21 December 2006

Carl Sagan, gone for "ten trips around the Sun"

Carl Sagan was one of the strongest and most enduring influences on my choice to pursue teaching and then science. His view of humans as "a way for the universe to know itself" echoed and extended themes I'd read in Alan Watts. Carl's many books and shorter articles guided and inspired me up through his untimely death. They shaped my interests and led me to specialize in the science of the solar system. Many were critical of what they saw as Carl's excessive participation in the cult of personality through the media. But from my perspective, Carl was the ultimate modern renaissance man, with interests that spanned the universe in a way that few others came close to expressing. He excelled not only in communicating the excitement of science to the general public, but also led a generation of scientists in seeing the broader relevance and impact of their work, helping us to get beyond the mentality of the cold war. David Morrison agrees. Carl is deeply missed.

There is a detectable web competition for the title of "Next Carl Sagan". It's a very tough act to follow on the world stage. But we do need others to tell us how wonderful is the world as revealed by science, how little we really need our illusions and superstitions, and how much more sound is a simple reverence for life and all the forces that have created it.

"We are made of star stuff." -- Carl Sagan

19 December 2006

Star of DNA Sighted

This picture of the day from Wikipedia (17 Dec) really struck me, so I used it to make a holiday greeting card this year. It's a molecule consisting of three long peptide chains arranged into a star shape with a circular inner ring. It evidently plays a clamp-like role as it travels along a DNA molecule during replication, sort of a zipper function, if I get it correctly. According to the article, the clamp speeds the rate at which the unzipping/zipping of DNA occurs by a large factor. So this star shaped molecule (one might say "snowflake-shaped") plays a key role in human reproduction. The coloration used by the molecular modeling software to generate this visualization struck me as festive as well, as did the loopy structure of the molecular strings.