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Archive for December, 2010

Never Complain, Never Explain

Monday, December 27th, 2010

I’m the wall with the womanly swagger. – Judy Grahn, She Who

During Thanksgiving dinner at a dear friend’s house, another guest airily stated that climate change is a myth.  An environmental scientist and once a department chair in a well-known university, he now writes regularly for such venues as The Wall Street Journal using arguments along the lines of “There was radical climate change on earth way before humans came along.”  And like many self-satisfied self-promoters, he’s set on Transmit Only.

I was spoiling to kick him in a tender spot of his anatomy and it was obvious the other guests shared my wish.  But then the visit would have revolved around him.  So I looked straight at him and said, “If you really believe this, go discuss it with the people of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives, who are watching their land go under water as we speak.”  We all essentially ignored him for the rest of the visit. We had a terrific time.

I thought of this incident during the Stone Telling 2 roundtable.  Among other questions, Julia Rios, the discussion moderator, asked me, “In your own life you’ve chosen to engage in battles, and to speak out against things you perceive as unjust. How do you reconcile those choices with the costs attached to them, and is there ever a time when you choose not to engage?”

After I had answered Julia’s question, it lingered in my thoughts.  I often say (only half in jest) that humanity consists of several subspecies which happen to be interfertile.  We’re far more hardwired culturally than we’d like to think.  Progressive notions notwithstanding, facts almost never change the minds of adult humans unless something happens to affect them concretely in their health, status or wallet.  Battles against injustice, vested interests, willful ignorance, complacency, cruelty never end.  Before this relentless flood, people like me are Dutch boys with fingers in the dam.

Halfway through my fifth decade, I still haven’t learned to leave well enough alone.  By deed and by word, I’m still fighting on many fronts.  I’ll go to my grave angry, though the waters of Lethe will close over my small efforts as if I’d never been.  Yet after a lifetime of battles, I don’t have even a partial answer about how to engage effectively — especially since anger is still a heavily punished transgression for women.

Naturally, intelligent fighters adjust their strategy and tactics to fit circumstances.  Sometimes you have to be Odysseus, sometimes Alexander.  But I think there are two powerful weapons tikkun paladins need to use more often.  One is laughter.  Another is celebration.  The two share a crucial attribute: they’re not defensive; they assume legitimacy.

Accusing someone of humorlessness is a standard bludgeon used by knuckle-draggers of all persuasions.  “Can’t you take a joke?” is the constant taunt to outsiders grudgingly allowed into previously exclusionary clubs.  In all fairness, much humor relies on Us-versus-Them distinctions.  What’s amazing, though, is how fast bullies crawl off (bawling “You’re mean to me!”) when you turn humor against them.  There’s a reason why satirists and cartoonists are among the first to be arrested in dictatorships.  Of course, this tactic can get you badly hurt or killed.  Men in particular grow furious when women laugh at them.

I once was at another party where the guests were finance professionals.  The host held forth about the deep wisdom of polygamy: it’s nature’s way, our ape cousins have harems (obviously he knew zilch about either bonobos or chimpanzees) and as a dominant male himself, etc.  The other women guests were fuming, but too polite to contradict him.  Finally, I smiled at him sweetly and said, “I agree with you.”  Into the dead silence that ensued, I dropped, “Personally, I could handle at least three husbands.”  The women burst out laughing.  Several of the men spent the rest of the evening huddled in the kitchen, muttering darkly into their drinks.

The other way to short circuit reactionaries is to celebrate.  When some dim bulb bleats “Diversity brings down quality,” my reflex reaction is to verbally rip them to shreds.  However, a far more satisfying response is to issue invitations to a feast and call the endless rosters of Others who excel in a specific domain or task.  Women don’t write space operas?  Andre Norton, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.), Joanna Russ, Joan Vinge, C. J. Cherryh, C. S. Friedman, Joan Slonczewski, Octavia Butler, Melissa Scott, Laura Mixon, Sydney van Scyoc, Kristin Landon, Elizabeth Bear, Gwyneth Jones, Liz Williams… without pausing to think and listing just those whose works I’ve read.

Celebration serves a dual purpose.  Not only does it lift the morale of those who stand arrayed against oblivious idiocy; it also prevents (ab)use of the “tone” argument.  Celebration recognizes past achievements and encourages forging ahead, rather than stooping to pick up every piece of broken furniture flung in our path.  Let god-wannabes stew in their own toxic wastes.  We have worlds to build and sustain.

Here’s the small personal roster of worlds I’m part of and want to celebrate as loudly as possible: my modest contribution to alternative splicing regulation and dementia research; Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, Stone Telling; my slowly emerging fictional universe, and the artists who depicted it so beautifully: Heather D. Oliver, Kathryn Bragg-Stella; and this site, now starting its fourth year, whose blog portion consistently hovers at high positions in Technorati rankings.

“Well we made a promise we swore we’d always remember,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend,
No retreat, baby, no surrender.”

Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender

Images: 1st, Pict warrior Guinevere (Keira Knightley) in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur; 2nd, andártissa (resistance fighter) in WWII Greece (national historical archives); 3rd, Haldír of Lórien (Craig Parker) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

Two decades ago, Ann Landers did a column about how various cultures celebrate Christmas.  Halfway down her list was this gem: “If you are Greek Orthodox, your sect celebrates Christmas on January 7.”  Several people wrote back that 1) the Orthodox church is not a sect – it is the original church from which the Catholic one split after the Schism of 1054 and 2) only the so-called Old Believers track Christmas by the Julian calendar.

I was reminded of this when I was leaving work two days ago, and a colleague asked, “Should I wish you Merry Christmas?  I heard you Greeks don’t celebrate it like we do.”  As readers of this blog know, I’m an atheist who misses many of my culture’s old customs, particularly those that thrum with pagan echoes. So I’m going to put my tour guide’s hat briefly on, and tell you what we Hellenes do around the time of the winter solstice.

The holiday lasts two weeks, from December 25 to January 6.  At the three punctuation points (Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany) children make the rounds of the neighborhood houses, singing songs called kálanda.  These remain unchanged from the Byzantine era; they’re different for each of the three days and the kids sing them to the accompaniment of hand-held metal triangles – and more rarely, small bodhrán drums.  During these two weeks, people thought that mischievous spirits (kallikántzaroi) prowled the dark.  These obvious descendants of fauns and satyrs take a solstice break from trying to cut down the world tree that holds up the earth.  During the interruption the tree heals, leading to infinite annual repetitions.

People decorate their homes and start the feast preparations on Christmas Eve – and the original focus of the activities was not a pine or fir tree (a recent import from Northern Europe) but a small ship.  After all, we were seafarers even before Iáson sailed Arghó to the Sea of Azov in search of the Golden Fleece.  The main dishes vary regionally, but ham is not on the list.  Piglet, kid and lamb on the spit are, as is hen stuffed with chestnuts and raisins – turkey is too bland for Hellenic palates. The ubiquitous sweets are finger-sized melomakárona (honey macaroons) and kourabiédhes (butter almond cookies).

On December 31, families gather for the countdown, nibbling finger food – and at midnight, the ship horns can be heard from harbors and seashores, ushering in the new year.  Presents are put under the ship or tree when it is decorated but they get opened on January 1, either right after midnight strikes or in the morning.  The gifts are not brought by Santa Claus (Nicholas) who in the Hellenic hagiology is the patron saint of sailors.  Our giftbearer is Saint Basil, based on a real person: Vasílios the Great Hierarch, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the 4th century.  From a wealthy and influential family, he took time between arguments about dogma to succor the poor and needy, spending his entire inheritance on charity.

On the night of December 31, a candle is left burning next to a goblet of wine and a small plate that holds a golden coin (flourí).  On New Year’s Day the coin, presumably touched by Saint Vasílios, is baked into a rich bread pudding (vasilópita), which is later cut into named sections.  Whoever gets the coin will have an exceptionally good year.  On the same day, the youngest child of the family is the first to walk through the front door for good luck – often bearing a just-budding wild onion bulb, or cracking open a pomegranate… old, old symbols of wealth and fertility from the time when the virgins giving birth were called Isis, Astarte, Pótnia.

Epiphany, which rounds out the holiday, is also called The Lights.  On that day the priests go to each house, blessing it with a sprig of basil dipped in water.  Afterward, the priests from every coastal city, town or village throw a cross into the sea.  Young men dive to retrieve it, and whoever brings it back is blessed.  Just so did priests and priestesses of other religions also appease the oldest goddess of all – Tiamat, Thálassa – by offering her rings and other treasure instead of crosses.  The custom was retained by the Doges of Venice, the city state that owed its existence to the sea.

A few years ago Mr. Snacho and I found ourselves in Tarpon Springs, Florida, at the turn of the year.  The city was founded by sponge divers from the island of Kálymnos.  They still throw the cross into the sea.  Young men still compete for the honor of retrieving it.  And I, an exile by choice who’s often homesick for the place I left almost forty years ago, wept at the sight.

Images: 1st, Iríni Vasileíou, The Christmas Ship; 2nd, kids singing kálanda; 3rd, photo by Mithymnaíos.

Stone Telling Issue 2: Generations

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Stone Telling Issue 2 went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, this magazine is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. I’m triply represented in the latest issue by a poem, an essay and participation to the contributor round-table.

The focus of issue 2 is the chains that sustain us even as they bind us.  My dear friend Francesca Forrest has a deeply affecting poem in it, The Old Clothes Golem, amid a dozen equally stunning others.

I originally wrote my poem, Mid-Journey, in Greek. It is about feral loners like me who walk between worlds. The Greek text is there alongside my English translation, and there is also an mp3 file of me reciting it in the original.

My essay is about Sapfó, the Tenth Muse, the Blackbird of Lésvos. She has been different things to different people, so I thought I’d write about who she really was — and why she deserves her immortality.

Footprints on Two Shores

Monday, December 13th, 2010

A lengthy quote from my article The Agency That Cried “Awesome!” appeared in today’s Guardian on a page that tracks the NASA debacle.  Another chunk appeared on Futurismic (thank you, Mr. Raven!).  The post itself showed up on the front page of The Huffington Post.

Also, L. Timmel Duchamp, author of the Marq’ssan Cycle and founder of Aqueduct Press, invited me to the year’s-end roundup she hosts at her blog, Ambling Along the Aqueduct. My list of books, albums and films, with commentary, appeared today.

Image: Cool Cat, Ali Spagnola

The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” – Anonymous ancient proverb

In the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Greek resistance fighters and Allied demolition experts set out to destroy a nest of large cannons so that a rescue convoy can go through the straits the guns overlook.  A young Greek who’s part of the mission goes after a group of Germans gunslinger-style, jeopardizing the venture.  The Germans cut him to ribbons.  When the mission members meet at their rendezvous point, his sister María (Iríni Pappás) says to his partner Andréas (Anthony Quinn, obligatory at that time whenever swarthy ethnics were required): “Tell me what happened.”  Andréas replies: “He forgot why we came.”

Last week, NASA administrators forgot why we came.  They forgot the agency’s mission, they forgot science, they forgot their responsibility to their own people and to the public.  Instead, they apparently decided that all publicity is good, as long as they don’t misspell your name.

Ever since I became fully conscious, I’ve dreamed of humanity exploring the stars.  These dreams were part of the reason I left my culture, my country, my family and came over here, determined to do research.  Every launch made my heart leap.  I wept when I saw the images sent by the Voyagers, Sojourner negotiating Martian rocks.  I kept thinking that perhaps in my lifetime we might find an unambiguous independent life sample.  Then, at long last, astrobiology would lift off and whole new scientific domains would unfurl and soar with it.

Instead of that, last week we got bacterial isolate GFAJ-1.  We got an agency which appears so desperate that it shoved experiments with inadequate controls into a high profile journal and then shouted from the rooftops that its researchers had discovered a new form of life (de facto false, even if the results of the increasingly beleaguered Science paper stand).

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier.  Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way.  And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted.  Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.

Let’s investigate a major claim in the Science paper: that GFAJ-1 bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, making them novel, unique, a paradigm shift.  Others have discussed the instability of the arsenate intermediates and of any resulting backbone.  Three more points are crucial:

1.  This uniqueness (not yet proved) has come about by non-stop selection pressure in the laboratory, not by intrinsic biochemistry: the parent bacterium in its normal environment uses garden-variety pathways and reverts to them as soon as the pressure is lifted.  This makes the “novel life” claim patently incorrect and the isolate no more exotic than the various metallophores and metallovores that many groups in that domain (Penny Boston, Ken Nealson) have been studying for decades.

2.  The arsenic-for-phosphorus substitution in the DNA is circumstantial at best.  The paper contained no sequencing, no autoradiography, no cesium chloride density gradients.  These are low-tech routine methods that nevertheless would give far more direct support to the authors’ claims.  Density gradients are what Meselson and Stahl used in 1958 to demonstrate that DNA replication was semi-conservative.  Instead, Wolfe-Simon et al. used highly complex techniques that gave inconclusive answers.

The reagents for the methods I just listed would cost less than $1,000 (total, not each). A round of sequencing costs $10 – the price of a Starbucks latte. In a subsequent interview, Oremland (the paper’s senior author) said that they did not have enough money to do more experiments. This is like saying that you hired the Good Year blimp to take you downtown but didn’t have enough money for a taxi back home.

3.  Even if some of the bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, it means nothing if they cannot propagate.  Essentially, they can linger as poison-filled zombies that will nonetheless register as “alive” through such tests as culture turbidity and even sluggish metabolism.

NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”.  This is called leading with your chin.  And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary.  The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded.  It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Peer review is like democracy: it’s the worst method, except for all others.  It cannot avoid agendas, vendettas, pet theories or hierarchies.  But at least it does attempt judgment by one’s peers.  Given the kernel of this paper, its reviewers should have been gathered from several disciplines.  I count at least four: a microbiologist with expertise in extremophiles, a molecular biologist specializing in nucleic acids, a biochemist studying protein and/or lipid metabolism and a biophysicist versed in crystallography and spectrometry.

Some journals have started to name reviewers; Science does not, and “astrobiology” is a murky domain.  If the scientific community discovers that the reviewers for the GFAJ-1 paper were physicists who write sciency SF and had put on the astrobio hat for amusement and/or convenience, Lake Mono will look mild and hospitable compared to the climate that such news will create.

Because of the way scientific publishing works, a lot of shaky papers appear that never get corrected or retracted.  As a dodge, authors routinely state that “more needs to be done to definitively prove X.”  Even if later findings of other labs completely contradict their conclusions, they can argue that the experiments were correct, if not their interpretation.  Colleagues within each narrow domain know these papers and/or labs – and quietly discount them. But if such results get media attention (which NASA courted for this paper), the damage is irreversible.

People will argue that science is self-correcting.  This is true in the long run – and as long as science is given money to conduct research.  However, the publication of that paper in Science was a very public slap in the face of scientists who take time and effort to test their theories.  NASA’s contempt for the scientific process (and for basic intelligence) during this jaw-dropping spectacle was palpable.  It blatantly endorsed perceived “sexiness” and fast returns at the expense of careful experimentation. This is the equivalent of rewarding the mindset and habits of hedge fund managers who walk away with other people’s lifelong savings.

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income).  It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology.  And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

Perhaps NASA’s administrators were under pressure to deliver something, anything to stave off further decrease of already tight funds.  I understand their position – and even more, that of their scientists.  NIH and NSF are in the same tightening vise, and the US has lost several generations of working scientists in the last two decades.  Everyone is looking for brass rings because it’s Winner Take All – and “all” is pennies.  We have become beggars scrambling for coins tossed out of rich people’s carriages, buskers and dancing bears, lobsters in a slowly heating pot.

NASA should not have to resort to circus acts as the price for doing science.  It’s in such circumstances that violence is done to process, to rigor, to integrity.  We are human.  We have mortgages and doctors’ bills and children to send to college, yes.  But we are scientists, first and foremost.  We are – must be – more than court jesters or technicians for the powerful.  If we don’t hold the line, no one else will.

The paper: Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.

My early summation of this paper: Arsenic and Odd Lace

Images: Top, María tries to keep her brother focused on the mission in The Guns of Navarone; middle, the Meselson and Stahl experiment; bottom, Quiros circus, Spain, 2007.

Perhaps I Should Be Called Cassandra

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

A colleague once called me a hopeful romantic. There’s more than a grain of truth to that. So it’s ironic that the two Wikipedia entries which quote me are linked to my critiques of extraordinary claims that did not provide even ordinary evidence.

The first was my review of Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth, in which I pointed out errors that cast serious doubts on their hypothesis. When I wrote the review, I didn’t know that one of their major advisors was Guillermo Gonzalez, an unabashed creationist who made his science fit his philosophy. A few things from my review must have registered, since subsequent editions corrected at least some of these errors (for example, their initial statement that both Mars and Venus are tidally locked).

Yesterday I discovered that I appear in a second Wikipedia entry about “arsenic DNA” — the purported genetic material of the fabulous beastie that NASA announced last Friday during its science-by-press-conference. This entry is fluctuating right now, as people are editing it back and forth (plus they incorrectly call me a microbiologist).  Those of you who are keeping track may know I was an early pebble in the avalanche of criticism that has since fallen on that work, led by Dr. Rosemary Redfield of UBC and summarized by Carl Zimmer in Slate.

I have more to say about the Science paper but first I must meet immovable looming deadlines. For now I will only say that I wish the work had been as exciting as its hype promised. Because I’m an old-fashioned scientist — and a hopeless romantic.

Images: 1st, Stick in the Mud, Steve Jurvetson; 2nd, Outlier, Ben Shabad.

Update: More, as promised, in The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

Arsenic and Odd Lace

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

When you hear about lots of cherries, bring a small basket. — Greek proverb

About a week ago, I started receiving a steady and progressively swelling stream of e-mails, asking me if I knew anything about the hush-hush “amazing astrobiology discovery” that NASA would announce on December 2. I replied I would opine when I read the associated paper, embargoed by Science until after the press conference. I also added that my bets were on a terrestrial extremophile that pushes the exotic envelope. Many bloggers and news sites disagreed, posting entries with titles and guesses taken straight from the pulp SF era.

Today NASA made its announcement and Science released the paper. To give you the punchline first, the results indeed concern a terrestrial extremophile and show that bacteria are very flexible and will adapt to suboptimal conditions. This is not exactly news, although the findings do push the envelope… slightly.

What the results decidedly do not show is a different biochemistry, an independent genesis or evidence for a shadow biosphere, contrary to co-author Paul Davies’ attempts to shoehorn that into the conclusions of an earlier (2008) related paper. It’s not arsenic-based life, it’s not an arsenic-eating bacterium and the biology textbooks don’t need to be rewritten.

The experiment is actually very clever in that it follows a given to its logical conclusion. The researchers took an inoculum from the hypersaline, alkaline Mono lake and grew it in serial dilutions so that the medium contained progressively increasing amounts of arsenic (As) substituting for phosphorus (P). Lake Mono has arsenic levels several orders of magnitude above the usual, so bacteria living in it have already adapted to tolerate it.

The bacteria that grew in severely P-depleted and As-enriched conditions were identified as members of a halophile (salt-loving) family already known to accumulate intracellular As. When deprived of P, they grew slowly and appeared bloated because they were full of structures that look like vacuoles, cellular organelles that manage waste and grow larger and more numerous when cells are under stress. Additionally, there was still some phosphorus in the growth medium (it’s almost impossible to leach it completely) and there is no direct proof that As was incorporated into the bacterial DNA [see addendum]. So essentially the bacteria were trying to do business as usual under trying circumstances.

Phosphorus means “lightbringer” because the element glows faintly under illumination, giving its name to Venus when it’s the Morning Star. It is deemed to be among the six elements vital for life (in alphabetical order: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur; often acronymed as CHNOPS, which sounds like the name of an Egyptian pharaoh). Indeed P appears in all three classes of biomolecules. It’s obligatory in nucleic acids (DNA, RNA) and phospholipids, the primary components of cell membranes; phosphate groups are crucial covalent additions to proteins, regulating their activity and ligand affinities; it’s also the energy currency of cells, primarily in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). On the scale of organisms, bones contain phosphorus in apatite form and it’s also an essential nutrient for plants, though P excess is as much a problem as its lack.

Arsenic is directly below phosphorus in the periodic table, just as silicon is directly below carbon. Arsenic is highly toxic to lifeforms precisely because it looks similar enough to phosphorus in terms of atomic radius and reactivity that it is occasionally incorporated in metabolic intermediates, short-circuiting later steps in cascades. [This, incidentally, is not true for silicon vis-à-vis carbon, for those who are contemplating welcoming silicon overlords. Silicon is even more inferior than arsenic in its relative attributes.] Arsenic was used in pesti-, herbi- and insecticides (and in stealth murders), until it became clear that even minute amounts leaching into the water table posed a serious health problem.

The tables in the Science paper are eloquent on how reluctant even hardy extremophiles are to use As instead of P. Under normal growth conditions, the As:P ratio in their biomass was 1:500. When P was rigorously excluded and As had been raised to three times the level in lake Mono, the As:P ratio remained at a measly 7:1. Furthermore, upon fractionation As segregated almost entirely into the organic phase. Very little was in the aqueous phase that contains the nucleic acids. This means that under extreme pressure the bacteria will harbor intracellular As, but they will do their utmost to exclude it from the vital chains of the genetic material.

As I wrote elsewhere, we biologists are limited in our forecasts by having a single life sample. So we don’t know what is universal and what is parochial and our searches are unavoidably biased in terms of their setup and possible interpretations. The results from this work do not extend the life sample number. Nor do they tell us anything about terrestrial evolution, because they showcase a context-driven re-adaptation, not a de novo alternative biochemistry. However, they hint that at least one of the CHNOPS brigade may be substitutable in truly extreme (by our circumscribed definition) conditions.

On the larger canvas, it was clever of NASA to disclose this right around budget (-cutting) time. But it would have been even cleverer if they had managed to calibrate the hype volume correctly — and kept squarely in their memory the tale of the boy who cried wolf.

Addendum 1: The paper has evidence that the DNA of the final isolate contains 11% of the total arsenic by incorporation of radioactivity and mass spectrometry comparison studies. However, important controls and/or purification steps seem to be missing. The crucial questions are: exactly where is arsenic located, how much substitution has occurred in the DNA, if any, and how does it affect the layers of DNA function (un/folding, replication, transcription, translation)? Definitive answers will require at minimum direct sequencing and/or crystallographic data. The leading author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, said that this is fertile ground for thirty years of future work — and in that, at least, she’s right.

Addendum 2: Detailed devastating critiques are appearing.

The paper: Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.

My extended analysis: The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

Note for young(er) readers: the title is a take off on Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy about decorous yet murderous old ladies, later made into a film by Frank Capra starring Cary Grant.

Images: 1st, the vacuolated cells of the As-fed bacteria (Wolfe-Simon et al, Figure 2E); 2nd, the elements important to life; 3rd, Mono Lake (LA Times)

Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 2: the Films

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

by Calvin Johnson (and a coda by Athena)

Previously: the books.

Translating a well-loved book into a movie is a tricky business. Translating a series of books into a series of movies is even harder.

Peter Jackson did it brilliantly for The Lord of the Rings, through a combination of breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, well-crafted digital special effects, and above all, allowing his actors to act.

Other series were not so lucky. The movie versions of both Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (drawn from three out of thirteen books) and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass were badly received, especially at the box office, making sequels unlikely. And the Narnia movies are struggling despite a ready-made fan base.

The Harry Potter films, on the other hand, have been a phenomenal success. Last week I wrote about the book series; now, with the release of the penultimate movie, I’ll delve into Harry’s cinematic career.

How and why a movie succeeds or fails is a mystery. Often it’s a matter of a poor match to the strength of cinema, telling a story in images. The Lemony Snicket books were too metafictional to translate well to the big screen. The Narnia books, while bedecked with fantasy flourishes, are primarily about small, personal moral quandries, not a topic that leads to blockbuster multi-repeat viewings (I prefer the BBC Narnia series, with cheesy special effects but a tighter focus on the stories).

Rowling’s books, in contrast, were made for cinema, a criticism in fact leveled at her writing. Although she has her philosophy – that categorizing people by the circumstances of blood and birth is the root of evil – and although Harry has his internal debates, the conflicts in the novels are primarily visual: dramatic revelations, spectacular duels between wizards.

The first two movies were respectful to the point of being stiff. This is unsurprising, as they were directed by Chris Columbus, a protege of Steven Spielberg who learned Spielberg’s maudlin tendencies but none of his visual genius. The series got a real boost in the middle two movies, especially Alfonso Cuarón’s lyrical Prisoner of Azkaban. Leaping up from the best book in the series, Cuarón’s visual inventiveness matched the eccentricities of the Potterverse. Mike Newell managed to keep the spark alive for the magical tournament in The Goblet of Fire.

Alas, the flame guttered low in the remainder of the movies, directed by David Yates. Both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince were grim, bloated, and not infrequently tedious books, and while Yates hacked out some of the extraneous material, what remained were grim, rushed, and above all obligatory summaries of the books. The Deathly Hallows is famously being broken into two films so it feels less rushed, but viewing Part I felt less like joy and more like an assignment.

Any story, be it book or movie, can be thought of as a tent, much like the wedding tent magically raised early on in The Deathly Hallows: Part I; the structure hangs supported from two or three poles. The problem with The Deathly Hallows is that there are far too many tentpoles and the movie must visit most of them. The flight of the Harry Potters. Dumbledore’s will. Bill and Fleur’s wedding. The escape and fight in the heart of London. Harry’s inherited house. Harry’s birthplace. Luna Lovegood’s home. The House of Malfoy. In between we camp in the wilderness. The book felt lost at this point, as if Rowling knew where she wanted to go but had no idea how to get there, and the feeling is reproduced all too accurately in the movie.

Indeed, although Yates is deft and visually more nimble than Columbus, the movie follows the book a little too faithfully. Part of the challenge of making a movie from a well-loved book is to both keep the uninitiated on board and to make those who have loved the book to tatters see it anew. Peter Jackson succeeded in The Lord of the Rings, allowing us to feel the burdens that Aragorn and Gandalf carry, helping us to see the tides of war rise and ebb in the chaos of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Unfortunately, having to cover so much Yates can add little insight. The most moving scenes are the very beginning and the very end of Part I, as our no-longer-so-young protagonists suffer painful losses in their war against Voldemort.

So why have the Harry Potter movies succeeded? Again, there can be no simple answer, but the producers did have an advantage. For all her flaws, Rowling always understood the series to be Harry’s story, and she resisted having a plethora of viewpoint characters.

The trend in doorstopper fantasy and science fiction novels to have a large number of viewpoint characters is one I have come to loathe, because it makes it harder to emotionally engage with any of the characters. Peter Jackson (last time, I promise) succeeded with The Lord of the Rings because the first movie focused on Frodo’s journey.

By contrast, A Series of Unfortunate Events was more obsessed with Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf and his big eyebrows, and less with the hapless Baudelaire orphans. The Golden Compass would seem to have all the right elements for success: big name stars, dazzling visuals. But one of the joys of the novel is the rebellious, tart-tongued heroine Lyra; onscreen she got lost among the special effects, leaving a leaden, rudderless movie.

Harry Potter was different. J. K. Rowling, the screenwriter Steve Kloves, and the producers and the directors have none of them forgotten that the books and movies are all titled Harry Potter and the Something Something. With tiny exceptions, every frame of the movies is about Harry, and we see the other characters primarily through his eyes. So although the narratives have far too many plot tentpoles, there is one and only one character tentpole. Thus in retrospect having a pedestrian director for the first two movies may have been a wise move. Without this focus I don’t think the audience for the books or the movies would have been nearly as engaged.

Books and movies can both be magical, transcendent experiences that take us into new worlds, showing us new windows even on subjects we think we know intimately. If the Harry Potter films have not quite risen to that level, their popularity show a hunger for magic in our lives. And somewhere out there someone is writing or filming the next magical experience–not perfect, but a story that puts a wire to our hearts, a spark to our imaginations.

Athena’s coda: I haven’t read the Potter books, but I’ve seen all the films except for The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince. I greatly enjoyed the occasional inventive visual: the Lewis chess set brought to life-sized life in The Philosopher’s Stone; the hippogriff making itself comfortable, housecat-like, in The Prisoner of Azkaban; the final exit of the two guest schools’ conveyances in The Goblet of Fire. And I found some of the characters interesting: Snape, McGonagall, Lupin, Black (Dumbledore, not so much – enough lovably irascible father figures already).

However, my overall sense is of fatigued déjà vu, of bloated, plodding spectacles. The borrowings from the Arthurian cycle, the Brontë sisters, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin’s Earthsea and the X-Men are obvious — and like a stew with clashing and stale ingredients, they leave me with a sour mind.

Having a single character peg may cover many sins but it uncovers others – especially because Harry’s character is tapioca-bland in the films. For one, it accentuates the fact that despite the sermons about loving everyone regardless of their “race”, this is a hierarchical universe where magic ability is genetically inherited, automatically creating castes (just like the infamous Star Wars midichlorians). Hell, Hagrid practically tugs his forelock. Even within the ranks of magic wielders, some lives are worth more than others: by the end, Harry has a long tally of sacrificed pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens… Even Neo’s body count was less in The Matrix trilogy.

For another, a Messianic avenger needs a worthy antagonist and, as Calvin mentioned in Part 1, Voldemort is a moldy caricature — not even a Sauron, let alone a Lucifer. Come to think of it, he looks like Gollum’s brother. Just as you wonder why the hordes of Janissary Pretorians… er, Jedi, cannot handle two Sith in Star Wars, so you wonder why the formidable lineup of white-hat wizards in the Potterverse cannot overcome that whiny slitherer.

Just as crucially, a hero needs a partner of equal stature. In the films, at least, it’s blindingly obvious that Harry’s true soulmate is Hermione (highlighted by the total lack of chemistry between the Hermione/Ron and Harry/Ginny dyads), just as in the X-Men films Wolverine’s true partner is Rogue. I can see Ron getting a consolation prize – but what does Hermione get, who is as good as Harry yet not the Chosen One because of the incorrect location of her body bulges and wrong family pedigree? I predict at least one divorce in the future Potterverse, when she gets tired of washing everyone’s socks. But that is another country.

Finally, the magic in Harry Potter is arbitrary, slaved to the plot twists. This makes it as interesting and attractive as an engine that keeps sputtering out at random moments. People hungering for magic deserve better than regurgitated, least-common-denominator myths.

Images: 1st, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in that unexpected triumph, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings; 2nd, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) trying to protect his charges from more plodding Potter films; 3rd, pieces from the Lewis chess set (walrus ivory, 12th century); 4th, a far more effective guise for Ralph Fiennes to play an evil or ambiguous antagonist (here shown as Heathcliff in an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights).