On Growth and Form

Before I start, a short comment on personal growth:

After a quite frustrating day yesterday, I decided to get up bright and early, go for a run and then head to work today. It’s actually a national holiday here (ascension), but as I have to take my holidays explicitly, and “I’m here for work and not for fun (except for weekends)”, that was my plan. So I was up  and ready to leave for my jog, when my flatmate just entered the front door, after a night out. Made me think.

I guess I’m a “real grown up” now…

But now, On Growth and Form.

I have discovered that Dundee has had quite an interesting inhabitant. His name is D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I had never heared of him until sometime last year when we went out to dinner in a restaurant called The D’Arcy Thompson. A plaque on the wall informed us he was a biology professor in Dundee (at the time the university was still part of the University of St. Andrews) around 1900.

Some time later, I went to a talk about penguins, more specifically about the two penguins that Dundonian Arctic explorers had brought back from their trip south. The penguins had gone through quite a bit, one even was the official mascot of a student faculty club, but they are now on display in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum on the campus of the University of Dundee. We went to go see the museum after the talk, it’s a room stuffed with, well, stuffed animals. Quite an impressive collection, including a giant crab. (Giant means more than a meter across. Imagine running into a wild one!)

The penguin before it went missing. (ca. 1900)

But it wasn’t until last week that I realised how interesting Mister D’Arcy really was – and I just realised that sounds like a sentence from Pride and Prejudice. A research letter in Nature Physics on the combined mechanics of cells in tissues mentions the following:

In 1917, D’Arcy Thomson published a treatise On Growth and Form in which he suggested that morphogenesis could be explained by forces and motion – in other words by mechanics.

You might recall that my PhD is about the mechanics of gut cancer. And I didn’t know about D’Arcy, shame on me! In the mean time I’ve tried to get my hands on the book, not too difficult because there are some on line pdfs circulating with the whole thing. Unfortunately, I’m the worst at reading from a computer screen, so I haven’t gotten very far*, but it seems that Mister D’Arcy was quite interesting indeed. His 1136-paged book reads a bit a philosophy book (or it does in the first 304 pages). He tells the story – for it’s written like a story – of how the mechanics in biology is quite similar to the mechanics of inanimate bodies, and that growth and morphology can essentially be explained by physics. He gives a whole list of examples, where he makes analogies between biological systems and physical systems. He admits that this will not explain every detail of biology, but that it is possible to explain certain simpler phenomena of organic growth and form using mathematical and physical desciriptions. His studies on fractal patterns and linear transformations (rotation, translation, shearing) have been important for image analysis, architecture, mathematics and probably many other fields.

Mathematical transformations of homologous features in fish.

Then how had I never heard of Mister D’Arcy (I realise it should be Mister Thompson but that just doesn’t have that ring to it)? Luckily I’ve figured my lack of knowledge on time and can rectify that mistake. D’Arcy had innovative ideas, that have been pushed to the sidelines by molecular and genetic research in morphogenesis. Nevertheless, is book is merely discriptive, so there is still much to be learned. Which is where projects like mine come in.

Hurray, I have a purpose!

Thank you Mister D’Arcy!

*If anyone knows where I can get my hands on a good hard copy, please let me know! Amazon only cells “bad quality and incomplete” versions, so it’s proving quite difficult.


The “Big” Issues

So here I am, full of ambition to write a blog post about some of the big issues being discussed within (and outside probably) the scientific community. Since I’m following mostly science-related posts on twitter, I’m suddenly more up to date on what’s going on. Chinese researchers reported successful genetic modification of human embryos, causing a storm of debate around the ethics of germ-line gene modification and even the ethics of publishing such research. I’ve skimmed though the paper and concluded that there might be much abuzz about nothing. Granted, it allows for necessary and interesting ethical debates, and entertaining and deeply disturbing tv-shows, but as so often in the media, the research itself might have been slightly blown out of proportion.

The researchers report limited success and outline the several obstacles in their method. It will be a long way before embryonic genomic modification will be clinical practice, with not only the ethical concerns but several technological pitfalls to be tackled. Concerning the ethics of it all, I’m always a bit wary to choose a side. On one hand, I’m just not able to, I usually don’t know enough on the subject and I can’t help agreeing to arguments from both sides. On the other hand, it’s ethics, there’s never a simple answer. There’s a long list of pros and cons and according to which ethical principle you adhere to, the answer might be different. I’m sure in vitro fertilisation had a storm of protest when it was first discovered, but by now most people agree it’s helping a lot of people. GMOs are still in a bit of a grey area, between the researchers trying to improve crops and solve world hunger and the environmentalists worried about biodiversity loss, but I find merit in both sides. So I’m just behind the lines, listening to the discussions and changing my preference every few minutes (or more often sticking to one side but acknowledging the concerns of the other). It least it makes for interesting discussions with myself.

Another recent “scandal” revolves around the sexist reviewer who suggested to the (two female) authors of a paper on gender bias in academics, that they should add a male author to balance things out. Now, I haven’t read the paper, or the review, and granted, out of context the reviewer’s comments are out of line (have we confirmed if it was a man or a woman?), but perhaps there was bias in their publication. I’ve already noticed how easy it is to introduce unintended bias while analysing results; it’s difficult not to start seeing what you’re expecting. So I’m not saying there’s no gender bias in the scientific field, just as there’s gender bias in occupations like nursing (hmm, that reminds me of a Scrubs episode), I’m just saying that without all the information, people shouldn’t be spouting their opinions as if they’re truths. (Look at me being all morally superior and making smug claims on the internet.)

In short, I have no idea what I’m talking about, which should stop me from having an opinion on these things, but like so many people on the internet, of course I (sort of) do.

The RSS Discovery in Dundee

So let’s stick to what I know, geekery.

I recently saw the Dinsey/Marvel movie Big Hero 6 and quite enjoyed it, most of all the enthusiasm of Hiro to go to “nerd-school”, which reminded me of a 6-year old I overheard saying “I want to be a scientist when I grow up!” during a visit to the RRS Discovery. I hope there are more kids like him and I don’t mind if movies like Big Hero 6 convince kids that science and engineering are cool and make them want to go into STEM fields.

Next to – in my eyes – promoting science, there were movie references that just made me feel smug for getting them:

Give it a guess… (Tip, I’m pretty sure the microbots refer to the same SciFi franchise.)

and “no I’m not tearing up”-moments as well, of course:

This one actually also reminded me of a tear-inducing movie moment, but it might just be all in my head.

To conclude, who really cares about the “big” issues. There are enough things going on in the world that make me so disappointed…

At least he had (will have) the technology to move to another one, the glückspilz.

So I find solace in the little things. Like today’s date. Happy Star Wars day everyone.

May the Forth be with you ;).Bsl