The DNA model: Three important lessons

I came across an article in a Google+ post that I found very interesting. Here is the link to the original article:
http://ajrccm.atsjournals.org/content/167/8/1047.long

The article is about the famous paper by Watson and Crick that proposes a model for the DNA. It turns out that they were not the first to propose such a model, and neither were they the only ones working on a model for the DNA. Two other researchers, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins were independently studying the DNA, trying to come up with a structure. Watson and Crick had met these two people, and studied the experimental results by Franklin and Wilkins. Apparently, Franklin and Wilkins, although working in the same university, had a tiff with each other and did not work together. The three groups published their findings in the same issue of Nature. However, it was Watson and Crick’s paper that became more famous and the model of the DNA today is popularly attributed to them. The rivalry between Franklin and Wilkins proved to be costly for them.

People generally tend to work independently in most universities in India and there is little collaboration, even within the same university. People tend to see others as their rivals, but little do they realize that they could increase their research output by working together. This is true not just in research, but in many other fields as well.

Getting back to the DNA story, two other researchers, Fraser and Stokes had come up with a similar helical structure for the DNA. Their structure had some minor fallacies, but they did not publish their findings. Had they done so, Watson and Crick might not have been given so much credit. There have been many such cases, where people came up with good ideas, but did not believe in them enough to publish it, thereby losing the glory.

The article also describes how the paper by Watson and Crick was very well written and neatly presented, in contrast to the two other papers which were littered with jargon. A research paper that is well written, and follows a simple style reaches out to a wider audience and becomes more popular. Paul Halmos deeply emphasizes on this aspect in his essay, “How to write Mathematics” (a link to the pdf can be found here)

To summarize, these three lessons are very important for every researcher:

  1. It is a better idea to collaborate with researchers of the same university than to work independently. It saves a lot of time, and you both get the credit.
  2. Publish all your findings. Unless it is in print, you don’t get any credit, and
  3. When you write up a paper, make sure that it can be easily understood by a wide enough audience. This is probably the most difficult of the three, since writing a good article takes a lot of time and experience.

The charm of a train journey

A train journey is different. It has its own charm, every trip is an experience in itself. It’s not like going by bus, or by plane. At some point of our childhood lives, haven’t we all been excited about going by train? Our mothers packing chapatis or pulao for lunch/dinner, carefully wrapped in aluminium foil or steel boxes, the rush of excitement when the train is about to leave, staring at the scenery and the passers by for hours without getting bored, the rush of the wind on your face, ah! What an amazing feeling! A trip to my native last week spurred this “train” of thoughts and here I am, rambling about train journeys.

What makes it so different is the atmosphere. You meet new people, have new experiences. As soon as the train departs, your co-passenger starts chatting, “Neevu Mangaloorige hoguvavara?”, with a smile is the general way to break the ice. In no time, you know that he is going to attend a relative’s marriage, has three children, works in so and so company, and even before you know it, you are discussing the latest political scam or the Indian cricket team’s latest debacle with him. You are all of a sudden talking to a stranger as though you are long lost friends. This is the charm in going by train that no other means of travel can offer.

Going with your relatives on the other hand, is a picnic in itself. The antakshari, word building games, storytelling sessions with cousins to pass time, eating channas or sipping hot tea, longingly looking at the chai wallah and the snacks he has to offer, now that brings memories! This reminds me of my favorite poem we had in school, called “From a railway carriage” by Robert Louis Stevenson. It goes like this:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

Ah! Longing for my next train journey now!

The blacklist legislations and the big furore

If you’ve seen tried to access Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist or related sites today, you will have noticed that they have been blacked out. This is in protest of a couple legislations that the US Government wants to pass : the Stop Online Piracy Act/E-PARASITE Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Websites are going up in arms and encouraging internet users to oppose the legislation.

So what is the SOPA/PIPA? They are bills aimed at stopping copyright infringement mainly by foreign websites. This act gives freedom to the rights holders to blacklist a site and even cut off payments to the blacklisted sites and stop advertisers to cut ties with the site by simply sending a notice.

Wikipedia says:

“The originally proposed bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who makes the request, the court order could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison for ten such infringements within six months. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.”

So why all the hue and cry about it? Here is some detail about the concerns regarding the act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says:

“These bills are targeted at “rogue” websites that allow indiscriminate piracy, but use vague definitions that could include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire, and Rapidshare; sites that discuss piracy such as pirate-party.us, p2pnet, Torrent Freak, torproject.org, and ZeroPaid; as well as a broad range of sites for user-generated content, such as SoundCloud, Etsy, and Deviant Art. Had these bills been passed five or ten years ago, even YouTube might not exist today — in other words, the collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous.”

There is a lot of hungama going on nowadays, with governments trying to wrest more control over the internet. Governments have fallen (Egypt, Libya, Syria) because of people’s protests that were all organised on the internet. Much closer home, the unrest about the Lokpal bill was all organised on facebook, twitter and sms itself. The Indian government wants user generated sites to monitor their content and has even threatened to block sites like facebook and google. This is a hint of fear in the people at the top about the power of internet media. Unlike newspapers or the television, anyone, anytime can communicate with a large number of people and even organise a protest very quickly. This mass organising capability has really amazed the world. So they now want to censor the internet and curb our rights.

So who will win the battle? The policymakers or the internet? That only time will tell.

The pleasure of finding things out

As I was just browsing through the web, I came across a very interesting interview of Richard Feynman called “The pleasure of finding things out”. Some very thought stimulating ideas I must say. Feynman is no doubt a genius but what probably makes him different in my opinion is his approach towards science and his never ending curiosity. Another characteristic that sets him apart is his ability to communicate. He gives some amazing speeches and his autobiography is awesome too.

Here is another video of the master (Horizon series)

As he says, science is to be enjoyed. Even his Nobel prize-winning work has a very interesting story behind it. It all goes back to the time after Los Alamos, the bomb testing experiment. At a point of time, it seems he was offered the post of professor at the Institute for advanced study, a very prestigious post then that was only conferred to the likes of Einstein, Von Neumann and others and Feynman thought he didn’t deserve it. He felt he was burned out. He just couldn’t do physics. But then, he thought “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!”. Von Neumann had earlier given him the idea that you don’t have to be responsible to the society in doing physics, all that matters is that you enjoy doing it. So Feynman said, all right! The Institute is paying for me, they are responsible for taking me in. He then remembered why he enjoyed physics, because he played with it without any regard for its importance whatsoever.

Within a week of joining, he was in the cafeteria when he saw someone throw a plate up in the air. He noticed that the plate was wobbling and that the spin was faster than the wobble. So he took out his notebook and tried to figure out the reason behind it. Later, he went to Hans Bethe and said that he found out why it was happening. Bethe asked him how it was important to which Feynman replied “Hah! It is not an important problem, I’m doing it just because it’s fun!”. Bethe’s reaction did not discourage him and he carried on with it. Slowly, he built upon that, and physics once again became effortless for him. All the piddling around with the wobbling plates and the like finally got him the Nobel prize in physics!

What Feynman keeps repeatedly saying is that you have to be curious, you have to enjoy doing what you do. The reason why most people have BP and hypertension by the age of 35-40 is that they are frustrated in life. If only people would heed to this advice!

Happy 2012

A new year has come at last! Again, the usual new-year resolutions (and breaking them in a week), a new semester and new experiences! 2011 was a pretty busy year, and quite eventful. I’m still feeling nostalgic reminiscing the old undergrad days, ah! we were more carefree then.

This blog was lying untouched for quite some time now and I hope to post more often this year. Hopefully, I won’t break this resolution so soon!

The semester has started with a flurry of conferences and workshops in the department. The best part about attending these workshops (apart from listening to the speakers) is free food! It is certainly a change from the mess food that we get everyday and you get ice cream (yay! ice cream!) too. As a friend said, being a grad student means that you are an expert at finding out where free food is available on campus. I guess that also requires a considerable amount of research (part of the research training programme? :p) In any case, I am getting used to it. Moreover if there is going to be an apocalypse this year, I’ll have to pick up soon!

Anyways, happy new year!