Friday, August 15, 2014

A world of wonderment and awesomeness






I have been dreaming of these plants and this light since our snow adventure earlier this month. The weird jusxtaposition between the rainforest-esque and normally buoyant ferns, the gum trees and the snow really got to me. The light was bright and dull, intense and cold, and it freaked me out a little from the wonder of it. Having never seen snow in Australia, it felt entirely foreign but magical all the same.

These last few weeks I've been trying to be all about the wonder and the wonderfulness of the world. There has been tragedy and too many deaths and too many horrid internet trolls, but in amidst it all there have been these little pockets of wonderment and the extraordinary.

My most favourite piece I've read popped up yesterday - with a group of scientists from Monash University's Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute almost literally stumbling across something awesome. Apparently, zebrafish are quite genetically close to humans - so close that it's really only a case of specific genes being switched on or not that turns us into humans and not fish - apparently we could really be considered modified fish. This of course is a new discovery to me but old news for scientists. The new part is that a group from ARMI were studying muscle stem cell biology in these zebrafish (because they're a good model for the same thing in humans) and they found out how stem cells in blood and bone marrow are formed. Unrelated to their own work, they made a scientific discovery that could have implications for growing these stem cells instead of the hit-and-miss process of matching bone marrow donors and patients who need transplants (like those suffering from Leukemia, lymphoma and the like).

What especially pleases me here is that this might shed more light on how creativity and innovation and important advancements actually happen. Not all creativity is driven by intention or internal passions (although some of it is). Sometimes it happens by accident, and the 'magic' is all in the recognition of the accident's value. Creativity requires resources but we might miss great discoveries like this one if we insist on funding only the projects we think are the important ones. Great things can happen in unrelated areas: philosophers can help us understand autism; literature can uncover history; and navel gazing can lead to Nobel Prizes. A milkmaid helps find a vaccine for smallpox; a study of cathode rays uncovers the xray; Jesuit missionaries in Peru bring quinine and a malaria treatment to the world; a chance observation during a genetic study leads to the 'pap smear'; a spoiled flu experiment brings us penicillin. Velcro, Post-its, vulcanisation of rubber, cholera vaccination, microwave ovens, Viagra, insulin, chemotherapy, radioactivity, synthetic dyes, the field of biochemistry itself - all of them and more were the result of mistakes, missed opportunities, false hypotheses, ignorance, chance and, most importantly, the prepared mind that recognised the value of what emerged.

Rock on, science.

Also awesome in science: women. A whole bunch of them are wikibombing the internets to make sure women scientists are getting the recognition they deserve. Over 144 women around Australia, all worked together to update or start new wikipedia entries for women scientists. Given wikipedia is mostly created by men, there tends to be a distinct gender bias in its recognition of folks. This was a much more positive story than one I read quite a few months ago about a woman author's attempts to change wikipedia's tendency to categorise women separately from the general classification, e.g. American novelists (almost all men) and American women novelists.

Also awesome for women: one won the Fields Medal for the first time. Described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, it had long been believed (amongst the smug bastards of the academy) that a woman would never win it. Now one has, and as Daubechies mentions in the article, one hopes it will be thoroughly un-extraordinary from now on.

Also awesome for the world: three different studies have shown kids who read Harry Potter have more positive attitudes towards refugees and LGBT people. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, books are awesome.

Kids are pretty awesome too. I've been catching up on the Life At... kids. If you've not seen the series before, go quick to ABC iView - they've been replying the older seasons now that they've just released Life At 9. I feel so terribly sentimental about them after watching them grow-up over the last decade. I feel so terribly fuzzy inside that someone watching the show got in contact and gave real help to one of the parents who was struggling in Life At 7.

Have you watched or read anything recently that's made you feel a little more wonder? Please share, I'd love to see it. 

4 comments :

  1. Book are awesome - our eldest is just starting to read and I am so excited at the world of possibility that is unfolding in front of her.
    In relation to American women novelists, our youngest daughter is named for Harriet Beecher Stowe. There's a yarn that when she met Abraham Lincoln in 1862 he greeted her saying "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

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    1. That's an inspiring image for her to carry through her life. There are power in names, just as there is in books :)

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  2. I do love the way books can transport us to another place, another time and another mood altogether. Science truly amazes me too and I wish there was more news widely shared about the awesome discoveries xx

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    1. Now I'm working in a neuroscience centre, I'm actually finding that there are heaps of new discoveries but the mainstream media do a great job of ignoring or mangling them. I'm finding a lot via my work Twitter, strangely enough, where I've subscribed to lots of science-specialised journals and magazines as well as quite a few scientists.

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