Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cells and Heroes and Choirs, oh my!

I saw this article today and found it kind of interesting. Use a virus, inject some genes into your skin cells, and get stem cells instead. Kind of cool, except that currently they're really rather cancerous in the making (the Japanese version, in fact, uses a cancer gene as one of the four genes that trigger the cell reversion to "generic" state). Once they have the generic cells, they can then mold them using other genes to create the type of tissue they want. Another potential method of Alzheimer's research (see the article for more details). In fact, the Japanese researchers even made new mice from the skin cells of existing mice.

This, I think, is where things get scary:
  • What if someone got some of your skin cells, turned them into generic cells, and then created a new you (or more than one, perhaps an army of you). Then again, this might lead to a cool life - if there were five of you, you would only have to work one day per week but get paid for a week's worth of work (of course, then you'd probably end up fighting with yourself to decide who has to work Monday; maybe a bad plan after all).
  • What if this "method" was turned into a weapon? They could turn your skin cells into generic cells - what would you look like then?
  • Currently, of the mice the Japanese created, 20% of them developed cancer; obviously this doesn't lend itself to the creation of replacement body parts (hearts, etc.) if the likelihood of cancer in the new part is 20% (they are continuing research, of course).
Regardless, this is at least better than harvesting stem cells from actual human embryos, don'tcha think?

Ok, I was thinking about Heroes... I think my favorite two characters are Hiro Nakamura and Noah Bennett. They both are very single-mindedly set on doing what's right. Hiro wants to save the world; Noah wants to save his little girl. Either will do just about anything to accomplish his goal. Between the two, I think Noah is probably my favorite. He's just a normal guy (like me), although pretty intelligent (again, like me, although some would argue this point, I'm sure), and does what he has to do to accomplish his goal of keeping his little girl safe (if it came to it, I would do the same thing for my little girl, or for my boys, or for my wife). Even before I knew he was a "good guy" I liked him, though. (Warning: don't read the next sentence if you haven't watched the latest episode; instead, go here and watch it from NBC first.) I'm glad they didn't let him die in the last episode (despite the glasses thing coming true). Peter is too, well, clumsy, in a non-physical way (if you know what I mean). Mohinder, while "nice," is too wishy-washy to me. I like Sylar's (former) ability, but he uses it selfishly. Claire is to naive and self-centered, too. Matt has a cool ability, but he ends up focusing on the unimportant to the exclusion of all else. Nathan likes his brother, but is too short-sighted to be any good. Yes, my favorite Hero is the one who has no abilities, but who will do anything to protect his family and, in particular, his little girl. (Ok, the Hatian has some cool powers, and he's genuinely a good guy, and loyal, too; maybe he's a close second to Noah.)

Finally, choirs: tonight was the first rehearsal of our church's short-term youth choir in preparation for a Christmas musical drama. We have 2 more choir-only rehearsals before we get together with the drama team the week before presenting the drama. Crazy? Maybe. But I've been longing to work with a youth choir again and this is (hopefully) the start of a semi-periodic youth choir group or ensemble. We had a youth choir for a couple of years - at first I was the rehearsal pianist (but not a very good one) and then took over the whole choir, even arranging some pieces for it (which we unfortunately never did as the choir fell apart due to scheduling difficulties). I love music (witness my original compositions); I hope that we can continue (and grow) the youth choir after the new year.

Ok, here's a bonus: thoughts on modern physics. Has anyone else noticed that modern physics has stopped attempting to figure out what everything is? Instead they simply try to explain how things - note that they don't really say what those things are - react in specific situations. Given a certain situation, offering specific stimuli, they try to predict (give probabilities) of certain reactions or outcomes. I liken it to trying to "explain" a TV by saying what happens when you press certain buttons on a remote control. Given a "thing" (the TV and remote) and certain "inputs" (pressing specific buttons on the remote) produces a certain "reaction" (changing channels or volume, for instance). But, despite knowing what happens in certain situations (e.g., whether the remote is pointed at the TV, or whether there is a mirror to direct the remote's outputs towards the TV's receptor) with specific inputs (pressing certain buttons on the remote), you really don't know what a TV is, or what makes up a TV.

That's what modern physics (quantum mechanics, etc.) does - they provide probabilities of certain responses to certain inputs in certain situations. They really don't tell you what those things are that respond to the inputs. What's really cool is that, given a certain input, there usually are infinite possibilities of how things happen. For example, consider photon scattering with an electron. [woohoo! my wife just walked in and gave me a roll of sprees and a roll of sweet-tarts! there's a 100% probability, if my wife hands me a roll of sweet-tarts and a roll of sprees and I'm not nauseated, that I'm going to respond with exclamations of joy!] In a book by Richard Feynman (QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), (at least I think that was the one), he discusses the various ways that an electron might scatter (absorb and then re-emit) a photon. One of those ways is that the electron emits the new photon, then travels back in time, then absorbs the original photon. The electron traveling backwards in time is also known as an anti-electron, or anti-matter. That is, from a forward-looking time perspective, the electron and photon are headed towards each other, the photon suddenly, spontaneously changes into an electron and an anti-electron, the anti-electron collides with the original electron (the "new" electron heads off its own way), and the anti-electron/electron collision result in the new photon being released, heading off another direction. The picture in the book is the best (check it out at your local library, or purchase a copy, like at the link above - believe it or not, Feynman does a pretty good job of explaining Quantum Electrodynamics - QED - in a way that the layman can understand; while I've had 3 semesters of college-level physics, I'm definitely not a modern physicist), but the illustrations here are nearly understandable. Not exactly the same, but fun to look at nonetheless.

Anyway, I'm nearly done with the roll of sweet-tarts... I eat them way too fast. Hope you've enjoyed this mini-physics lesson.

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