The caps on chromosomes

It’s Nobel Prize season, a time to salute good scholarship and, even more, to marvel at the structures built into nature that the winners have discovered. This year’s Nobel prize for medicine goes to three scientists who discovered how chromosomes stay together and keep their integrity even after the cells split. It seems the strands of genetic material have little caps on their ends:

Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School in Boston were awarded the $1.4 million 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was the first time two women shared the prize. . . .

The scientists won for a series of experiments they conducted in the 1970s and 1980s that showed that the long, intricate molecules known as chromosomes, which carry genes inside every cell, have protective structures on their ends — often likened to the plastic tips on shoelaces — called telomeres, which are replenished with an enzyme dubbed telomerase.

The work “solved a major problem in biology” and has led to groundbreaking insights into the aging process and potentially to new treatments for cancer and many other health problems, the Nobel Assembly said.

“This is a fundamental biological mechanism,” said Rune Toftgard of the Karolinska Institute.

In time and after multitudes of cell divisions, those caps degrade, leading to the degeneration of the cells, as we aging folks are experiencing. Knowing about these caps mean that some of those effects might conceivably be reversed, and knocking off the caps might help us defeat the uncontrolled cell division that is cancer.

But those caps are absolutely necessary for life and reproduction. I suppose an atheist materialist would have to say, “Isn’t it lucky that chromosomes randomly generated those little caps?”

But surely this is an example of irreducible complexity. Those little caps couldn’t have evolved, because to have evolution, you must have reproduction. These are necessary for reproduction, which means they have must have first appeared fully-formed.

The vocation of an astronaut

Astronaut Jeff Williams is blasting off into space today on a Russian rocket, headed to the International Space Station where he will spend 6 months. This will be his third space voyage and his second 6 month stint on the space station. He will be among the leaders in time spent in outer space.

He is a devout Christian and a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Our paths have crossed several times–he is a fan of my book on vocation!–and I have gotten to know him. Pray for a safe blastoff today. And pray for him from time to time on his long, long mission away from his family. (He’s also written a book that I wrote an introduction for. Stay tuned for news about that.)

So let’s consider the vocation of an astronaut. How can a space traveller live out his faith in that particular line of work? How can he love and serve his neighbor?

UPDATE: The launch went well, and he’s in orbit. Thanks to Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren for posting a video of the launch, which includes both the blastoff and shots inside the capsule. (Jeff is the astronaut above and to the right.) Paul also posts some more details, including how to sign up to get Jeff’s twitter feed from orbit. His last message closed with “sdg,” the same letters Bach used to conclude his musical compositions: “Soli Deo Gloria,” to God alone be the glory.

On the job at the National Science Foundation

Some employees of the taxpayer-funded National Science Foundation are not spending their days doing science. The agency is reportedly plagued with a pornography epidemic.

Employee misconduct investigations, often involving workers accessing pornography from their government computers, grew sixfold last year inside the taxpayer-funded foundation that doles out billions of dollars of scientific research grants, according to budget documents and other records obtained by The Washington Times.

The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency’s inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

“To manage this dramatic increase without an increase in staff required us to significantly reduce our efforts to investigate grant fraud,” the inspector general recently told Congress in a budget request. “We anticipate a significant decline in investigative recoveries and prosecutions in coming years as a direct result.”

The budget request doesn’t state the nature or number of the misconduct cases, but records obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act laid bare the extent of the well-publicized porn problem inside the government-backed foundation.

For instance, one senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women without being detected, the records show.

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official’s porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

“He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that,” investigators wrote in a memo.

The independent foundation, funded by taxpayers to the tune of $6 billion in 2008, is tasked with handing out scientific grants to colleges, universities and research institutions nationwide. The projects it funds ranges from mapping the genome of the potato to exploring outer space with powerful new telescopes. It has a total of 1,200 career employees.

Recent budget documents for the inspector general cite a “6-fold increase in employee misconduct cases and associated proactive management implication report activities.” The document doesn’t say how many cases were involved in the increase, and officials could not immediately provide a figure. . . .

Another employee in a different case was caught with hundreds of pictures, videos and even PowerPoint slide shows containing pornography. Asked by an investigator whether he had completed any government work on a day when a significant amount of pornography was downloaded, the employee responded, “Um, I can’t remember,” according to records.

They do this on the job? While they are being paid?

India probe finds water on the moon

A lunar probe sent off by India has found evidence that the moon has water. That may make a moon colony possible. But it might not be an American colony. I wonder if this breakthrough may signal a shift away from American scientific and technological dominance to that of Asian countries that are doing a better job of educating their children in math and science than we are.

Butterfly in space

Here is a beautiful, evocative picture taken by the Hubble telescope.
vast streams of gas racing at over 600,000mph from a dying star.

Butterfly in Space

This gossamer, delicate image is of streams of gas shooting out at 600,000 m.p.h. from a dying star. The beautiful and the sublime (including Burke’s sense of both the vast and the terrifying) come together.

Photograph of a molecule

Scientists for the first time have managed to take a photographic image of a single molecule:

It may look like a piece of honeycomb, but this lattice-shaped image is the first ever close-up view of a single molecule.

Scientists from IBM used an atomic force microscope (AFM) to reveal the chemical bonds within a molecule.

‘This is the first time that all the atoms in a molecule have been imaged,’ lead researcher Leo Gross said.

The researchers focused on a single molecule of pentacene, which is commonly used in solar cells. The rectangular-shaped organic molecule is made up of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms.

In the image . . . the hexagonal shapes of the five carbon rings are clear and even the positions of the hydrogen atoms around the carbon rings can be seen.

To give some perspective, the space between the carbon rings is only 0.14 nanometers across, which is roughly one million times smaller than the diameter of a grain of sand.

First Photograph of a Molecule

How mysterious this is, how full of wonder, how intricately made is everything in the universe, on every scale, from the vast to the miniscule.

Burke reminds us that the sublime–something that fills us with overwhelming awe–can be found not only in the vastness that seems to partake of infinity, but also in the smallness that seems to partake of infinity:

as the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise; when we attend to the infinite divisibility of matter, when we pursue animal life into these excessively small, and yet organized beings, that escape the nicest inquisition of the sense; when we push our discoveries yet downward, and consider those creatures so many degrees yet smaller, and the still diminishing scale of existence, in tracing which the imagination is lost as well as the sense; we become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effect this extreme of littleness from the vast itself.