Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE SEARCH FOR EXTRA DIMENSIONS

I was fortunate to attend a talk on "The search for extra dimensions" by the Indian Physicist Dr. Sayen Kar at IIT Kharagpur. He highlighted that there are numerous experimental observations in Physics that can be explained only if we invoke the presence of extra dimensions (that is apart from the usual x,y,z and time dimensions). However, these dimensions become "visible" only at sub-micron length scales and requires high-energy techniques (like the Large Hadron Collider). I couldn't really imagine the presence of an extra dimension. It was hard convincing myself. However, it struck me that this would have been the state of mind before people discovered microbes! Nobody knew what caused diseases. The invent of microscopes was a milestone in knowing the microscopic world - organisims not visible to the eye. Similarly, I think we need high-end techniques like the LHCs before we really explore and perceive the presence/absence of the extra dimensions. In all cases, nothing can be ruled out until proved otherwise! :-)
THE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF SCIENCE

I thought quite deeply about the social responsibility of Science when I wrote my previous blogpost (click here). However, I was very skeptical of how much my view was right, though I did get a few feedbacks agreeing to my opinions. A recent article in SciAM "War in Peace" parallels my thoughts. The author very clearly points out "Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of Science should play a role". The competing claims may be in any area. I am indeed happy that I understood this aspect of Science, quite right, thanks to Feynman of course! But the question is, why don't everybody who holds a degree in Science understand this?? Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone agreed to this aspect? In the same issue of SciAm, Michael Shermer (click here) informs us of a research work in psychology that identifies 5 innate and universally available psychological systems upon which our senses of right and wrong rest. The underlying basis of opinion difference is now delineated!!
HUMAN GENOME SEQUENCING IN INDIA

Recently, there was much news that Indian scientists were successful in sequencing an Indian genome. It is a great step indeed for India and shows its promise of progress. However, on retrospection, I wonder if this is any news at all! The human genome project published its first sequence around the year 2000. This means, the technology for sequencing was developed even before that...say 5 years (though the actual root is the invention of the PCR in 1983 - even before I was born!). So, this only means that Indians are lagging behind by at least 15 years now!! In addition, I learn from news that the sequencing technology license was bought from an european organization. So, what was so indigenous to India to celebrate the sequencing? Was there any break through data that leapt out - at least as of now, NO - there hasn't been a publication yet! So, why did the government choose to announce it prematurely? I have no clue! There are lot of things to do with sequencing - population genetics of the different races, cause for the malarial susceptibility etc etc etc. Couldn't the scientists have waited until there was good data to publish? I seriously don't understand their motive from a scientific point of view when there is no novelty displayed yet.
STAR GAZING

Singapore being one of the most "light-polluted" countries, I never thought there would be an astronomical observatory here. But as it happens, there is one...and in fact, one of the few telescopes on the equator! And what more...they offer 'free star gazing' every friday between 7.45 and 10 pm! The planet on focus today was Jupiter - as that was the most observable celestial body today - perhaps the whole of December. There was a big hood like thing..as we see in the movies... in which the telescope was mounted. I guess the whole of the hood was rotatable to view different parts of the sky. The telescopic image showed 4 moons along with the planet. It just made me wonder how much our 'vision' has improved :P (The proposed site for the Indian Neutrino Observatory has been dismissed by the government). There a lot of things that we don't know and are beyond our imagination too. It is so interesting how people live in so much vanity when there are a lot of stuffs that we don't understand and do not even perceive! That apart, I also saw a small satellite that crossed Singapore while I was there...apparently it reflected the sun's light for a fraction of a minute on its way...and was observable at Singapore. One can get a list of observable satellites in their location for the next 7 days from this website: http://www.heavens-above.com/.

Astronomy is fun and humbling!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Components of Research - Hypothesis- vs Non-hypothesis- Driven Research

Holding a bachelor degree in Science and stepping into a graduate program in the Engineering has been the most arduous task I have ever undertaken in my life. Trained as a Science student with a little research exposure at NCL and NCBS, I have always learnt to build upon existing information, i.e., summarise the existing information - identify the gaps and fill them. However, the approach in engineering research seemed totally different. Here they identified a(ny) problem, solved it, and then looked for supporting information! Well, I have had serious trouble because of these two different approaches in research - I was never able to accept there can be "non-hypothesis" driven research. However, a blog and a chat with a friend at CMU, made me go over the breakthroughs in Science.

Case 1: Newton sits down an apple tree. Apple falls. Newton discovers law of gravity.

Was there any hypothesis in this discovery? No! Newton first made an observation! He then went on to systematically study it and bingo - he derived the laws. So, there was a non-hypothesis driven research first - the observation that an apple fell. This was followed by hypothesis-driven research - "systematic" study of the observations. What one means by "systematic" is that, you pose a series of questions and check your logic of understanding by answering each of the questions with consistency. If consistency fails with your logic, you got to revise your logic - hypothesis. So, research involved a non-hypothesis driven observation followed by a hypothesis driven work.

Case 2: Structure of DNA is a double helix.

Crystallization was a new technique in the 1940's -50's. Watson and Crick were curious to know the structure of DNA, as many of the contemporary scientists were. So, they made an observation - the diffraction data - and interpreted them. While the interpretation involved asking a series of logical questions in order, they were, as such NOT addressing any hypothesis. So, again, this is a clear example of non-hypothesis driven + hypothesis driven research.

To finally conclude, research is both making an observation and studying it systematically.

In the context of Systems Biology, I guess the entire field is in the stage of non-hypothesis driven research. Not much progress has been into making meaning out of the observations generated so far. But with time, it shall see its fruits and enter into its second phase - hypothesis driven research.

PS: Just making a RANDOM observation is NOT Science. An observation that resulted out of curiosity or inquisitiveness is only Science. I will talk about Serendipity and Science in another post.