Gaia 2009

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2009


Be assured, Gaia has respect for life, yet Swiss bioscientists don't know how to be nice to plants legally. Political correctness may have gone too far as bioscience is concerned. The Swiss Gene Technology Law (2004) stipulates that 'the dignity of creatures should be considered in any research'. All very well for animals (especially triploblastic metazoans (three cell zone layered multicellular animals)) but the word 'creatures' also applies to plants. Since the law came into effect plant bioscientists do not know how to demonstrate their having dignity for plants, which is something they must explain in their research grant applications. The problem is that at the moment not even the authorities know what it is they must look for in researchers' declarations. It is all very problematic. Meanwhile what construes respect for primates in research is being tested in a Zurich court.

Gaia is amazed at how cheap sequencing the human genome has become since the first draft was announced in 2001. The full human genome itself was published in 2003. It took two teams of over 2,300 scientists 13 years in 6 countries and cost 1.35 billion (US$2.7 billion). When Craig Venter (whose team did half of the first sequence) did it again in 2007 it took just 4 years, involved just 31 scientists and cost 50 million (US$100 million). When James Watson did it last year (2008) it took just 4.5 months, involved only 27 scientists and cost under 750,000 (US$1.5 million). Gaia is more than a little annoyed: it took her over 3 billion years. Still, it cost her 0.

Following on from sequencing the human genome, there is now the Human Proteome Project. The idea is to identify all the proteins synthesised in a human being in the 200 or so types of human cell. The Human Proteome Project (HUPO) is likely to lead. The cost will probably be the order of 500 million (around US$1 billion).

We should not send Bach to the stars, it is claimed Carl Sagan once said, as that would be boasting. He was talking about the selection of music to go on a record attached to the Voyager space probe. (As it happened Bach made it onto the disc.) However Gaia wonders if we might be saying something else about our species with plans to broadcast McFly songs into space. The broadcast will be made by the National Space Agency of Ukraine and is expected to reach the target planet, Gliese 581c which is 20.5 light years away, in 2029. Let's hope no one is there at that time.

So what should the Robert Rankin fan club (Sproutlore) get the man to mark his 30th novel? Or for that matter what should Rankin fan's get each other as a present? Gaia tentatively suggests Tess Read's latest -- The Sprout Book.

Penguin books launches a dating serice but Gaia is not so sure... is claimed to be the website where you can indulge in the age old art of writing love letter. And to promote the site Penguin held a launch competition for those in the book trade with the winner getting a lifetime subscription to the site. Now Gaia sees two possible flaws in the logic. Two folk in love exchanging correspondence do not need the site: was there ever the age old art of writing flirting letters? Secondly, to have as a prize a lifelong subscription does not exactly inspire confidence in the site's efficacy. Maybe Gaia's perspective is too global?

Gaia regularly reports on the UK Bookseller Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. Last year marked its 30th anniversary. Back in 1978 its first winner was The Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Nude Mice. To mark the 30 years all the winning titles and runners-up have been compiled into a book on the prize entitled How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books. This is available from Arum Press. Then, to further celebrate the anniversary, there was a public vote for the oddest title of the past 30 years. This was successful in that more voted than in the recent Booker of Booker poll. And so the winning most oddest title in Diagram's history to date went to If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs, and you may recall from last year that this was also the 2008 winner.
          As for 2009, there were a number of titles mentioned in Bent's column in the run-up to the competition. These included Sarah Herman and Lucy York's book Do Worms Have Willies and Mark Hordyszynski's Strip and Knit with Style.

Publishers HarperCollins ran a trade competition last year to promote a collection of short, short stories. The competition was for the best story told in just six words! (So much for the BECCON 100-word drabbles that are positively expansive by comparison.) The winner was author Andrew Taylor with 'The cheque is in the post'. Running up was John Moseley (from Headline publishers) with 'Only I knew, Elvis had returned'. But for Gaia it was Macmillan editor John Butler's dad's effort that was the best: 'Dyslexic atheist animal lover seeks dog'. The book HC was promoting is called Not Quite What I Was Planning.

The British Government is worried that the public perceives science as 'elitist' and so they have started a campaign called 'Science: So What? [ So Everything!]'. The aim is to educate the public that science is not elitist and is for everyone.   Gaia is amazed at this total misunderstanding of science. Of course science is elitist. It necessitates clear thought and has precise answers (and error). Unlike the arts and humanities where for many topics opinion and inexact, or varied, answers are acceptable, science is specific and has a clear logic. This is borne out by school subject analysis that shows that biology is harder than media studies, and physics is more difficult for pupils than English. Yes, science is relevant to everyone. Yes, everyone can appreciate science. However not everyone can understand science and construct a multivariate polythetic dendogram based on their own amino acid analysis of several species' haemoglobin, let alone simply interpret the result. Yet make no mistake, just because science is elitist in one way, there are other forms of elitism such as in sport with, say, the Olympics. Elites are not to be fought or undermined: they are to be celebrated as signalling excellence within indivudual groups that have specific skills and abilities. In short, the Governmental campaign is a waste of tax-payer's money or would be if it did not have the spin-off benefit of getting people to appreciate science (even if it is elitist). -- Further information on the campaign is here.

And finally...

See you in 2010 with more frivolity.

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