Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bailing out!

The latest talk around the economic round table is on bailing out the auto industry. Don't worry, this won't turn into a long rant about the auto industry and how unions screw things up. The human cost if the Big Three went under would be tremendous--not necessarily catastrophic, but definitely painful--but at the same time, one must wonder whether the environment would see it that way.

If we go by the standard 10,000 miles driven per year, 15 mpg (we're talking SUVs, not Priuses), and 23 pounds of CO2 gas emitted per gallon, that adds up to almost 8 tons of carbon dioxide in the air per SUV, per year. Multiply that by however many millions of SUVs are idling in parking lots (er, I mean freeways) not just in the US, which is by far the biggest consumer but by no means the only one, China, and Europe, and it's a wonder that the oceans are still able to keep up.

This doesn't even take into consideration the acts of finding oil, drilling for it, shipping, and refining it, all of which produce their own small environmental catastrophes (and larger social ones, but I'm not up to dealing with things this complicated this late at night). Or the effects that roads have on the landscape--and how they shape the movements of animals, and the effects that has on conservation efforts. It's enough to give even an environmentally-inclined blogger a headache.

The point is that driving with reckless abandon will wreck the world--if you happen to live in Nigeria, then you know firsthand that it does, in fact, wreck your world. I'm not one to put much faith in doomsday prognostications of a world without oil, but let's realize: 1) oil renews itself at a much slower rate than we use it up (think millions of years--unless you're Sarah Palin and your brain can't physically cope with the idea that the world might be older than Genesis), and 2) there are much, much more urgent uses for oil than merely making things go zoom or zap.

It is actually the second that worries me more. It is possible to live without cars (we do). It is possible to deal without central heating, to scrape by on candlelight, and make do with microwaves.

But imagine a life without plastic, or try to--I can't. Most of the the world we live in is plastic. The couch I'm sitting on is plastic. My laptop--encased in plastic. Even the most plastics-averse person (my boyfriend) thinks nothing of buying chicken encased in a plastic box--and doubt anybody would even think of buying meat any other way. Consider how they keep things sterile in hospitals. Consider what rubber gloves are made of. Consider a life without polyester.

At some point in the (hopefully) far future, we're going to have to make decisions about what we can do without. Delaying this particular inevitable is one I think we can all agree on.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Does not compute

My lab works on proteins. A few of the people run "dry" experiments, meaning they enter equations and run simulations of molecules and how they interact with proteins. Needless to say, being as inept with computers as I am, I normally don't deal with that.

But recently I was giving a box of 32 compounds that I had to test for allosteric activity. According to the computers, they were all allosteric enhancers.

According to my experiments, they're not.

Admittedly, a hit rate of 3-4 out of 32 isn't half-bad. Random screening without using computers to narrow down the list of criteria for our allosteric compounds would have me pulling my hair out of pure stress--when you're testing that many compounds, you have to make sure that the labels on one tube matches the label on the other, or else...

The point of all this is that life doesn't compute well. We can plug data into our computers until we're blue in the face, and get all types of random, seemingly meaningless correlations (rainy weather, autism), or important, seemingly significant ones (cholesterol, heart attacks). But it takes getting your hands dirty--designing the surveys, running the statistics, cracking the math--before you might turn up something useful.

And all too often, you don't.

I've still got a few more tests to run, but at this point they're more for verification of what I already know (most of the compounds are not allosteric modulators) than to get new data.