Archive August 2010

Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use? Grant Jacobs Aug 31


As claims that the OED is looking towards ceasing print publication of the ‘complete’ edition circulate (and are countered), I ruminate on the OED and dictionaries.


Anyone involved in writing by now will know by now there are claims that the next edition of the OED – The Oxford English Dictionary – may not appear in print form. Other reports suggest this is not a done deal as initial accounts in newspapers around the world say. Nevertheless, it’s a nice excuse to ponder on the OED and dictionaries.

It’s a colossus of the English language, with the second edition running to 20 weighty volumes. There’s even a guide to it and a word of the day RSS feed, which you can also view as a webpage. (‘to cross or pass the Rubicon’ is up today. Given how many words they have to chosen from it’ll be a long time before they double up…)


On my shelves is a copy of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. (I believe this now goes under the title The Professor and the Madman.) In it Winchester recounts how (paraphasing from the blurb on the rear cover) ’Dr. W. C. Minor, lascivious, charismatic, a millionaire American Civil War surgeon and homicidal lunatic, confined to Broadmoor Asylum, pursued his passion for words and and became one of the OED’s most valued contributors.’ It’s a short book (207 pages), but a great read. I have to admit I still haven’t gotten the account of this gentleman’s self-surgery out of my head. (I would give the spoiler, but it’s stunning.)

A later book, The Meaning of Everything, looks further into the history of the dictionary. (See the cover for a beard you’d rarely see today! The gentleman could step right into Lord of the Rings as a wizard.)

I have faint memories of an older edition of the ’full thing’ arrayed on the shelves of my college at Cambridge. While impressive, the volumes were so big and the writing so small as to make it unwieldy to use so rarely I did, preferring for most uses the more compact (and current) shorter versions.

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How does science work? Grant Jacobs Aug 26

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Regular readers will know that recently I posted a three part series of videos authored by SisyphusRedeemed, who lays out a (very!) brief history of science.

He has followed this up with a video, How Does Science Work? Three Views. At just under 15 minutes this is slightly longer, but packs a lot in there!

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Other articles in Code for life:

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

I remember because my DNA was methylated

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

The inheritance of face recognition (should you blame your parents if you can’t recognise faces?)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Quotable lines Grant Jacobs Aug 26

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A short selection of quotable lines from or about science and medicine

Perhaps relevant to Kubke Fabiana’s recent post:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

(Thomas Henry Huxley, in a letter to Charles Kingsley, 23 September 1860. Do note that this is an earlier Huxley than in Fabiana’s post. This family has several generations of renown scientists.)

Just for a bit of a laugh:

It is a good thing for a physician to have prematurely grey hair and itching piles. The first makes him appear to know more than he does, and the second gives him an expression of concern which the patient interprets as being on his behalf.

(A. Benson Cannon)

Not from a scientist, nor strictly a science quote, but one science bloggers will empathise with:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

(Bertrand Russell)

A well-known classic, but too good resist repeating here:

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.

(Arthur Eddington)

Possibly my all-time favourite:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, “hmm…. that’s funny….”

(Isaac Asimov)

Offer your own favourites in the comments.

Other articles on Code for life:

Coiling bacterial DNA

Vitamin C, swine flu, media, lawyers

Friday’s Factoids and Quirky Quotes

Preserving endangered species – of gut microbes

I remember because my DNA was methylated

Halt to funding new stem cell research in the USA Grant Jacobs Aug 25


Judge rules a stay on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the USA.

Previously I wrote about a new twist in a law suit involving Christian groups and two scientists suing US government departments over embryonic stem cell research (ESC), based on their having to compete for funding.

Recent reports say that the judge has now issued an injunction putting a temporary stay on federal funding of human ESC research, resulting in NIH director Francis Collins freezing funding on up-coming grants. (Private funding is apparently unaffected.)

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Coiling bacterial DNA Grant Jacobs Aug 24


A chain of proteins hold bacterial DNA in a compacted spiral.

You and I are eukaryotes. Our cells have nuclei, repositories that contain our DNA and the proteins that read them to produce an RNA copy of them.

HeLa cells*** stained for DNA (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

HeLa cells* stained for DNA (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

In earlier articles, I’ve mentioned in passing how the enormous length of DNA in our cells is fitted into a nucleus. Our DNA, all 2 metres of it, were you to stretch it out end-to-end – is fitted within a nucleus with a diameter of roughly 6-10 micrometres, about one-millionth of a metre.

The trick is that a DNA molecule is very skinny – it’s only about 2 nanometers wide (2 billionths of a metre wide). Wrap that up around a something handy and it’ll be quite compact.

The ‘something handy’ in eukaryotes are histone proteins. Eight histone proteins associate to form a disk-shaped octamer, wrap DNA almost twice around it and you have a structure called a nucleosome. Read the rest of this entry »

Vitamin C, swine flu, media, lawyers Grant Jacobs Aug 23


This article is an opinion piece. I am not lawyer or medic.

If you think my title looks like one of those lists in IQ tests were they get you to pick the odd one out, you’d be right, only this time one the question is what is missing?

If you thought ‘medical experts’, you got it right.

Peter Griffin has said quite a bit on this, so as a practical matter there is little left for me to add, but let me add my voice to express concern over the coverage given to this story in the way a (scientifically-minded) movie critic might.

My introduction to this story was John Campbell’s interview with lawyer Mai Chen, however this media story actually starts with an earlier documentary on 60 minutes which presents the case of a patient seriously ill from pneumonia from H1N1 (aka ’swine ’flu’) where the family urged a medical team to use high-dose intravenous vitamin C to treat their critically-ill relative. The account of events is that the doctors were (understandably) reluctant to carry out the unorthodox procedure, but eventually relented under pressure that included correspondence from lawyer Mai Chen. The patient recovered: the program implies that this unorthodox treatment is the reason.

Whatever the motivations and reasoning in presenting it as they did, the documentary pushes a barrow rather than explores the subject.

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Science blogging aggregated and streamed Grant Jacobs Aug 22


There’s two new circuses in town.

Not science bogging carnivals, ways of following science blogging.

The first is a new site that pulls the most recent five posts from a long list of science blogging sites (via RSS feeds), presenting them on a single page for easy access. (I’d like to think most of my readers have already stumbled onto this one way or other, but if not, now you know.)


It lists 54 different science blogging groups, including quite a few I’ve never seen before. They also host a list of science blog carnivals, and a blog that includes instructions for those wishing to have their blog added, requests for suggestions for improvements, and so on. There is also a twitter account (which is not a stream of the posts, but for discussion about the site) and an RSS feed. Built by Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic and Dave Munger.

The second, which has available for a few days now, is a science river, a stream (erm, no pun intended) of posts from a wide range of science blogs, developed by Dave Winer. This is more like a twitter stream or a PR release stream or individual blog posts with a brief lead-in to the article.


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All things pooped Grant Jacobs Aug 20

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While my next post lies in the wings for the weekend, right in time for Friday afternoon is the first edition of the Carnal Carnival.

Christina Pikas described the opening theme as craptacular. (In response to this I couldn’t help imagining Batman (or Robin) doing the job, standing up, then looking into the bowl exclaiming… ’Craptacular!’ Why wasn’t this in the TV series?)

The carnival already has hosts booked up for well over a year and features a different carnal theme each month.

As you’ve already guessed, the opening month’s theme is crap. The biological kind.

16th Century drawing of a person defaecating (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

16th Century drawing of a person defaecating (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

For those that follow science blogs, this is the reason behind all the excretory-related posts of late.

There are posts of all kinds, and many of them.

Don’t forget there is interesting science there. Being science blogging, this is a chance to look at serious science in a lighter way, rather than exercise out-right toilet humour.

Enjoy it.

Ford Prefect advised taking a towel. A toilet roll is more appropriate for this adventure.


You can read the background of how this blog carnival arose at Bora’s blog.

Other posts at Code for life:

A booster falls

A selection from Lord Robert Winston’s 12 aphorisms about science

Opinion: Wanting to “resolve” (climate) science with legal games…

Sunday evening reading: factoid, articles & video

Temperature-induced hearing loss

A booster falls Grant Jacobs Aug 19

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This video clip has harsh rawness and slight confusion about it that reminds you of an art-house sci-fi movie.

If you’re impatient, skip to about 2 minutes in. The first two minutes do have you wondering what going on and what it’s all about! I rather like the built-up myself, though. The camera and microphone are attached to one of the two white booster rockets of a space shuttle. You’ll see the other booster in the footage.

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HT: Inside NOVA, David Levin.

Other stuff on Code for life:

Media7 Spotlight on Science and Technology special (on tonight)

Friday’s Factoids and Quirky Quotes

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure

137 years of Popular Science back issues, free

Testing common ancestry to all modern-day life

A selection from Lord Robert Winston’s 12 aphorisms about science Grant Jacobs Aug 18

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Food to invite discussion: comments about science and the public

Robert Winston’s recent book, Bad Ideas?: an arresting history of our inventions, closes with chapter 12, Scientists and Citizens: Twelve Aphorisms and a Manifesto.


I saw this book at the university this morning and thought I might offer a few of his aphorisms or manifesto points as an invitation to discussion. (I haven’t read the book itself, as I haven’t enough free time to read for leisure currently.) Giving away a few of his aphorisms or points of his scientists’ manifesto shouldn’t be a spoiler for those who have yet to read his book.

Most of his aphorisms will be familiar in one form or other to those who have some basic idea of what science is ’about’ and are thus will be uncontroversial to most of you.

A few are a little more intriguing:

  • We constantly reinvent the same technological advances and rediscover the same discoveries.
  • Even ‘good’ governments frequently misuse scientific knowledge
  • Scientists are no better than anyone else at forecasting the future. In fact, their predictions are usually wildly inaccurate.

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