Aug 31, 2010

北京 – Update on the Photosynthesis Congress and a little story I heard – Part II

The International Photosynthesis Congress in Beijing was pretty awesome! Particularly because it was announced that the Photosystem II crystal structure had been obtained at an impressive atomic resolution of 1.9 Å. Photosystem II is the only input of energy into the living world, it’s within the leaves of plants and within algae in the oceans. Without it there would be no life on Earth. Perhaps one day I’ll make a blog entry about it… in the meantime, you should check it out on Wikipedia.

In addition, my boss was elected the new president of the International Society of Photosynthesis Research, which is pretty cool. He now gets to help with the organization of the next congress in 2013; in St. Louis, Missouri.

My presentation went well; I was pretty nervous thought… I started talking and immediately I felt my mouth extremely dry! An after-effect of the nervousness? I subtly looked at the table to my left to see if there was some water… nothing. I think I should have been given a glass of water, but that was an honor that only the plenary lecturers got. I survived though; I think my old boss from Sweden was glad to see that I was doing good in France, he asked me a question at the end of the presentation and I could sense it in his eyes and voice tone, he was proud.

Conclusion: Beijing was awesome and the conference too. I’ll be back one day again for sure!

And now a story I heard about the Great Wall of China.

The story says that once an emperor had a beautiful concubine, she was his favorite, but she had suffered too much in life so she never smiled. The emperor tried everything to make her smile, he never succeeded. It seems that a counselor advised him that it would be a great idea to take her to the Great Wall at night, and light the fire signals from tower to tower to tower… a beautiful spectacle! The troops after seeing the signal would get ready and march for battle just to find that there was no enemy and no invasion, which would just add to the amusement of the concubine. The emperor thought it was a wonderful idea and so he did and so it happened. The concubine smiled and they lived happily ever after until the Mongols came, they lit the fired but the soldiers thought it was another joke. Then… Genghis Khan conquered China.

(Warning: this story might not be historically accurate).

Aug 30, 2010

北京 - Beijing, China. Impressions – Part I

I always thought of Chinese as quiet and timid people in general; I was totally wrong. On the flight from Paris to Guangzhou the majority of the passengers were from China, and everything was alright, I didn’t suspect anything at all; however, on the flight from Guangzhou to Beijing, which was a domestic flight… wow! What a transformation of personality, I never imagined Chinese people could be so obnoxious and prone to disobedience. Everyone was loud, no one wanted to stay put on their sits, no one wanted to wear the seatbelt even after repeated warnings of the flight attendants, and they ran through the plane from one place to another. In the middle of turbulence when the flight attendants were asking to please sit down, fasten seatbelts and don’t use the toilets… well, it seemed that for many people that was just the perfect time to get up and go to pee. It was kind of funny.

Beijing is huge, very modern, and clean. And at the heart of it all the Forbidden City, so beautiful and magnificent; so colorful, such detail! I was impressed in a very positive way. The metro and transport system is pretty good and extremely cheap, some times you wouldn’t feel like you’re in China if it wasn’t because of the Chinese characters everywhere. Yet, you can still breathe the inequality. How is it possible that you can find one restaurant let’s say T.G.I. Friday’s (an American franchise) and pay 250 Yuan for a piece of meat… and just across the street you can go to another restaurant and get a good meal for just 20 Yuan? Or get a cup of coffee at one place for 40 Yuan, when one could easily eat two dinners for the same money… that’s just bizarre. I don’t see reason for such disparity.

Tall buildings right in front the hotel

In any case, for happy tourists and visitors like me, the city could be a very economic place to be… We were ten people, we ate delicious Chinese food until our bellies exploded, including beers and drinks for just 450 Yuan… that’s pretty much what a single person would pay in Paris at a reasonably good but not that fancy restaurant: amazing. I enjoyed the food so much, oh my god! Chinese food is just made for me; I was born to eat Chinese food.

Ten happy explorers eating in excess (I'm number ten)

Then one afternoon we went to the Great Wall! Sublime, just sublime… an ode to human craftsmanship. What I didn’t imagine at all is that I had to climb to the top of a really tall hill… I don’t really know how long it was but there were like a million stairs, each step of the stair was of a different size, making it harder to climb. Once I went down my legs were shaking.

The top of the hill which only true heroes can reach

The tour guide said that if you climbed to the top you would be a true hero… so you can actually buy a ‘hero certificate’ at the tourist shop: haha…

A true hero

To be continued… tomorrow.

Aug 19, 2010

Prelude to China, The Great Wall and the Photosynthesis Congress

Since I was a kid I always dreamed of seeing the Great Wall of China. Such magnificent structure, a testament to human prowess! I never imagined a day would come when this dream would come true… when I would see it with my own eyes, and it came sooner than I expected.

This will be my first trip to China and I’m certain it won’t be the last… since C&C Incorporated (for those of you who don’t know; that’s the name of the hugely successful biotech company I and my friend will create in the near future) shall open a few branches in Asia. But for now, I’ll stay only seven days, I’ll arrive Saturday 21st in the morning and I’ll be traveling back the 27th in the afternoon. I will only have the afternoon of the 21st and the entire 22nd of August to sightsee and explore around. That is because the real reason I’m visiting China is to attend the 15th international Photosynthesis Congress, which is the most important and biggest congress in photosynthesis in the world! Lucky me I’ll present my work there, the title of my talk is:

“A water oxidising electrode consisting of Photosystem II in a TiO2 nanoparticle layer on a conducting surface”

And I’ll be talking the last day, 15 minutes.

Leaving the science behind, international conferences are very enjoyable occasions; generally (not always) you get great food, a lot of booze… free booze sometimes. There’s also a lot of people you know from the scientific community and new people to get to know. It’s always fun, constructive fun, since you’re there to learn (theoretically)!

The previous Photosynthesis Congress was three years ago in Glasgow and I also had the chance to go; then I was a young inexperienced PhD student. That meeting suffered badly because of the food, the food was either fish and ships or a crappy tiny wok… every single day of the week. Not only the food was of insufficient quality and quantity, but for the coffee break there weren’t enough snacks for everyone so people left the lecture sessions earlier in order to be able to compete for some piece of cookie…

Logo of the Photosynthesis Congress in Beijing

As you might realize food plays an important role in conferences, because it sucks to sit for hours at a lecture hall with your stomach empty or totally unsatisfied. It’s very distracting and annoying!

I remember the last day of the Glasgow conference; they were announcing that in three years the new Photosynthesis Congress would be in Beijing! The Chinese guy advertising the conference ended with a PowerPoint slide of Chinese awe inspiring delicacies… and his last words were: “and there will be delicious food!”. I think I shed a tear of happiness.

The Congress people also organized a trip to the Great Wall, which is deep in my heart the secret real reason why I’ll be standing there in front of the scientific community speaking about Photosystem II in a titanium dioxide surface.



Aug 17, 2010

Upgrade your brain for $9.99 - Part III

”Identification!” Said the guard pointing his gun instinctively at the robot that stood in front of the gate.

“My name is White,” answered the robot with a calm male voice.

The guard was confused; every week he’s required to download onto his memory an updated list with all existing models of humanoid robots… every guard does it, it’s part of the security memory package. And there’s no chance that the mental upgrade could fail him, it would be unheard of. This was definitively a robot which was not in the registry.

The robot was faceless, only a thin white line surrounded its head at the height of the eyes. The surface of its body was completely black with a gentle gloss reflecting a full moon.

“Identification!” Shouted the guard. He didn’t know what to do.

This was perhaps one of the less transited gates of Science City at the south east walls. Not much people used to be seen a day, much less a robot. White turned its head to look at the guard, one second, then it slowly turned the rest of its body.

“Don’t move!” Screamed the man lifting his gun and holding it as if he was ready to shoot. He knew that something was not right, not right at all.

There was something unusual about White, perhaps it was its lean shiny black structure or perhaps it was its unusually clean and beautiful surface. It scared him… the man started trembling.

“There’s n…” said White when the guard interrupted it.

“Shut the fuck up!” His finger touched the trigger of the gun.

Suddenly, the metallic gate creaked as it started to open. Bang! The man panicked shooting his gun at White but the bullet ricocheted off its head without leaving a single scratch.

The poor guard was shocked; fear overtook him in a fraction of a second.

“I’m the only one who can open that gate, so how the hell it opened?” A fleeting thought.

Then he realized that he shouldn't have shot the gun and the fear quickly turned into guilt and embarrassment.

Adding to the man’s confusion; a child wearing a dark blue dress crossed the gate. The dark blue contrasted with her extremely pale albino skin, in her right hand she carried a black worn out stuffed bear and in her left a folded umbrella.

She approached White and poked it in the abdomen with the tip of the umbrella.

“Let’s go,” she said.

The guard tried to bring himself out of the stupefaction but by then the robot and the albino girl were nowhere to be seen.

Click here to go to part IV of 'Upgrade your brain for $9.99'!

Aug 16, 2010

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

I was checking out a list of “the top 100 best films of world cinema” featured at Empire Online Magazine; and the number one movie was Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, from 1954. I don’t usually like old movies, I mean black and white movies… and with some exceptions anything below 1985 seems to me kind of dull to watch. However, I decided to leave my stupid prejudices behind and watch it, perhaps it could blow my mind; come on! It could be the best movie ever! (I thought to convince myself).

Alright, so I watched it… and I liked it, I liked it a lot! I wouldn’t say the best movie ever made, but definitively interesting and entertaining. It lagged a little bit here and there, but it was pretty awesome nonetheless. The absolutely best character without a doubt is Kikushiyo (Toshirō Mifune); he’s totally crazy! As you can see in the poster, the guy with the funny mustache wielding a sword… he’s with a chest protector and just underwear during most of the battles!

For your information, the Japanese traditional underwear is called Fudoshi (see Figure 2), and it’s similar to a thong in that it exposes all of your butt-cheeks. So you see Kikushiyo running around killing bandits with his butt in plain air! It’s hilarious.

Figure 2. Top panel a Fudoshi, notice resemblance with modern
thong. The arrow points at Kikushiyo's Fudoshi.

The next movie I will see is Metropolis, the 1927 science fiction classic by Fritz Lang which is number 12 in the same list. Have you seen it?

Aug 15, 2010

Colombia in Japanese Anime, Roberta from Black Lagoon

I don’t know by now how many days of my life I have wasted watching Japanese anime and reading manga… and let me tell you it should sum up to a lot of wasted days. From all that I have seen I never encountered anything remotely related to Colombia, and why should I? The majority of anime and manga stories happen in Japan, in fantastic or alternate realities, and perhaps sometimes in America.

I was watching an animated series called Black Lagoon, based on the manga by the same name written and illustrated by Rei Hiroe. It’s about a group of mercenaries that smuggles stuff in and out a remote island called Roanapur, Thailand. The anime is great, a lot of action, interesting and engaging storyline, and great quality animation… yeah, so episode 9 (Maid to Kill) and 10 (the Unstoppable Chambermaid) is about this woman called Roberta who was once upon a time a guerrilla fighter from FARC! Now she is the maid (and bodyguard) of a Colombian man and his son, from the Lovelace family, if I remember right a cartel family… the kid for some reason shows up in Roanapur, he’s been kidnapped or something, and Roberta is coming to rescue him killing everything that moves on her path! She’s almost like a terminator, super strong and resilient… as the episode title says, she’s unstoppable and really scary. I was thinking that if FARC could train such kind of warriors, Colombia would be utterly doomed.

Roberta from Black Lagoon

It seems that Roberta became quite a popular character since it has been announced that a new season of Black Lagoon will be released in 2011; and it’s titled Roberta’s Blood Trail. In any case, the anime is awesome so I really recommend it.

It’s kind of funny that the only anime/manga character I know that is actually Colombian had to be FARC… what a joke!

Aug 14, 2010

Upgrade your brain for $9.99 - Part II

By the time she was five years old she was able to speak and write fluently forty three distinct languages. By the time she was seven she could play about almost every single instrument in an orchestra, except those that were too big for her little hands or just too heavy. When she was nine mathematics and physics were a piece of cake. For her tenth birthday she could probably recite any poet or philosopher; and it was part of her routine to be consulted by experts to discuss the pros and cons of a certain economical model, the consequences that passing a given law could bring to society, or the effects of a newly design metabolic network could bring to an organism. Her wisdom was vast, perhaps infinite… and that scared and annoyed a lot of people around the world.

She had been designed that way, the pinnacle of scientific achievement. She was the first human being whose brain structure, composition, and development had been planned and designed even before she was conceived. The world went crazy when the project was first revealed to the public, protest movements were created by the thousands, religious leaders condemned it as a demonic act and political leaders condemned it as a violation of human rights and the obliteration of morality. However, there was little they could do about it, more than two centuries ago a new nation with complete autonomy was erected for the betterment of human kind and the advancement of civilization; after a couple of decades of much deliberation and planning, the highest authorities of Science City gave green light to the project and thus Celest was born.

What no one ever imagined or expected after decades of rigorous planning and experimentation and even though her genome had been sequenced to perfection is that she was going to be an albino. It caused tremendous uproar around the planet, needless to say. But in spite of her extremely pale appearance, white hair, and purple colored iris; she grew up to become a perfectly healthy, well behaved happy kid, until she was ten years old…

Then something extremely unusual happened, at the beginning it was impossible to notice but after a few years it became obvious that she had stopped aging. She remained in any sense like a ten years old little girl. Now she’s twenty and still she looks like ten, there was no adolescence, not a single sign of physical deterioration or neurological degeneration: she is perfectly fine, she just… stopped growing old.

Click here to go to part III of 'Upgrade your brain for $9.99'!

Aug 13, 2010

Upgrade your brain for $9.99 - Part I

The very first mental upgrade I had was to improve my memory. A very helpful little device to remember anything I wanted; every single passage of my favorite book or movie, every face, every word said, every feeling of that night we spent. What a masterpiece of technological ingenuity, it was not just designed to boost your memory without any adverse effects on your thought process or unconscious mind; but you could also use it to delete whichever ugly memories you wanted, quite neat.

The second upgrade I made was to enhance focus and attention; this one I got more out of need than actually ‘free will’ since companies would rather hire people with a focus upgrade than without. Obviously, it represented billions in earning having your employers concentrated for hours without a single useless passing thought or daydream. I guess it became some kind of cure for procrastination.

Perhaps one of the best investments I’ve made so far was to get the media transfer upgrade. It could literally transfer your thoughts: speech, sound, imagery, video, you name it, into a computer so you could actually save a thought in digital format; and then watch it or replay it later. You could also set it so that it would transfer automatically all your dreams into your laptop overnight. At the beginning it was kind of entertaining to watch my dreams next day in the morning, but then I started realizing that there are some dreams so obscure that perhaps it’s better not to remember them at all.

To post videos of your pet’s dreams became a huge boom and all sorts of dog or cat dreams used to go crazy viral over the internet… an extremely funny one was a leaked video when the media transfer devices were still on testing phase; a chimpanzee erotic dream with her scientist in charge! Fantastic.

However the most expensive upgrade I ever made on my brain was the one for enhance though processing. It is meant to use the full capacity of your brain for problem solving, calculations, simulations, and other forms of higher reasoning. I remember the very first time I used it: I needed to come up with a solution for a dilemma that was tormenting me at the moment; I won’t go into details but it’s more or less like this: either I would choose solution A, I would be truthful to my ideals, take a heavy burden off my shoulders; but cause terrible pain to a loved one… or I would choose solution B, I would lie to myself, but my loved one would be unharmed and happy. In any case, when I activated the higher reasoning enhancement to find the best course of action… everything seemed alright at the beginning, suddenly every thought started flowing so smoothly, so logically, so clearly. It was exhilarating, you feel like Einstein times a hundred! Then after a few minutes my head started to feel heavy, a few minutes later a slight headache, then I felt like going to pee, mouth dry, the headache increased, my sight went blurry, sweat, felt like puking, then sudden exhaustion. The thoughts were rushing through my brain like bullets… I felt like lying down and after a couple of minutes I fell asleep, just to wake up an hour and a half later starving. Intense, really intense.

Like Einstein times a hundred...

Click here to go to part II of 'Upgrade your brain for $9.99'!

Aug 12, 2010

How to be patient, take it easy, OK?

Take it easy for a second; slow down… no need to rush it. Your turn will be soon, the queue will move, the metro will arrive to the station, no worries. Time will pass, soon it will be your birthday and then you will go on holidays to that amazing place. Time will pass, you will catch a cold and you will recover. You will fall in love, you will fall out of love and time will definitively pass. You will be proud and you will be disappointed, you will succeed and you will fail. You will experience unimaginable joy and you will suffer. You might suffer a lot and time will still pass, it all will be in the past some day. You will grow old, and you will see wrinkles decorating your face, you will have children, you will see them grow tall and smart, you will see them go one day. And your strength will fade away, and your sight will get blurry, and your teeth will fall… and your life one day will be over.

Just relax, no need to hurry… it is not that time will stop and keep you in such unbearable pain, discomfort, or embarrassment forever. Time will go on, minutes will turn into years, and years into thousands of years, and those will turn into millions… because time is unstoppable, our lives will pass, the human species will evolve and one day it will be extinct and time will still go on.

So, be happy: there is no need to be upset if you missed the bus, someone was too rude, your couple dumped you, you just did not get the job of your dreams, or you just got an incurable disease. Time will pass and it will be over… because after all, compared to the dimensions of time, our life is as good as if it never even happened at all.

Fossil dragonfly 70 million yearsA 70 million years old libelula

Aug 11, 2010

Life important choices

live Paris flat arago
If I was sixteen again, and I could choose again what to do for my future: I probably would choose to study literature; just to write the most beautiful poem ever written or the most exciting novel a human being could possibly read. Or I would choose to be a musician and perhaps compose a song so touching it would make people cry, it would change people’s life forever. But I chose to be a scientist, so I could discover something new about the universe. Perhaps I made my chose because I thought I couldn’t write the most beautiful poem or compose a song that would change people’s life; and if I couldn’t do that, well… perhaps I could discover something new about the universe.