhD Student

Last week I interviewed a scientist to learn about his secret to daily happiness. This week, I am delighted to present an interview with a fellow graduate student - Mr. Jonathan Loh.

Jonathan graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2002 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biology. He has been a PhD student at the Genome Institute of Singapore ever since.

I've known Jonathan for more than three years now, and I've always been impressed by his diligence and humility. He works so hard that the only opportunity to meet up with him is at night, and in the lab.

And of course that's where this conversation took place.

Jonathan had just loaded his samples into a centrifuge, so we had a few minutes to talk at the pantry while the machine ran.

Me: Legend has it that you often work in the lab until after midnight, and take showers in the lab washroom. Is this true?

Jonathan: Yes, I used to do that. I used to work until 3-4 am in the morning. Now my routine is to work until just before midnight. I think this is important for the long run, like a marathon. I don't believe in short sprints. Just look at my hair now. *points to head*

Me: Your hair is not turning as white as mine!

Jonathan: Your hair is turning more white, but my hair is turning more bald! *laughs* Actually I still shower in the lab, because I like to use the hand dryer in the washroom to dry my hair.

Me: What do you like most about doing research?

Jonathan: I like the long hours of work. I believe that the more the sweat, the greater the satisfaction. I prefer to work hard to get the things that I want at the end of the day.

Me: What do you hate most about doing research?

Jonathan: Unreasonable bosses who want to get something out of nothing. I think that a good boss should provide ideas and help educate, help to guide the students. I also dislike conflicts of interest that may occur. These will dampen the spirit of research, and everyone ends up guarding their own turf. Your stage is the world, not just the local setting.

Me: What is your favourite dance club? Your favourite drink?

Jonathan: My favourite club used to be Moods at Orchard Road, just opposite Far East Plaza. Now I frequent Devil's Bar at Orchard Parade Hotel. They have a mature crowd there. I usually drink beer, just beer. The other drinks, I cannot hold too well.

Me: What do you do to unwind when you are stressed out by research?

Jonathan: I go jogging. For about 6 kilometres.

Me: 6 km! That would kill me!

Jonathan: *laughs* Just a leisurely walk-a-jog.

Me: What is your comfort food?

Jonathan: Fruits. Especially orange. And coffee as well. I like my coffee very black without sugar. If I must drink instant coffee, I will drink it without stirring so that all the sugar stays at the bottom.

Me: Do you have any advice for other students on how to reduce stress and improve endurance?

Jonathan: Science is international. Science is not just local. You need to work together with others, to help each other and to form collaborations.

Me: Do you talk science with your girlfriend?

Jonathan: No. Only personal things.

Me: Okay, one last question - what is the most mysterious thing in the world?

Jonathan: Life. The existence of life. I mean here they are, and you don't even know why. This is one of the reasons why I do science.

Me: Thanks Jonathan! I have taken too much of your time.

Jonathan: No problem. Now it's my turn to ask you some questions!*laughs*

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chad and Steve: Sultans of YouTube

The recent news that Google has bought YouTube for a staggering US$1.6 billion (in stocks, not in cash, but still...) has sent repercussions throughout my lab.

Or is that because we are next to the Neuros construction site?

Anyway as I was saying, the first thought that ran through everyone's mind when the deal was announced is:

Those lucky bastards clever geniuses! Who are these guys anyway?

Here at Fresh Brainz, we immediately set out to learn more about the two newest billionaires on our planet: Chad Hurley and Steve Chen!

First stop: Wikipedia, why of course.

I searched for Chad Hurley and Steve Chen.

Not much stuff there. After all, they are young guys who were fucking nobodies not so prominent before the deal.

So, in order to dig up interesting information, it's time to crunch through the Deep Web with my teeth.


Turns out that Chad was trained as a designer while Steve did computer science at the university. Neither of them are drop-outs, so perhaps the glory days of the super drop-outs are now officially over.

Isn't it funny how it's always one pair of them? Usually an arty guy partnered with a geek?

I'm beginning to see a pattern. Hmm...

For more details, here are some articles that I've found. Enjoy!

YouTube (WEB2.Ohhh!)

YouTube: Way Beyond Home Videos (BusinessWeek)

Steve Chen: The Local Boy That Created YouTube (Taipei Times)

Of course, not everyone thinks that the Goo-Tube deal makes business sense.

There are two major concerns - despite its overwhelming popularity YouTube hasn't really made money yet, and there is that nagging problem of copyright infringements.

Check out this blog post by veteran investor Mark Cuban.

I Still Think Google Is Crazy (Blog Maverick)

He also has a few other Youtube-related articles on his site.

If you have no time to read these sources, let me just quote Chad Hurley himself (from the BusinessWeek comments section):

I do not want to work hard. I want to live a soft life. I want to sleep for three hours every afternoon. I do not want to stay awake the whole day so that I can get a few grand at the end of each month. That is why I choose to live off the Net. I am too lazy to try and survive in the real world...

...We worked for about six hours each week for two months designing YouTube. We had the idea to create a community around the video. Once that was done we knew that tons of millions of dollars would just flow into our laps after a buyer which we expect to happen very soon. We will not have to work hard...

...Now we are sitting at home waiting for a buyout. I expect to make at least $400 million personally. Content has been handed to us on a silver platter. We do not have to slog hard to create content like a poorly paid online journalist who makes a lousy $450,000 each year.

Making US$450,000 is poorly paid?

I would be ecstatic if I could even make US$45,000 a year. Graduate school lowers your expectations on just about everything.

Except chocolate. I will NEVER compromise on chocolates.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Viva La VivoCity

The LARGEST shopping mall in Singapore has just opened! Named VivoCity, it has 1.5 million square feet of gross floor space and has a capacity for 300 shops. Although only 60% of the shops are now open (official opening is in December), Fresh Brainz was there yesterday to take a quick peek at this behemoth.


New-fangled shopping malls tend to have water features. I'm not much into Feng Shui, but I've noticed that the water features have become more computer-controlled and elaborate over the years. For example, this wall of water jets changes height frequently. Another one inside the mall can produced wave-like patterns.

Perhaps Qi is enhanced by microchips?

Nowadays, architects try to make their designs as organic as possible. To conceal the box-like nature of this shopping mall, they put huge curvy structures on the outside. I understand their importance from a design point of view, but I can also imagine these as a maintenance nightmare in time.

The inside of the mall is also full of curves. I'm not talking about all the hot babes strolling inside. OK maybe I am. But the floor layout is also quite curvy. The centrepiece of the mall is this green triple-helix sculpture lined with blue light.

Oh look! It's a collagen triple-helix! Ooooooooh!

That's just my inner science geek speaking.

Oh did you notice that "VivoCity" has the same meaning as "Biopolis"? Huh? Huh?

Shut up brain! *pokes brainz with an Q-tip*


As for the shops, so far the line-up looks nearly the same as any other major mall, which is rather boring. However there is one important exception.

Gloria Jean's Coffees is back! They have the second best hot chocolate in the world. Tim Horton's has the best, but they are not available here, so I'll go for the second best quite happily.

Also, though many of the eateries are familiar franchises, they are positioned to offer customers a great sea view that other shopping centres cannot provide.

On top of that, VivoCity has a huge roof garden (pun fully intended) complete with an amphitheatre, trees, sculptures and water features. Here, check out the panorama I took:

There is so much space! Ah... you can just lie on the boardwalk, watch the boats in the harbour and enjoy the sea breeze.

This is the best shopping mall ever.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Irreducible Complexity Pwned

More than two hundred years ago, there was a theologian called William Paley. One day, he looked at a brass watch and thought: "Hmm... brass watches are really complex things, with so many parts that must fit together perfectly in order for them to tell the time properly."

Then, he had a flash of insight: "Hey, living things are complex things too! In comparison to a watch, a human being contains way, way more parts. All these parts must fit together perfectly in order for a person to be alive."

"In fact, living organisms must be separately constructed in their own unique way. Since brass watches are made by smart people, living things must be made by an even smarter 'person', why, this is the ultimate proof of the existence of an intelligent, Designer God!"

Thus, the Watchmaker Analogy was born.

Fifty years later, Charles Darwin came along and proposed that all life on Earth is linked. Modern living organisms are not specially created - they descended from organisms that lived in the past. Over millions of years, descendants of a common ancestor can change so radically that they diverge into different species of living things. This explains the wonderful diversity of life on our planet.

Darwin's idea had been controversial from day one, but today, after almost 150 years of research work by thousands of scientists, from a variety of fields using different approaches, the theory of evolution by natural selection has been validated as scientific fact. Although many details of this process are still unclear (that's where I come in), most scientists agree that evolution itself is strongly supported by evidence.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. In 1996, biochemist Michael Behe published a book called "Darwin's Black Box", where he introduced the concept of irreducible complexity - essentially reviving Paley's argument about a Designer God.

Instead of a brass watch, he used the analogy of a mousetrap. He believed that all the parts of a mousetrap must fit together for it to work properly. He then extends this to the idea that many structures inside the cell are irreducibly complex and must be precisely made by a Designer God.

Unfortunately, he chose a poor analogy. His critics managed to make mousetraps using fewer and fewer parts than he could ever imagine. Worse, they even demonstrated that a complex mousetrap can be modified from simpler "ancestors".

Due to this and many other reasons, irreducible complexity is not a hypothesis that is taken seriously by most scientists. However, opponents of evolution relentlessly repeat this idea as if it is a major blow to evolutionary biology.

Now that I've given you a brief background on this debate, let me tell you what I think.

To be fair to Dr. Behe, neither the brass watch nor the mousetrap are good analogies to living organisms. I'll demonstrate this fact to you, but I won't compare and contrast all the details between single-function machines like the watch and living systems.

Fresh Brainz isn't like those other science blogs!

Instead I will give you a super simple example why irreducible complexity is utter bunk.

Think of a baby. Coochy-cooch-coo!

Babies are complex organisms, yes? They grow and grow. Different parts of the baby grow at different rates. By the time they become adults, the proportion of their body parts have become quite different.

Can a watch grow like this? Nope. If the gears or the brass casing grows proportionally faster, the entire watch fails. Similarly a mousetrap.

Living systems are not rigid like a watch, they are flexible and robust. They have a modular organization, that allows for variation in some parts not to affect the function of other parts. This same feature also permits the organism to evolve. All the parts don't have to be perfect - what about people with extra fingers? Or people with organs on the "wrong" side of the body?

The overall organization is more important than the precise position of every cell in the body. In fact, due to the constant turn-over of cells, you may be a "different" person from year-to-year! In addition, we lose thousands of nerve cells from our brainz everyday. How can we even remember what just happened with so many missing parts?

Where was I?

Oh yes, as I was saying, if a baby was really made up of perfectly-aligned components, then growth would be impossible. Any tiny mis-timing in the growth of one part will cause all the other parts to fail.

A Designer God would have to make a brand new baby every time.

This is what irreducible complexity would predict.

And this is exactly what we don't observe.

To learn more about the evolution of complexity, I recommend "The Plausibility of Life" by Kirschner and Gerhart. It's a bit heavy, but overall an excellent read.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Interview With A Scientist

It is with great pleasure that I present to you: the first Fresh Brainz interview with a scientist -
Dr. Andrew Thomson.

A real scientist, my friends. Not a wannabe like me.

Andrew did his PhD at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He is legendary for his distinctive chuckle and his upbeat attitude. Did I mention his knack for double-entendre jokes?

I often feel encouraged by his sunny disposition in the lab, so I decided to chit-chat with him to learn more about his secret of happiness!

Unfortunately I caught him in a sleepy mood after lunch, kept barely awake by a large mug of coffee. Will this interview score or end up as a total snore? You'll soon find out!

Me: What was your original reason to do science?

Andrew: It's a long story. As a kid I was always interested in how things work. In high school I never wanted to work in a lab, but that view changed when I learnt more about science at the university. It was either research or forensic biology, and I chose research.

Me: What is your reason for continuing to do science now?

Andrew: Well, that's because it still excites me... despite the politics and massive egos that can get involved. I believe you should be true and honest to your research.

Me: Was there ever a time in your scientific career when your morale was less than zero?

Andrew: Quite a number of times actually... *chuckle* When I was one-and-a-half years into my PhD I asked myself - do I really want to do this? I think you have to see pass that and appreciate the significance of your work. Sometimes your bosses will try to pummel your integrity into the ground. Should you do science to promote yourself as a supreme being? I think that reduces the nobility of the field.

Me: What was the happiest day in your career?

Andrew: A few instances. Six months into my PhD I solved a research problem that an American group couldn't solve for ten years - that gave me no end of great pleasure! *chuckle* I could do it because I came from a different background and used a different approach. My supervisor was not supportive, but I went ahead and published the results. Also, when you see your students start to achieve and push forward their own projects. When they can assess their own results. That gives me the greatest pleasure.

Me: What would be the best place for a conference?

Andrew: Cancun, Mexico. I'm from Jamaica originally, and I think some mountains in Jamaica are also great places for a conference.

Me: And the worst place?

Andrew: New Orleans. I went there once, there was no atmosphere - all hype. The conference building was concrete and foreboding.

Me: I see that you're happy everyday. Do you have any advice for students regarding longevity in doing science?

Andrew: At the end of the day, keep your integrity intact. Try to be positive. Especially a positive attitude with your co-workers. Try not to get bogged down - tomorrow is another day.

Me: Any comfort food? Like chocolates?

Andrew: Not really. I'd just be less likely to eat.

Me: And now for my last question. What is it about Life, the Universe and Everything - excluding 42?

Andrew: I don't know *sneaky voice*... I guess that's why I keep going and stay excited about trying to find out.

Me: Thanks Andrew!

Andrew: That's OK, I needed a break anyway. *chuckle*

Haze Daze


The hazy days are back again with a vengeance.

Every year around this time, illegal land clearing activities in Indonesia lead to raging forest fires that utterly fuck up the air for neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

I don't know how many bilateral agreements have been signed regarding this, but the fact remains - we still get burnt, crappy air yearly.

This time though, the air is especially bad. Just check out this morning's pollution index at the National Environment Agency (NEA):


That is well into the "unhealthy" category. I think it hasn't been this bad since 1997.

Visibility has dropped to only a few kilometres. Everywhere you go there is a strong smell of burnt ash.

Just contrast that photo with this one that I took in April. Bukit Timah (the hill in the middle) is completely obscured by haze.

Thick haze is supposed to produce spectacularly red sunsets, but this haze is so bad that for most of the day I can't even find the sun. Shortly after I took this photo, the sun disappeared behind the haze again.