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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!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Transitional Year 2008-2009!

It's so odd to end a year in the middle of the week... feels somewhat evolutionary to have one year merge seamlessly into another.

I doubt the air will smell any different between 23:59:59 tonight and 0:00:00 the next morning.

But come to think of it, human new years are just social constructs anyway.

Planet Earth doesn't care which point of its orbit is marked as the beginning and end - it simply continues on its orbital cycle.

Plants and animals may be more sensitive to the seasons, but they don't usually care about the exact day that a year turns.

Like last year, I wish that I can throw a nice party to give something back to regular Fresh Brainz readers, but for now I can only offer a gift of words - a compilation of all the Weekly Obscure Quotes from the past 2+ years!

I hope that you will find them provocative, curious or just plain amusing.



1. "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned." - Fred Brooks

2. “A man of books is to be pitied truly. I mean a man of nothing but books. He finds in his library beautiful theories of life and codes of morality and goodness, and as he goes out into the world he is sadly disappointed to find nothing of them there.” - Henry Hill

3. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” - Henry Thoreau

4. “Silly is you in a natural state, and serious is something you have to do until you can get silly again.”- Mike Myers

5. “Someone once said that because something hasn't been published yet, it can't be worthwhile doing. That is the complete antithesis of what I believe.” - Andrew Montgomery Thomson

6. “You know, I get the feeling intelligent life is inferior to microbial life. You can find microbes almost anywhere--hundreds of feet below ground, in thermal vents, Apollo space capsules--and here we are, huddled together in a few temperate zones drifting on glorified islands, looking up at the stars with parasite ridden eyes and wondering why nobody else bothered with our way of life.” – Baratos

7. “So... what do you actually do in the lab? Transfer liquids from one tube into another tube?” - Anonymous admin staff

8. “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” – James D. Nicoll

9. “But in the end, will a Nature paper keep you warm at night? Will you end up looking back at your life and wishing you had told that person you loved them or spent more time with your kids? I wonder: if I want a rich personal life, am I destined to be mediocre?”- Mhairi Dupré

10. “Whenever I see food advertised as ‘all natural’ or ‘100% organic’ (more glittering generalities), I think to myself that feces are also ‘all natural’ and I sure don’t want to eat them.” – Ronald B. Standler

11. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” - Muriel Rukeyser

12. “Faith is a fine invention, For gentlemen who see; But microscopes are prudent, In an emergency.” – Emily Dickinson

13. “Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.” – Amy Tan

14. “You guess at everything. You guess the script will be good, that the actors you chose will be right. You guess that you’ll have enough money to finish the picture, and after every scene you guess that this is the scene that will work. It’s a hell of a way to spend millions of dollars.” – Irvin Kershner

15. “In the end, I hope there's a little note somewhere that says I designed a good computer.” - Steve Wozniak

16. “I don’t strive to be a world-class newspaper columnist. I only write in the tiny hope of being read, and potentially snorted at or argued with.” – Tan Shzr Ee

17. “If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

18. “Scientific theories of human nature may be discomforting or unsatisfying, but they are not illegitimate. And serious attempts to frame them will reflect the origins of the human mind in biological and cultural evolution, without reference to a divine creation.” – Nature (editorial 14 June 2007)

19. “Basically if you can explain one thing and its opposite using the same data you don't have an explanation.” - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

20. “We were certainly never given dominion over micro-organisms and will never get that... because they rule.” - Christopher Hitchens

21. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” – Philip K. Dick

22. “You can't have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright

23. “It would be pretty funny if they started charging people with ‘misuse of organs.’ If I breathe in and out to the tune of Jingle Bells is that a misuse of my lungs? Perhaps Thio Li-Ann could supply us with a list of acceptable uses for all the organs of the body. And surely kissing is a misuse of the mouth. If you hug someone thats a misuse of the hands. Hands are for drowning kittens.” – Oli (from

24. “We are not what we dream. We are what we do. And that all we have is action. And that we can really only learn from experience.” – Wayne Coyne

25. “Being stupid and seeing clearly is better than being brilliant and delusional.” – Aaron (Duplicitous Primates)

26. “Why does the CSI team examine the crime scene in darkness, at night?” – Dr. Christopher Syn (Forensic scientist, HSA)

27. “I mean, gasp, Mass Effect promotes a xenoerotic lifestyle and our impressionable young kids are going to start flagging down UFOs and make out with hot alien chicks. Tentacles and all.” – Rat in the Lab

28. “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.” – William Faulkner

29. “The best gift a Fairy Godmother can give her new born godchild is a wee bit of misfortune.” – medieval Scots proverb

30. “I think we need to stop assuming that the general public just won't understand what these animals were and take a paragraph or two to explain where they fit into the scheme of things rather than saying ‘It's a raccoon-deer-rat-thing’.” – Brian Switek on the Indohyus

31. “For a feminist to still believe in God is like a freed slave still living on the plantation.” – Matthew Chapman

32. “It's like the movie Groundhog Day. Scientists spend the whole day explaining to the creationist why the theory of evolution is firmly evidenced, and yet they wake up the next day back on the same beginning square they started on. Sonny and Cher blare from the radio as the creationist begins yammering about why evolution is a theory in crisis. It's as if they're chronic amnesiacs. Every day they wake up knowing today is the day evolution is going to fall, and every day they're wrong. Yet they never learn why.” – H. Humbert

33. “The bottom line is that the world is round, humans evolved from an extinct species, and Elvis is dead.” – Gerald Weissmann

34. “Research with very few exceptions is really the job for young people. Largely because, as I've said, they contain the required ignorance that is necessary for this.” – Sydney Brenner

35. “Everyone knows scientists insist on using complex terminology to make it harder for True Christians to refute their claims. Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example... sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we'd all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE! ” – EnemyPartyII (

36. “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” – Albert Camus

37. “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” – Carl Sagan

38. “Adjusting my breasts for every shot. Yes, they gave me these things to put in my costumes - they looked like cutlets, chicken cutlets - to make me voluptuous. They're sort of rubberized, horrible, medical-looking things, and between takes I'd take them out and leave them on some table, and I couldn't even remember to put my boobs back in. They were turning up everywhere.” – Kate Beckinsale

39. “I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” – Albert Einstein

40. “I wanted to be a geneticist, understand the gene and through that, understand life. So I had, you know, a hero in a distance. He wasn't a baseball player; he was Linus Pauling. And so I applied to Caltech... and they turned me down.” – James Watson

41. “I didn't have the heart to finish off those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do it. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.” – Franz Stigler

42. “A fishnet is made up of a lot more holes than strings, but you can't therefore argue that the net doesn't exist. Just ask the fish.” – Jeffrey Kluger

43. “People who boast about their IQ are losers.” – Stephen Hawking

44. “To send a child to university at seven is like you are not regarding him as a human being, but as a performing monkey.” – Joan Freeman

45. “We should not take ourselves so seriously. We will all be forgotten.”- Peter Courtland Agre

46. “The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches – the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?” – David Brooks

47. “To err is human, to arr is pirate.” – Seen on a T-shirt

48. “You can't just mop up a floor when the tub is overflowing; you have to work at shutting off the tap, too.” – Optimus Primate

49. “Real science is hard. Real medicine involves giving bad news---really bad news. You share the joys of your patients, but also their pain, suffering, and death. It's a package deal, unless you make wild promises, conflating false hope with true compassion.” – Peter A. Lipson

50. “Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Zachary D. Blount and colleagues

51. “Scratch any cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” – George Carlin

52. “I’m fairly sure if they took porn off the Internet, there’d only be one website left, and it’d be called Bring Back The Porn.” – Dr. Perry Cox (Scrubs)

53. “It's not about having people enjoy the Olympics. If nobody came that would be a successful Olympics. It's theatre. The foreigners are there as props but the fewer the better.” – Anne Stevenson-Yang

54. “Without theories to organize and interpret facts, without the power of general explanations, we are left with just piles of case studies. Moreover, we are without the frameworks that enable us to make predictions about any particular case.” – Sean B. Carroll

55. “Nobody but men have hippopotamuses in their brains; so, if a hippopotamus was discovered in an ape's brain, why it would not be one, you know, but something else.” – Charles Kingsley

56. “It's our ability to perceive somebody else's interior motivations, the rewards and punishment systems inside their head. One could argue that some of the greatest political monsters in the world had terrific "Theory of Mind" skills. They motivated people primarily through fear, not through inspiration. You can actually show that fear causes a specific kind of stress, sometimes called "learned helplessness." In an increasingly knowledge-based business setting, limiting someone's intellectual power in the belief it will increase their productivity is like tying the legs of a marathon runner in the belief it will make him run faster.” – John Medina

57. “In a globalised, knowledge-based economy that is increasingly dependent on knowledge creation and innovation rather than merely on the goods and services of an industrial age, it is necessary to develop a science-literate society that is adaptable to change and able to make informed decisions.” – Leo Tan

58. “Save your strength. There'll be another time.” – Han Solo (The Empire Strikes Back)

59. “Let the guy be a little fallible. Those are the ones I am interested in watching when I go to the movies. I want to see the flaws, the dirt under the fingernails. If he is invulnerable, how can you identify with this guy?” – Brendan Fraser

60. “My lack of experience did not blind me from realizing that the truth was a bit too, well, truthful. It was never going to be more effective than my rehearsed version. Sixty resumes were sent out. Only one responded with an interview opportunity. With my job hunt not looking very promising, I wasn’t gonna risk it by being righteous. I needed the job. Little did I realise I had already understood the first commandment of Advertising – Thou shalt speak the Truth sparingly.” – Pat Law

61. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.” – Joseph Heller (Catch-22)


And remember... the Sterling Pound is at a historic low and is severely undervalued with potential big gains on retracement.*

Have a great New Year 2009!

*That's a non sequitur, not a financial advice. Just sayin'.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

When The Sane Go Marching In

Here are two examples of human social behaviour that never cease to amaze me.

First up - the impressive display of thousands of soldiers during a large-scale military parade.

If you consider people as freely independent living systems, then isn't it odd how social groups can so easily get thousands of their members to march perfectly in sync and stand stiffly together in tidy blocs for hours on end?

An awe-inspiring, fear-inducing appearance of unity and solidarity.

(But is it only an appearance?)

Second, I always find it strange how people will ask the government to intervene in their personal matters (eg. a noisy neighbour or family in-fighting), which happens fairly often in Singapore.

If you believe that people strongly value their freedom and independence, you'd have to wonder why they will so easily give that all up in order to get their way in such petty matters.

Perhaps freedom is something that only a tiny minority really care about?

Perhaps most people are far more concerned about getting what they want - whatever the cost...


In this fourth article about social systems, I am going to talk about the emergence of authority.

Complying with the authority structure comes so automatically for human beings that many people are not aware of just how bizarre it is.

There is a segment in the British science entertainment show Brainiac called "Undercover Brainiac" that illustrates how absurd this behaviour can be:

A middle-aged man is tasked to approach random strangers on the street and ask them to open their bags for him.

First, he attempts to do this while wearing casual clothing.

Not surprisingly, all of the people he approached turned him down immediately, some of them expressing disgust at his intrusive request.

Next, the Brainiac team provides him with an official-looking security guard uniform (complete with beret and walkie-talkie) with badges and insignia from a totally bogus organization.

They then set him loose on the streets again.

This time the results are, should we say... quite interesting.

Practically all the people opened their bags for him instantly. They let him poke around in their private belongings without complaint.

Nobody checked his credentials or looked suspiciously at the funny badge on his beret.

He asked; they opened.

To underscore the ridiculousness of the entire situation, the fake "security guard" even managed to snack on a few french fries from one victim's lunch bag.

At first blush, this sort of blind faith in the mere appearance of authority seems to be pure stupidity.

Here in Singapore, nary a week passes by without the news of somebody getting cheated by a Nigerian scam, "magic stone" scam, bogus kidnapping scam, fake predictions from a fortune teller... the list goes on.

Were these victims afflicted by such utter stupidity that they did not even attempt to check or seek independent verification that what the trickster claimed had any passing semblance to reality?

While I don't think that people who fall for these scams are particularly smart, I doubt that they are that stupid.

Fear or greed, coupled with the "normal" social behaviour of automatically complying to the appearance of authority made them easy pickings for fraud.

Many of these victims are senior citizens who have enough smarts for persevering through a long career and raising a whole family; clearly they are not so dumb in other aspects of their lives.

In fact, their blind faith and unquestioning trust towards others may have enabled them to form strong and loving social networks - a positive contributing factor towards their longevity.

You might ask: "But what about the critical thinking skills that would have warded them against these cheats?"

I suspect that apart from technical professionals, critical thinking skills are simply unnecessary in the everyday lives of the vast majority.

People commonly make big decisions based on personal recommendations from trusted allies alone, without due regard to independent verification.

This is especially the case for people who are struggling for power within a hierarchical social structure - there is a strong pressure to comply with in-group beliefs and dismiss out-group beliefs.

Which is a terrible, but understandable practice since people who rely on social influence to thrive will naturally be focused on social contingencies first, rather than basic physical reality.

As a hypothetical example, as a manager it's better to accept a potential lie from your superior, than to believe in the "objective" safety data from the technicians.

After all, if you express doubts and offend your superior, your career might end. On the other hand, if she was really spouting bullshit and the technicians are right, only the technicians themselves will directly suffer the consequences of your decision.

This is why many powerful people can fiercely maintain such anti-scientific beliefs - denying physical reality not only has no ill-effects on their careers, but can often enhance their social influence due to in-group dynamics.

He asked; they opened.


Nevertheless, authority structures have always been an integral aspect of human society.

As I have mentioned in my earlier post, some groups of people are suspicious of it, while others absolutely thrive in it.

But what is this "authority" actually made of?

If the people who populate an authority structure are free-living, independent organisms, how does the structure maintain unitary strength and prevent itself from falling apart?

To delve deeper into the discussion, let's examine this question:

Why is authority emergent?

Isn't authority derived from the top-down power of the leadership class?

Why is it emergent?

In Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22" set in the Second World War, bombardier Yossarian is ordered to fly an increasing number of missions, which he realized would accomplish little more than getting himself killed.

He refuses to fly any more missions and so his superior Major Major tries to persuade him to change his mind.

Major Major: "Would you like to see our country lose?"

Yossarian: "We won't lose. We've got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed."

Major Major: "But suppose everybody on our side felt that way."

Yossarian: "Then I'd certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way. Wouldn't I?"

"Authority" structures can only have authority if enough people are willing to follow the orders that the leadership issues out.

Following Yossarian's train of thought, let's imagine a situation where millions of young soldiers from both sides of a conflict suddenly decided to disobey orders, drop their weapons and stop fighting.

Then, the war would instantly stop. Millions of lives would have been saved. No country would execute an entire army for insubordination, and besides, all of the potential executioners have also quit their guns!

Happily ever after, right?

But this has never happened in the history of humanity.

There are two strong reasons why - critical mass and organization.

If only a minority of the soldiers are willing to risk death to stop fighting, then the immense momentum of the authority structure will simply snub them out.

Only when there is enough people who are so tired of war that they'd rather die than fight, will there be a critical mass to make a difference.

Unfortunately, even if this critical mass is achieved, you still need to organize them in such a way that the authority structure cannot simply suppress them using the "divide and conquer" strategy. They have to all drop their weapons at the same time - if there are too many loyalists and fence-sitters then fighting will resume and their efforts will be in vain.

These obstacles are so hard to surmount that till date no military organization has quit fighting en masse no matter how battle-weary their soldiers have become.

Indeed, critical mass and organization are also crucial elements to the integrity of a military organization.

Although it is made up of previously free-living, independent people, an effective army has constrained the autonomy of its components via a rigid authority structure, resulting in a unitary force that the leadership can rely on.

I again emphasize that the source of this authority is emergent from the people themselves, in a similar way that the value of fiat currency is emergent from the people themselves. Top leaders can issue orders, but they cannot compel everyone to fight or assign real value to printed paper, unless enough people are willing to participate and help perpetuate these orders. As discussed in an earlier article, if the people are all cold and socially indifferent then an authority structure cannot even form!

Thus, social consensus has created concrete forces "out of thin air". However, there is nothing abstract about these forces - units continue to fight to the last man despite losing contact with the high command, and merchants continue to assign stable value to a piece of paper issued by an extinct government - these are real human lives and real physical goods that we are talking about.

Also, social consensus has created stability and permanence out of unstable, independent components.

For example, in the picture at the top, who knows what each individual soldier in the military parade is thinking. Someone may truly love the authority structure; someone else could be planning to defect to South Korea that very weekend.

Yet they all stand together in perfect coordination. Components may come and go, but the entire army as a whole is highly stable and can be considered as one functional unit.

In everyday language, we often make this over-simplification by personifying large authority structures as if they were some kind of super-sized individual human being.

"Our country is strong and prepared..."

"Our community is friendly and warm..."

"Our company prides itself on innovation..."

This feeds into a common misconception that since individual people can be unreliable and capricious, human organizations that are composed of people must necessarily be unreliable and capricious - formally known as a fallacy of composition.

Thus, some people yearn for a supernatural authority that would transcend such human weaknesses.

In fact, we have seen that opposite is often true - organizations can have such a rigid and unitary behaviour that top leaders can borrow the power structure for their personal ambition, and other component members of the group would simply go along, more like cogwheels in a machine than capricious, free-living individuals.

The stability of a social system is due to a combination of factors such as critical mass and organization. However, due to the fallacy of composition, there are people who attribute socio-emergent traits such as stability, authority and morality to supernatural sources. This is completely unnecessary as these traits already have fully naturalistic explanations.

Moreover, even social groups that purport to hold supernatural beliefs always use material means, primarily social means to achieve their goals.

Direct supernatural authority has never been observed - it is always mediated through people.

In addition, the power of a social group has always been in proportion to its number of adherents and total material assets. If any group really has access to supernatural authority, then a small number of members should be able to command essentially infinite direct power (eg. to stop diseases, stop wars en masse, roll back flood waters, regrow amputated limbs... so on).

In reality, social groups with poor membership and empty coffers are also those that command the least influence.

Nevertheless, numerous people still cling on to a belief in supernatural authority because it brings them comfort in times of distress and uncertainty.

Does believing in a supernatural being really bring you comfort?

In my next article, I will focus on this issue by examining the strengths and weakness of centralized rule vs rule-by-committee, and discuss the importance of redundancy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dental Fembot

It's great to see that our good friends at Kokoro Dreams have produced yet another fine product on their long road towards producing premium quality... erm... receptionist robots.

Yeah right.

By the way Edgar, if you ever receive one of these robots for training, please call me.

*Hatches a plot for World Domination*

Muahahahahaha... Muahahahahahaha... MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Fiat We Trust

Earlier this week, fellow science blogger Mike O'Risal came upon this question:

"If only the natural world exists, then how did belief in the supernatural evolve?"

Mike responded:

"Ignorance. Nothing in the material world precludes being wrong.

Ignorance is not knowing something. That doesn't have to "evolve." It isn't biological; ignorance isn't a living thing, simply an absence of knowledge. It makes no more sense that ignorance has to evolve than it does to maintain that there not being unicorns had to evolve."

That's an interesting answer, though I would use a different approach.

To start, evolution of behaviours - in contrast to the evolution of biochemical function or anatomical features - is notoriously difficult to study. One major reason is because behaviours can have a biological and/or a social source, and cultural evolution doesn't have to follow the rules of biological evolution.

Regardless of the source of this behaviour, I would say that belief in the supernatural is an over-extension of the belief in the natural, and thus both of these likely evolved in much the same way.

Just consider this:

We have direct experiences of moving around in a three-dimensional world and routine travel at subsonic, subluminal speeds.

There is nothing to stop us from extrapolating from our experiences and trying to imagine how life in higher dimensions and travel at supersonic or superluminal speeds would feel like.

Would you be able to look into the insides of everyone?

Would you be able to hear anything in a supersonic jet?

Would you be able to travel back in time when travelling at superluminal speeds?

In the case of supersonic travel, it is physically possible (and surprisingly mundane).

However, hyperspatial and superluminal travel may be physically impossible. Thus, any current speculation about what happens in those situations would be untestable, possibly incorrect and mostly irrelevant to people anyway.

But the speculations themselves had a real world source.

Now let's look at the gods of the Ancient Greeks.

Although they are supposedly supernatural beings, they can be angry, jealous, cruel, kind, loving, happy, unfaithful, fickle... encompassing the vast repertoire of human emotions.

The fact that the Ancient Greeks believed in them doesn't mean that these gods really did exist, or that gods must necessarily exhibit human emotions.

The behaviour of these gods were simply extrapolated from human nature.

Of course, anyone can insist on believing in their extrapolations.

Stock market traders would caution against this sort of high risk behaviour though. Just ask anyone who believed in the prediction that crude oil will hit US$200 a barrel this year...

You can immediately see that it's a bad practice to compel others to believe in your speculation as if it was a fact.

In this post, I am going to focus on yet another human behaviour that is commonly over-extended.


It is a deeply polarizing word that can evoke feelings of warmth or disgust, depending on your worldview.

But I should emphasize that faith has a real world, naturalistic source - it is an extension of trust, confidence and loyalty, a human value that is indispensible for the formation of society.

There is nothing fake or imaginary about faith itself. It is an emergent social trait as concrete as any material object.

Not convinced?

Let's discuss this with a real world example.

Suppose I was feeling hungry one day and wanted to eat a loaf of banana bread.

In a remarkable flash of "inspiration", I decide to print my own dollar bill to pay for it.

I hand this note (Microprint! Gotta have more microprint!) over to the minimart cashier.

Can anyone guess what would happen next?

Of course she won't accept it.

If I wasn't immediately laughed out of the store, the cashier might even keoh mata (call police).

But... real money is also made of paper, so what's the diff?

What gives value to a piece of paper?

The uninitiated might answer: "Real government money has symbols such as the government Coat of Arms and real security features like hologram and security thread. The paper is given value by the authority of the government. Your dollar bill is not backed up by authority, so it is worthless."

Hmm... sounds plausible.

Let's go for a quick history lesson:

When the First World War started in 1914, Germany expected to win.

Thus, instead of taxing people to pay for the war effort, the government borrowed huge sums of money to be paid by the enemy after the war.

Unfortunately, they lost.

In addition to the heavy war debt, victor nations such as the United States, Britain and France exacted severe reparations on Germany's new Weimar Republic government.

To make matters worse, the democratic socialist government had promised the people reduced work hours and improved social benefits.

The country was still rebuilding from the ruins of war and did not have the resources to finance these new benefits.

So, in order to pay off all these debts, the government resorted to printing money.

Billions of new German Marks rolled off the printing presses.

At first, everything seemed OK. During the war years, the German people had been working hard and saving hard. There weren't many opportunities to spend money as millions of men were away from home on the battlefields, while the women worked in the military factories.

As the post-war economy normalized, all those saved Marks reappeared on the market.

Together with the massive supply of newly pressed money, inflation started to pick up pace.

As prices crept higher and higher, the German public started to lose their confidence in the paper money that they own.

Worried that the Mark will quickly lose its value if they keep it, people rushed to the market to cash them in for real goods.

As the money supply on the market increased, the value of the Mark dropped further, making the goods more expensive by the day.

People were running out of money to spend, so in response the government printed even more Marks, in higher denominations.

A dangerous positive feedback loop was emerging.

In the middle of 1922, the German economy exploded into hyperinflation.

People kept spending money, which kept depreciating in value, resulting in a lack of money causing the government to print more money.

Businesses had to deal with dwindling profits and increasing labour costs, so they increase prices even further.

In addition, hyperinflation had the bizarre effect of diminishing debt towards nothingness, so companies started to borrow excessively to buy more goods and infrastructure, creating yet more demand for money.

Rinse and repeat.

More and more zeros were added to the new Marks that were flying off the presses.

By late 1923, ordinary citizens had all become "multi-billionaires", except that a billion Marks could barely pay for a loaf of bread.

The "Paper Mark", as it would be later called, arguably became worth less than the paper it was printed on. People started to burn stacks of Paper Marks as firewood and used them as wallpaper.

Eventually a currency reform known as the "Rentenmark Miracle" finally put an end to this economic disaster. Although the economy was saved, the severe hardship experienced by the people and their resentment towards the government and banking industry would later steer them towards Hitler and his Nazi Party.

Although all this happened 85 years ago, hyperinflation isn't a thing of the past.

Right now, it is happening in Zimbabwe, with the official inflation rate of 231 million per cent last year.

Even after dropping ten zeros off the old Zimbabwean dollar in August, the government finds itself continuing to add more zeros to the new dollar. Just yesterday, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued a new 500 million dollar bill which is only worth US$8 and rapidly depreciating.

Notice that in both Weimar Germany and Zimbabwe, paper money is officially printed by the government with real security features and backed up by the full authority of the government, but yet they are practically worthless.

So now let's return to our original question.

What gives value to a piece of paper?

The answer is confidence, or faith.

People believe that their paper money is worth something, as long as everybody else around them also believes that.

Most modern paper money is fiat currency, which means that they are no longer pegged to physical commodities such as gold and thus do not have any "intrinsic" value.

But if you think about it, even the use of gold as currency also depends on faith.

If nobody around you is willing to exchange your gold coin for food, you'd starve to death real quick.

The value of any form of money depends on the common belief of thousands upon thousands of adherents.

It can't be the faith of just one person. That's the reason why my Fresh Brainz dollar is worthless.

The establishment of a new currency may depend on government authority, but once it's out on the market, it's the people who will assign real value to these placeholders.

If the value of the money slips too much due to over-supply or other forms of economic mismanagement, the people will begin to lose confidence in the value of money and try to exchange it for something of stable value.

Once this confidence evaporates, even governments backed by strong military power are helpless to stop the vicious cycle of hyperinflation.

Therefore, faith in the value of money is socio-emergent and not primarily determined by top-down authority.

In fact, money can continue to maintain value in the absence of the issuing authority!

Here's an interesting quotation:

"Friedman notes that after the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks introduced a new currency. They printed huge amounts of it and soon it became almost worthless.

At the same time some of the older Czarist currency still circulated and maintained its value in terms of goods. It appreciated enormously in terms of the new money.


This money was not redeemable. Nobody expected the Czarist government to return.

Why did this currency hold up?

"Because," says Friedman, "there was nobody to print any more of it."

As long as there is a social consensus to assign worth to a piece of paper, it will hold its value even if the government that printed it no longer exists.

Thus, you can see that there is nothing magical about faith, though it can be over-extended in the supernatural or any other realm that one desires.

Even without a central authority, a large group of people can create stable entities of value out of practically nothing, using social consensus.

If the source of the power is within the people themselves, then why do so many people prefer to believe in supernatural authorities?

Stay tuned for the next article about the socio-emergence of authority.

Would you like to know more?
- Supply and Demand of Money (

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Right, But Necessary

In my previous post, I pointed out how within-group favoritism can lead to between-group hostility.

Since strong group behaviour has such serious pitfalls, why would anyone prefer a rigid, elitist society?

Yet, it turns out that this is a pretty popular system in the world today.

For the individual, an elitist social structure can be highly attractive because somebody benefits by a lot.

For the whole society, having strong group behaviour is also beneficial because that is amenable to effective central control.

Let's examine this in greater detail.

Imagine that you're in a technical profession that has a limited social component, say a high-rise window cleaner paid a couple K a month.

Dangling precariously on the outside of a tall office building, you look at the well-dressed, highly paid managers inside and think to yourself: "Wow, I wonder how many windows I would need to wash in order to make their kind of salary. They must have a lot of work to do and must be enduring a lot of stress or risk!"

Actually, the managers don't have a riskier or more stressful job than the window cleaner outside.

A leading member of a rigid hierarchy can borrow the existing power structure to her personal advantage. That spiffy-looking manager inside may never need to "wash windows" or do any technical task herself if she has dozens of subordinates at her beck and call.

Oddly, as she gets promoted higher and higher, she will get more staff, more leave benefits and is required to spend less and less time doing actual work - although on paper her responsibilities get heavier.

Stranger still, if she reaches the top echelons of the organization, she might be able to absolve her "responsibilities", just like the bank CEOs who created the economic mess in the world today.

And if she screws up spectacularly enough, the organization might even pay her more money to fix the mess that she created!

Her subordinates seem to be resentful of this, but since they are locked into the social structure, they also dream of the day when they can scale the ladder and claim that power for themselves (never mind the fact that the elite has tilted the tables against them).

So they grit their teeth and become amazingly compliant to the manager's every whim, reinforcing the rigidity and unitary strength of the system.

All the "management universities" of the world sell this dream; their campuses are filled with young people who were never that young. Perhaps it's not surprising that people who amplify their power via social organizations, such as bankers, lawyers and administrators, would be in favour of an elitist society.

They don't seem to realize that a society that confers disproportionately large benefits will confer them to the disproportionately few. The game is fixed.

Now let's consider the other extreme - a loose organization of people who are not interested in group behaviour and can never be convinced to create strong group alliances.

A manager who doesn't really care about hobnobbing with the higher-ups, who can't be bothered about networking, and is supported by a bunch of subordinates who are indifferent to her commands.

The entire hierarchy would simply fall apart!

In a society where social influence has low value, only individual merit counts. Without the compliance from her subordinates, the "manager" would really have to wash her own windows and invent her own longer-lasting lightbulb in order to make a living.

Not surprising that such a society might be favoured by scientists, inventors and artists, people who create new value with their own hands.

However, they don't seem to realize how big the world has become, and how difficult it is to compete with other people using their own strength alone. Life would be so much easier if there was an organizational division of labour.

No matter what individuals may prefer, the whole society (or more precisely, the leadership class) would rather have strong group behaviour, because that greatly simplifies the process of central control.

Instead of trying to chase down a million people with a million little agendas, all you need to do is to contact a few top leaders and tell them what you want their group members to do. Members will then comply out of strong in-group loyalty. This is quick and effective, allowing a whole State to have a unitary response to a powerful threat - for example, mobilizing the people for war.

However, most social groups are quite small; families only have a few members each, and even large corporations rarely have more than a few thousand people.

How would you encourage people from thousands of unrelated groups to come together, to form a huge social group and act in concerted strength?

Stay tuned for the next article about faith - a powerful tool of social organization.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Elitism: Human Warmth Or Weakness?

As I discussed in my previous article, subsystem analysis can help us understand the internal conflicts within a complex system and how it can produce bizarre results.

Today, let's look at a topic that many Singaporeans like to talk about:


In Singapore, elitism has a negative connotation of unfair in-group privilege, power hoarding, self-promotion and suppression of opportunities for talented outsiders.

It is easy to believe that elitism is a product of a cold, selfish society where everyone only cares about himself or herself.

However, I think that the roots of elitism actually lies in the "warmth" of normal human social behaviour.

In fact, if everyone really only cared about themselves, then elitism cannot occur!

Come, let me show you what I mean:

In this thought experiment, we have a hypothetical society with a simple structure containing only four social classes - top, rich, middle and poor - represented using horizontal lines.

The vertical line running through all classes represent the social ladder that individuals need to climb on their way to the top (or descend on their way to the bottom).

Right now it's just an empty ladder with no one on it...

... so let's populate it with some happy peeps!

Here are ten social groups (eg. families) represented by ten different coloured blocks.

Each block contains ten individuals who will be later represented by coloured dots.

Now all we have to do is to sprinkle the individuals randomly throughout this social structure...

... unfortunately, in a capitalistic society, only a few people can be at the top. Depending on how the society allocates its wealth, generally most people will be in the middle class.

In addition, random distribution is not perfectly even, so some social groups are over-represented in the different classes: there are disproportionately more red dots in the top class, more fuchsia dots in the rich class, and so on.

Given this historic contingency of uneven distribution of social rank, what will happen if we leave the happy peeps on their own to run their society for a number of years?

This is an extreme elitist scenario.

In this case, the people have very "sticky" in-group interactions and favour group unity.

Here the red peeps have used their money and power to help fellow group members join the top level. Together they form a strong bloc and prevent anyone else from rising into their class.

Similarly, the fuchsia peeps control the rich class, while the blues and yellows dominate the middle class, congealing into solid layers of colour that restrict both the upward and downward movement of individuals.

The result is absolute social stratification with no social mobility whatsoever.

This might seem frightening to most people (especially the poor), but needless to say it is the ultimate utopian society for the few people who are at the top.

Even the middle class will grudgingly try to maintain this status quo as rigidly as possible, since there is no way up and no group wants to be displaced downwards. Dangerous tension between the classes lurk in the background.

There are real world societies that approximate this situation.

The USA, which constantly prides itself as a country where "dreams come true", is in reality facing worsening social mobility in recent years.

The fact that a country of over 300 million people, with a hundred-strong Senate, can have a President whose son also became President, would make anyone suspicious about the meaning of "meritocracy" there.

Now, let's look at what would happen in a society where group ties are much weaker...

This is an extreme populist scenario.

In this case, the people have no group loyalty and only care for individual advancement.

The red peeps at the top have been displaced by more ambitious people from different coloured groups. There is fluid social mobility, resulting in a more chaotic distribution of colours throughout all the classes.

In terms of fairness, it might seem like an ideal scenario, but if you look carefully at the details - this is a cold and fragmented society.

Rich, heartless members of the red group simply let fellow group members fall into the poor class without batting an eyelid.

Also, the top class has no unity since the individuals are not interested to form any sort of group and would rather fight with each other to maintain their position.

There is no security or stability - every day is a struggle.

Even if this fragile society can somehow hold itself together, in our competitive world it might fall prey to a more rigid society with effective central control and unitary strength.


Of course, both the elitist and populist scenarios presented here are extreme caricatures, and real world societies fall somewhere between these.

But I find it supremely curious to see how subsystem conflicts of interest can turn basic human warmth and reciprocal kindness into a ticking time bomb at a higher organizational level.

And how individual level indifference can help enhance the impartiality and equality of a society.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Meanings Of Life

On the 12th of December 1936, almost 72 years ago, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China and the Nationalist forces, was kidnapped by his former ally Marshal Zhang Xueliang, in a pivotal event which will later be known as the Xi An Incident.

Here's a quick historical background behind the event:

Although on paper the Republic of China was established in 1912, in practical terms there was limited central control and various parts of China were ruled by a chaotic succession of local warlords.

From 1926 to 1928, Chiang Kai-shek led the Northern Expedition, supported by an uneasy alliance of Nationalist and Communist forces, in order to eliminate the warlords and unify China under the Nationalist flag.

He succeeded in this quest and became the first (and till date, the only) leader of the unified Republic. However, his hunger for military power during the Expedition, in particular his brutal attempt to purge Communists from his party, had also won him a powerful new enemy - the Communist Party of China.

Meanwhile, with an effective central government finally in place, the next ten years was marked by rapid economic and industrial progress, and this period in China's history (1928-1937) is often dubbed “黄金十年” (the Golden Decade).

Even during the golden decade, Chiang Kai-shek had two major worries - the Communists and the Japanese. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and appeared poised for further military attacks.

Chiang considered defeating the Communists as the higher priority, since they threatened the unity of his fragile Republic.

Moreover, China was still a poor country and he hoped to buy more time to build up a modern military force that can counter Japanese aggression. For example, he had begun to equip the military with a large number of German-designed weapons and Chinese soldiers were starting to be trained by advisors from Nazi Germany (history is so strange... the Tripartite Pact was not signed until 1940)!

Unfortunately, this incremental approach was deeply unpopular among the people, who were far more alarmed by the increasing belligerence of the Japanese and demanded immediate retaliation.

This resulted in the Xi An Incident.

Backed by popular sentiment, Zhang Xueliang and collaborator General Yang Hucheng, who were previously Chiang supporters, captured Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to cooperate with the Communists to fight the Japanese. They also contacted the Communist Party and there was widespread pressure to execute Chiang, especially from party leaders such as Mao Zedong, until Stalin (of all people!) intervened in Chiang's favour.

12 days later, Chiang was released, shaken and humiliated.

He realized that if he did not act against the Japanese immediately, he would soon be killed by his own people. He could not hold back any longer.

Half a year later, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident finally sparked off the long and bloody Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

And because the people could not wait, they now had to fight the machine guns, artillery and tanks of the Japanese with sabres and outdated rifles, in a lopsided war of attrition that would leave tens of millions of Chinese dead and the Nationalist government lethally wounded.

After the war, the Communist Party became the dominant military and political force and took over the leadership of mainland China. The defeated Chiang Kai-shek was left stranded on Taiwan yearning for a day when he can return and reunify China again under the Nationalist flag.

It was not to be.


Wow, that was like the longest preamble ever!

You are thinking: "I see that Fresh Brainz has somehow become a history blog. BYE dude."

Wait a sec! Let me explain.

That was an illustration about the meanings of life.

No, no that Monty Python movie - "meanings" is plural, see?

Actually I won't be discussing the whole philosophy behind the meaning of life; instead, I would like to focus on a specific issue:

Is there only ONE set of meanings that applies to ALL aspects of life?

A few weeks ago, there was a commenter on YouTube who felt that if there was no supernatural source for the meaning of life, then life would only be about "propagating your DNA".

Of course, many people will instantly protest that there are many other potential, non-supernatural meanings of life aside from DNA replication.

But I would take a different approach.

Let's check if propagating DNA is the only purpose of life.

My first question would be: "Whose DNA?"

For a single-celled organism, the answer is easy: the DNA of the entire individual.

Unfortunately, multicellularity has turned complex organisms like plants and animals into very strange systems indeed.

Due to DNA copying error during cell division, every cell in the body of a complex organism has a unique sequence.

However, only a minority of cells (germline) in the organism is directly involved in reproduction. These are the only cells that have the "privilege" of passing their DNA down to the next generation.

All other cells will die along with the whole system, including another powerful minority group that controls much of the whole individual's behaviour - the brain cells.

So, does that mean that only germ cells can possibly have any meaning in their lives?

That the rest of our bodies cannot possibly have any meaning because they do not propagate DNA?

At minimum, the individual needs to have some meaning until reproductive age before the germ cells have any chance to fulfill their meaning. More strikingly, if the individual only loses reproductive ability (ouch!) the other cells continue functioning and the whole individual doesn't immediately die.

Germ cells may be in a hurry to pass their DNA to the next generation, but brain cells and other body cells clearly have other priorities.

Just consider these points:

- How much time do you spend eating, drinking, talking, thinking, sleeping, crapping and browsing the Intertubes in comparison to the time you spend on full sex?

- Why didn't you immediately mate with the nearest member of the other sex the moment you reached reproductive age?

- If you are ordered to mate with somebody you utterly hate, not only will you refuse it, you might even kill yourself to avoid it. Why such reluctance to fulfill your life's "meaning"?

- If propagating your DNA was the only meaning in life, how can people voluntarily use contraceptives, including rhythm method? In fact, how could anyone possibly come up with the idea of contraception?

At the societal level, it is convenient to consider individuals simply as functional units, but an individual is actually made up of numerous subsystems with their own goals and "meanings", not all of which are aligned with the goals of other subsystems or the emergent goal of the entire organism.

We are quite familiar with situations where there are conflicts of interest between the subsystems and the whole individual:

- Cancer

- Autoimmune disorder

- Chronic pain

- Suicide

- Risky behaviour of adolescents (eg. deaths due to stunts performed to impress women)

Propagating DNA is just one aspect of the living experience - it cannot be the only meaning of life.

I would argue that aside from the tendency of living systems to try to survive longer, there is no specific set of meanings that would be relevant to ALL aspects of life.

Even at the societal level, what one culture has cast in stone as the absolute meaning of life is regarded by other cultures as meaningless or irrelevant.

I also feel that there is an interesting similarity between the tug-of-war of goals between the subsystems of an organism and subsystems of a society.

That is the reason why I started this post with a brief discussion of modern Chinese history.

If we consider the citizens of China as the "body" of the State, we can see that their primary concern is the survival of the entire State, which was threatened by Japanese military expansion.

If we consider the leadership of China as the subset "brain" of the State, we can see that:

- Chiang Kai-shek and other Nationalist leaders are also concerned with the survival of the State, but they considered their Nationalist government to be integral to the unity of the State. Thus they focused on the survival of their government by trying to eliminate the Communists first and by ignoring Japanese transgressions until the government is sufficiently equipped.

- Mao Zedong and other Communists leaders are also concerned with the survival of the State, but they consider the indecisive behaviour of the government against the increasingly audacious Japanese military as a major threat to the State. They intend to replace this government one day with their own party, so they are not concerned if the current government is unprepared to fight the Japanese. People who are a danger to their party, such Chiang, should be eliminated.

The State has a goal.

The constituent subsystems also have goals that appear to be broadly aligned with that of the State, but when you look at the details, you can find some conflicts of interest because the primary goal of each subsystem is its own survival.

Things could turn out very wrong.

If Chiang Kai-shek was allowed to continue delaying the war with the Japanese, he would be able to buy a few more years of stability for his government, but by then it might be too late. The Imperial Japanese Army could have become strong enough to invade China and destroy both the mutually weakened Nationalists and Communists.

If Mao Zedong had successfully executed Chiang, it is possible that the Nationalist government would have a leadership vacuum and political infighting would return. This ineffective government would then be forced to enter a war with Japan with neither a strong military leader nor modern armaments. It could then be easily defeated by the Japanese, who would settle back into a long term occupation of the mainland, destroying the Communists at their leisure.

Complex systems are made up of parts that have different purposes or "meanings". As long as these components have broadly aligned goals, they can form a system together, resulting in a compelling illusion of unity.

For practical reasons, we are accustomed to oversimplify these systems by considering them as whole units.

But subsystem-level analysis can help us understand why people, and indeed "whole" societies, can do the strangest things.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Terrorist Attack On Mumbai

Firstly - my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Ms. Lo Hwei Yen who was killed during the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

With this recent attack came a flood of shocking images - of people huddling low in the streets, of fire at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, of the bodies of tourists lying in pools of blood, of under-equipped policemen sporting WW2-era Lee Enfield rifles against the Kalashnikovs of the terrorists, of commandos storming the hotels from hovering helicopters...

However, this is arguably the most gripping image of the tragedy:

The photo of a young Pakistani terrorist walking around a railway station casually with an AK-47 was used by news agencies throughout the world, and is usually accompanied by commentary expressing surprise at the youthfulness and carefree attitude of these attackers.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we are not surprised by either aspect.

Young men have been and will continue to be choice tools of terrorist leaders, having the physical vigour, mental bravado, tendency to embrace a black-or-white worldview, and the innate bloodlust necessary to carry out savage attacks on unarmed civilians.

Instead of feeling burdened by responsibility of carrying firearms (as any of us who have been through military service will attest to), when given free rein to shoot anyone on sight by their leaders, these young terrorists become empowered by them, perhaps conferring a sense of confidence and invulnerability that they have never felt before.

The simplistic worldview, the absence of introspection, the total abrogation of personal responsibility, the utter lack of curiosity about the consequences of their actions...

The product is a killing machine with unquestioning obedience to authority, acting in unitary force.

The result is death, devastation and anguish.

If only there was a way to advise them to stop, to think for a few seconds and ask themselves some tough questions such as these:

"Is there any other way?"

"Is that random person on the street really my enemy?"

"Will this attack really help my allies, or will it cause them even more suffering?"

"Will this attack really defeat my enemy, or will it strengthen their resolve or even create more enemies?"

"If this attack will really bring so much glory, why don't the leaders do it themselves?"

Locked within the terrorist group culture and power structure, it might have too late for them to change their minds even before they set off on their deadly mission. Without changing this culture that clamps down on free inquiry and critical thinking, it will always be an uphill task to combat terrorism.

Would you like to know more?

In Memoriam: Ms. Lo Hwei Yen (Facebook)

Muslim graveyard refuses to bury terrorists in Mumbai (Times Online)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Herculean Restraint

The most difficult thing about blogging is:

NOT blogging

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lost In Translation: Music Video From 1976

A nice song from a generation ago which could do with a better English translation that preserves the poetic devices in the lyrics (especially personification) ...

Here's my take:


I am a cloud in the sky,
Occasionally reflected in the heart of your waters.
You shouldn't be alarmed, needn't be elated,
For in the blink of an eye all trace of me will vanish.


You and I meet in a dark night on the sea.
You have yours, I have my own direction.
Good if you remember, but best if you forget,
The brilliance we unleashed in this encounter.

It's a pity they don't write lyrics like this anymore.

I prefer my love songs to have a touch of tragic.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Photo Gallery Ten

Last month I revisited Sungei Buloh - this time with a better camera and improved techniques to take more detailed portraits of its denizens.

Though these photos are still not as close as I would like them to be, I think they are fast approaching the current limit of my equipment and skills.


(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Standing tall
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

In flight
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

(2008) Fuji S6500fd

(2008) Fuji S6500fd

(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Weaving a trap
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Now we wait
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

Water monitor
(2008) Fuji S6500fd

I'm still busy with work now, so Fresh Brainz will only return to regular posting activity in December.

Man, so much has happened in the past two months (global economic slump, Chandrayaan-1, cloning frozen mice, new US president...) that there will be a lot to catch up with.

Perhaps I shouldn't even try.

Would you like to know more?
- Photo Gallery Nine

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I'm busy with some important experiments.

See you in December!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bruce Alberts At The Biopolis

Bruce Alberts, who is the Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of California San Francisco, gave a talk at the Biopolis yesterday.

Prof. Alberts served two terms as the President of the National Academy of Sciences from 1993-2005, and is one of the original authors of the "Molecular Biology of the Cell" textbook (affectionately called the "Alberts" textbook by undergrads). He has been the editor-in-chief of Science magazine since 1st March 2008.

He was also the PhD supervisor of one of the top science bloggers, Larry Moran.

His talk is entitled "Biology past and biology future: where have we been and where are we going?"

He began by commenting that the situation in the USA is a bit crazy now, and hoped that things are more rational here in Singapore.

Then he presented an outline of his talk, which is divided into three parts: a review of his personal history, a discussion about the central role of protein machines, and his experiences on textbook writing and how they relate to new challenges for the biological scientist.

Here are some of the highlights in his talk!

1. Prof. Alberts mentioned that he was a high school student when the famous Watson and Crick DNA model appeared in 1953.

The next breakthrough, which he felt was also very important, was the discovery of DNA polymerase by Arthur Kornberg in 1957, who was later awarded the Nobel prize for his work.

Later, for his PhD thesis, Prof. Alberts decided to investigate if DNA polymerase alone can replicate DNA.

The result - it didn't work!

Consequently, he was the only student in his batch at Harvard to fail his PhD exam and had to retake it again.

This unpleasant experience was a wake-up call for him and this failure taught him two important lessons - that theoretical biology was more difficult than expected, and that having a good research strategy is the key to success in science. He cautioned against approaches with a "yes or no" answer; instead he recommended planning experiments where any answer will help advance scientific understanding by at least a small amount.

He also emphasized the importance of learning from failure, and that young people should be allowed to fail. He stressed this point a few times during the talk.

2. Next, he discussed some molecular details of the DNA replication process. Prof. Alberts felt that DNA polymerase is an amazing enzyme and presented videos illustrating the replication process.

Here is one of the videos:

DNA replication involves at least 7 proteins (7 in phages, 13 in bacteria and 27 in human beings), which is the reason why Prof. Alberts' initial experiments failed.

After his PhD, he worked out a new strategy and invented a technique for isolating the proteins required for DNA replication. Using his new method, he discovered the first single-stranded DNA binding protein in 1970.

He then went over some details of other protein machines that are powered by ATP hydrolysis.

He emphasized the importance of biochemical approaches such as activity assays, which is not commonly done in genomics labs.

3. After that, he talked about some insights he learnt while writing the textbook. He put up a photo of the manuscript, showing numerous corrections by the different authors to illustrate how messy the process was.

He revealed that one of the co-authors, James Watson, had grossly underestimated the time required to write the book, thinking that it can be done over the summer. Eventually it took more than a year, working 16-hour days, in order to finish the textbook.

While revising the textbook in recent years, Prof. Alberts observed some surprises in the research literature: that there are many functional DNA sequences that do not encode for proteins, that positive and negative feedback loops underlie nearly all of cell chemistry, and that extensive scaffold networks produce sub-compartments inside a cell without requiring a membrane.

He pointed out that there are about 35,000 highly conserved non-coding DNA sequences in the human genome with an average length of around 200 base pairs each. The biological activities of most of them are not yet known. He felt that more biochemists are needed to help study these.

Talking about the feedback loops, he noted that there is no way to understand these without mathematics, and thus physicists and computer scientists are needed to help study these. He emphasized the importance of starting with simple model systems, such as yeast.

As for intracellular compartmentalization without membranes, he highlighted the examples of the nucleolus and Cajal body. Current research suggest that cellular components such as these are transported to specific locations within the cell via "positional codes", and Prof. Alberts noted that this is markedly different from the previous concept of proteins randomly interacting with each other back in the 1960s.

Then, he discussed three important roles of biology: to inspire, to design intelligent strategies for improving human health, and to investigate the origin of life (what we can learn from Mars!).

To underscore the role of science for inspiration, he highlighted this quote from Richard Feynman:

The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree, and in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air that came from the solid earth, instead.

These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.

To sum up, Prof. Alberts observed that biology in the past 50 years has made successful inroads into understanding the molecular basis of life, but we still need to decipher the pathways involved.

In the future, the focus will shift towards "emergent properties" - properties that stem from complicated networks of chemical interactions, where understanding each individual part cannot illuminate the overall process. New methods and approaches will be needed before we can claim to understand even the simplest cells.

He stressed that there are many challenges for young scientists and encouraged them to "be ambitious!"

4. Then, it was time for the Q&A session.

The first question from the audience was about the difficulty of learning anything robust in biology, due to the complexity of the systems involved.

Prof. Alberts recommended that it is crucial to plan a model system, especially simple organisms such as phages and E. coli, and to focus on one subsystem of a problem. More focus would be helpful.

The second question was a discussion about the risk adverse climate in scientific research. Prof. Alberts noted that in the USA, scientists tend to submit grant proposals that will work - that is, they avoid risky projects. Science has become too conservative, and he thought that people should be given a chance to fail. "Good failures" should be rewarded.

He felt that the current method of evaluating a scientist by the number of published papers is having a negative effect, but acknowledged that top journals such as Nature and Science are "part of the problem". Science magazine alone receives over 12,000 submissions per year, so it is very difficult to select papers for publication.

Next, Prof. Alberts expressed his concerns over the continued fragmentation of biology. He wondered if there could be a "Department of Nucleolus" in the future and if biology textbooks 50 years from now would still be readable.

One member of the audience then asked: "How do you think that science education can be improved?"

Prof. Alberts said that he wasn't familiar with the Singapore system, but he felt that the "No child left behind" policy in the USA is having damaging effects. He observed that in politics, one has to be "right" - education policies are very dogmatic in the US and will benefit from more research on the education system itself.

To illustrate this, he said that his grandson is currently studying a science course at grade school and had to memorize parts of a flower. When Prof. Alberts asked him if he had actually seen the flower, he said no. Not surprisingly, his grandson hated that course - he preferred a course in ceramics instead, where he can create something by himself.

He felt that they were doing a horrible disservice to young people by making science a chore, and emphasized that "memorizing words is not science".

The last question was about the role of physicists, computer scientists and engineers in biology. Prof. Alberts reminded the biologists in the audience to keep their colleagues informed, and that it is not trivial to explain what is important and what isn't to the non-biologists who are part of the research team.

5. Before he left the room, Fresh Brainz managed to ask Prof. Alberts two questions relevant to the science' o sphere:

a) Do you see an important role for the Internet as a tool for science communication and education?

He felt that the Internet has been revolutionary for many aspects of society, but at present it is not very effectively used for science education. He revealed that the upcoming 2nd January 2009 issue of Science will contain a special feature on this topic.

b) Would you encourage more professors to write blogs?

He said that "some of them" should and agreed that Prof. Larry Moran writes really well.

Would you like to know more?

- BMRC Distinguished Visitor Programme