Saturday, April 14, 2007

From E. Coli to Chestnut Tigers

This saturday morning, I chatted with Dr. Ueda of Riken about his research on biological clockes, in the editorial office of Nikkei Science. While we strolled in the corridor of interesting facts and ponderings, he mentioned a ongoing research in which the investigator cultured E. Coli for 20 years. Apparently these small chaps "adapted" to the new environment. Wild types of E. Coli, when put into a new environment, do not start dividing until after some delay period, consistent with the idea that the primitive biological forms are "probing" the environment to see if it is fit. The cultured E. Coli, on the other hand, somehow learn to start reproduction "straight away". Presumably they have figured out that the environment they are in is fit for proliferating, and no initial probings are necessary. The underlying molecular mechanisms behind this adaptation are still to be elucidated.

That story somehow reminded me of the butterfly Chestnut Tiger (Parantica sita). This is a beautiful but poisonous species. The birds, after learning that these creatures with inviting appearances actually taste nastily, do not bother them. Chestnut Tigers therefore fly very slowly, with a certain air of elegance, as if they know they wouldn't be chased by birds. When an ignorant enemy tries to attack them, however, for example by the small boy that was I thiry-something years ago, Chestnut Tigers would suddenly shoot up into the high air.

When, however, I waved my hands towards the artificicially cultivated Chestnut Tigers in the Giant Glass Insect Dome of Tama zoo, they could be hardly less perturbated. They have somehow learned that they were now enclosed in a space with a ceiling, and that shooting up into the air did not make any sense. They just kept flying in a slow-motion elegance, after some irritated movement induced by my hands.

The adaptabilities of biological systems, from E. Coli to Chestnut Tigers, never ceases to amaze me. The wonder is how the system and molecules work together to make it happen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Creative Concessions

Recently, I met with the architect Kengo Kuma for intervew on the weekly "The Professionals" program that I am hosting for NHK with Ms. Miki Sumiyoshi. It was not the first time that I met with this famous architect. However, it was the first proper and long chat, lasting for more than 4 hours, which unfortunately would be compressed into 15 minutes in the actual broadcast.

Kengo's architectural philosophy is that of "creative concessions". He criticizes the modern approach of steel and concrete for the very freedom that these materials have given the architects. When you use alternative building materials such as wood, there are numerous restrictions to which you are obliged to make concessions to. True creativity arises from these restrictions and concessions, Kengo says.

When asked what kind of architecture he would build if there was no restriction arising from the environment, materials, or budget, Kengo answered after some moments of pondering that he would discover a restriction somehow even in that case. I realized why Kengo is considered as one of the key architects in the 21st century.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Whiskey time

We are supposedly living in a "dog year". But certain things take longer time. Take the maturation of whiskey, for example. If you would like to make a fine whiskey, you need to allow for at least ~ 10 years of maturation time. In order to stage a good aging of the liquid, a fine oak barrel is an absolute necessity. An oak tree takes a hundred years to grow to a size appropriate for use as a barrel. Peat, traditionally used in Scotland to give that peculiar flavor, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter which takes ages to form. Whiskey time, in contrast to the dog year, is a symbol of painfully slow processions of things.

When it comes to the maturation of a personality, it takes all of life to materialize. The synaptic plasticity in the brain takes a few weeks to be molecularly completed. We learn very slowly as a molecular machine, but the accumulation hopefully would lead to a non-trivial transformation of character.

Even the computer, when deciphered in terms of the atoms that make it up, lives in a whisky time. The heavy atoms can only be transformed through cycles of galaxies being formed and then perished. The dog year can only flourish on top of the atomic whiskey time.

We sometimes become too enthusiastic at the cost of ignoring the whole picture. Information technology has not freed us from the curses and blessings of the cosmic whiskey time.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

When we look up to the cherry blossoms

We love the cherry blossoms in spring because of their short existence on earth. If these flowery manifestations of the power of life stayed for months, our enthusiasms would be greatly diminished.

When you think about it, everything in the universe is in permanent motion. A tiny stone on your desk, which, after being forced out of the earth and transported and gradually destroyed and frictioned by the workings of water, seems finally to be at rest. However, inside the cool and still image of the stone surface, electrons are swirling around the nucleus in an eternal zitterbewegung, the positrons and neutrons and the quarks that make up these particles are in constant motion, even being destroyed and created from nothing in the poignant void of space-time.

Life is based on the perpetual motion of things, and therefore changes and deaths are inevitable. When we look up to the cherry blossoms, and witness their rapid demise from the prime of beauty, what is happening is nothing more than a result of the universal passage of time which affect life and non-life in the cosmos alike. The fact that we are affected and feel a sweet pain in our soul is ultimately an enigma, albeit so natural from the point of life's common senses, as nothing is changing in terms of the fundamental ways of things when it happens.