Wednesday, February 07, 2007

For Utenzi

OK, here's the post I didn't really think I would have to write.


However, my friend Utenzi, a venerable scientist and uber-geek after my own heart, suggested that I write about science, and
not the easy stuff like BIOLOGY.

He wanted HARD science,
manly science, testosterone-laden science like PHYSICS and, uh SOMETHING ELSE I DON'T REMEMBER.

He did this to me because he knows that I am a scientist, first and foremost, and because he thinks scientists are hellacoolsexy.

I made that last part up.

So, Hi, I'm Tiff, and I'm a recovering research scientist.

Yeah yeah yeah, you might know me as Tiff, the lovable blowhard and provocateur of one small dark corner of the internets, but I'm here to tell you, that deep in my nerdly soul there lies the heart of a passionate biologist, who at one time thought that by parsing out DNA and upregulated genomic material, she could cure cancer and/or other pesky diseases.

In one way, I was right about that. I did do work that laid a partial foundation for some very interesting genetic studies that are now databased and housed in a general repository of human subjects (and no, there was no Dr. Mengele-type idiocy involved). I did find out that some genes are more highly expressed in hyper-immune subjects. I did track and record many thousands of base pairs of genetic code, back in the day when it was the norm to make your own gigantic gels and nervously await the pattern of march of a thin blue line down the hot plate of destiny that was the gel apparatus. I did mess around with human blood, and radioactivity and glow-in-the dark chemicals and plasmids and scintillation cocktails and Geiger counters and ELISAs and ERISAs and PCR and IgA and IgBs and IgG and monocytes and eosinophils and HL60s and all matter of things BIOLOGICAL, but NoooOOOOoooo! Utenzi doesn't want to know about THAT, because he does the same THING, and so in a fit of uncharacteristic cruelty, he switched my geekery topic straight on to (gulp) physics.

Which, as it so happens, I also love. In aPlatonic way, for physics is the vast territory of the ultra-geeks, who are largely uncomfortable with overt displays of affection.

Physics is cool! It covers all kinds of subjetcs, like atoms! and subatomic particles! How very sexy. How utterly PONDERABLE......

But wait, let's start at the very beginning.

Let's make this personal, so you can understand why the pondering is so important and "whoa"-inducing.

How personal? How about THIS?

You are you.

You are made of up mostly water. You know that.

Some of you is protein. Fine.

Some of you is other stuff. Fine.

Stick with me here.

All this "stuff" that you're made up of is made of cells, which are made up of all kinds of molecules. Molecules, in turn, are made up of single elements or elements that have bumped into one another and found one another attractive enough to stay conjoined.

Here's a periodic tale of the elements, in case you've forgotten them:

The periodic "law" of chemistry recognizes that many properties of the chemical elements are functions of the number of protons within the element's atomic nucleus. FYI - The number you see by each molecule is the number of protons it has.

With me so far?

So, to take a simple example, hydrogen has one proton. Hydrogen is the lightest element. It has a weight and number of....say it with me.....ONE!

Hydrogen is also 2/3rd of what makes up water, which makes up most of YOU.

Oh, wow. We're MOSTLY HYDROGEN! Eeep!

Interestingly, hydrogen is also by far the most abundant element in the universe, and makes up about 90% of the universe by weight.


90% of the UNIVERSE BY WEIGHT???!?!!?!!?!???



Sooooo, what IS hydrogen, anyhow?

Let's find out, by looking at the bits that make up all molecules......and those are atoms.

chemistry and physics, an atom (Greek ἄτομος or átomos meaning "indivisible") is the smallest particle of a chemical element that retains its chemical properties. The atoms of modern parlance are composed of subatomic particles:
  • electrons, which have a negative charge, a size which is so small as to be currently unmeasurable, and which are the least heavy (i.e., massive) of the three;
  • protons, which have a positive charge, and are about 1836 times more massive than electrons; and
  • neutrons, which have no charge, and are about 1838 times more massive than electrons.


Hydrogen is a bare proton, wandering about the universe, looking for something to do. Sometimes, 2 hydrogens meet up with an oxygen, and a wee manage-a-trois is had, forming a water molecule. That's most of us.

Despite that momentous announcement, there are other wonders about the simple hydrogen....

INSIDE the proton lurk yet more bits of structure...yet more fundamental particles of universal organization.......smaller than a proton, which is smaller than an atom, which is smaller than a molecule, which is, in itself, really really really small.

Here's where it gets weird.

Along with electrons of some atoms (but not our beloved hyrdrogen) there are muons and taus. There are also are neutrinos. All together, these are called the Leptons.

Sounds like a race from another planet, doesn't it? Hello, I'm from the planet Lepton and we are here to take over your world with our dynamism!!

Oddly, there are opposites of there electrically charged subatomic particles call
ed positrons; antimuon, antitau, anti-electron-neutrino, anti-muon-neutrino and the anti-tau-neutrino.

Heck, this is getting complicated. Very very complicated.

There are particles and subparticles for protons. For neutrons. They have names and cute personalities, and EVERYSINGLEONEOFTHEM has an anti-matter component that balances out their twee little bitty self and forms the twiddling balance of the universe......

And, while I do like me some bosons, I think now's the time to stop, for I have run out of words. The wonder of it all has supplanted my meager attempts at explanation. The subatomic world, like the universe, is a strange and wonderful place, and we all should take time for time to time and ponder on it's imponderability.....

Still - "bosons" is kinda funny.


Ute - I blame YOU if I lose half my readers from this post alone. I was honest when the spinny wheel of fortune landed on this particular topic, because I was SO READY to go with Tracy Lynn's subject.


It sucks to be honest....sometimes.

But.... wow.... really......subatomic particles.......antimatter......freaky.

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