Thursday, January 31, 2008

The human genome, in book form

I've just been sorting through some old files, and came across this picture (click for a larger version), which I took on my last visit to London. I had some free time before a meeting at the BT Tower, so I popped into the Wellcome Collection.

Quite apart from the fact that the Wellcome Trust spends around 400 million pounds a year on biomedical research, I have a personal affinity with the trust, since my shortlisted entry to their Book Prize (which was won that year by Chris McManus' Right Hand, Left Hand) was picked up by Toby Mundy and eventually evolved into Genesis Machines (pictured below in the Wellcome Collection bookshop, in a nice circular turn of fate).

One of the most striking exhibits they have (alongside a sample of droppings from Dolly the sheep) is the human genome, printed out in book form. As I've said before, we're rank amateurs compared to nature in the information storage stakes (of course, reading and writing data quickly is another matter...) Since the size of the human genome is estimated at around 3 billion genetic letters (taken from the set {A, G, C, T}), then (assuming that one byte is used to store each letter), each cell with a nucleus (that is, every one except red blood cells and the like) contains 3 Gigabytes of genetic "memory". Of course, we don't need an entire byte (8 bits) to store a quarternary (base 4) value, so we could compress this figure by three quarters, and cells actually contain two genomic copies, but I don't want to over-complicate things...

The fact of the matter is that our genome is large: in the past, I've compared it, if printed out in full, to 200 copies of the Manhattan telephone book. This analogy was arrived at by some back-of-an-envelope calculations, and I don't think I really understood its significance until I visited the Wellcome Collection.

There, in a corner of one of the galleries, stand a single set of white shelves, almost 5 metres by 2 metres, containing 120 hefty volumes. One of them stands open, and a closer inspection reveals page upon page of genetic data, rows and rows of A's, G's, C's and T's tightly-set in 4.5-point text.

The sheer scale of the artifact is mind-blowing, both as an illustration of nature's nanotechnology, but also as a reminder of how far we have to go in terms of beginning to piece together even a small fraction of the human circuitry.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sex with robots

One of the sure signs of impending middle age, especially in a university town, is when people stop handing you flyers. There was a time not so long ago when I could nip out of the office for a sandwich and come back burdened with glossy adverts for progressive house, 2-for-1 vodka shots and foam. But no longer. Now, the bright young things actively avoid me as my thirty-something, corduroy-clad figure shambles into view. The kinder ones simply pretend not to see me.

So imagine my delight when, walking down Oxford Road this afternoon after picking up some grapes, I was handed a flyer. And one offering sex with robots, to boot! Impressed by the targeted precision of whoever was marketing such an opportunity, I was about to kick my heels when I realised that it was actually advertising a club night in Manchester. Now, as a long-time veteran of nights such as House of God and Voodoo, I might have been interested...ooh, ten years ago, but with a responsible job and a young daughter, "'avin it large" now means having that third shot of espresso in my cappucino.

Which is a really cheap and tenuous way of introducing a new play that I think you should go and see. Involution is by a new author, Rachel Welch, and deals with many urgent contemporary themes, such as genetic engineering, religion and the human self-image. One of the plot threads concerns "cybernetic companionship", so I'll leave it to you to make the link...

Alfie Talman, a member of the production team and cast (and, coincidentally, a fellow Ipswich fan) enjoyed Genesis Machines, and thought I might be interested in the play. It's on from February 21st to March 15th at the Pacific Playhouse in London, and there are more details here (and here).

Monday, January 14, 2008

"I'm burning, I'm burning!..."

Although every side in an argument tends to have its own complement of fools, the idiocy exhibited by fundamentalist Christians, in debates over evolution or the origin of the universe, often takes us into the realm of comedy.

Take this example, lifted from a list of fundie "bloopers":

"Everyone knows scientists insist on using complex terminology to make it harder for True Christians to refute their claims.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example... sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we'd all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE!"

The full amusing-and-yet-slightly-scary list is here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Genesis Machines in Japan

Readers in Japan may be interested in the forthcoming edition of Genesis Machines, which is now available for preorder. It's been translated by Kyoko Gibbons, and is out on the 17th of this month.