Murphy’s Law, Thermodynamics, and DNA

Murphy’s Law essentially states that the universe will work against you to make a bad situation even worse.

The second law of thermodynamics defines entropy as the world’s tendency towards increasing disorder over time.

I call it life.

When Carnot formulated the Second Law, he must have had clairvoyant abilities and foreseen the current state of my apartment. Think hurricanes and tornadoes got together and created some new geothermal terror baby wreaking havoc in 700 square feet of clothes, books, and takeout containers. (As much as I love to cook, it’s exhausting for just one person.)

The state of my apartment is reflective of what goes into a daily routine for myself and, dare I say, most people in the early stages of navigating their careers. I’m in my twenties. I’m not exactly fresh out of college, but the way I see it, right now I can either be successful at work, with money, with relationships, or with household chores. So I chose work and money.

My daily routine consists of waking up and immediately checking my email to see what disasters occurred in the last few hours that need my immediate attention. The best thing to get me out of bed in the morning: a first-thing email from my boss. Whether it’s good or bad, the anxiety of seeing his name appear in my Inbox (which currently boasts 4,718 unread messages) is enough to get me moving if only just to dispel the nervous energy.

I don’t normally eat breakfast and I usually forget to pack a lunch, which leads to my snack of Gatorade, peanut butter crackers, and a bag of M&Ms I can scarf down between classes. The rest of the day is taken up with lecture plans, assignments, review sessions, and meetings that involve me telling about 20 different people what to do.

I used to try to make a schedule of daily activities and organize them by priority. That went out the window after multiple times of coming into work with a clear plan in my head and having it flushed down the toilet within five minutes of my sitting down at my desk. Things were getting dropped in my lap that needed to be completed ASAP, and having hundreds of people vying for my attention is like driving on ice: tentatively accelerating and then quickly shifting to the brake.

But that’s life. It’s amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Sure, I’d love to tell off people (not my students; they are out-of-this-world incredible), and I have once or twice, much more to their amusement than chagrin. Actually, I tend to have a much bigger mouth than most “normal” people, though I do sometimes stop myself from blurting out snarky responses. (Basically, I was told I should see things from someone else’s perspective; I almost responded, “I can’t get my head that far up my butt.”)

I do have a filter between my brain and my mouth; it’s just very porous.

Anyway, the point of all of this is to say the same thing that Heraclitus said during the days when Greeks wore togas: “All is flux; nothing is stationary.”

I’m not saying not to make plans; I am saying to expect them to change. Sometimes drastically. In my short time in academia, one of the key things I’ve learned is this: plans are just general guidelines to give you an initial goal; in the end, you don’t even come close to where you wanted to be.

But that’s not always a bad thing.

One of the most misunderstood scientists of the last century was Rosalind Franklin. Do yourself a favor and read the books My Sister Rosalind Franklin by Jenifer Glynn and The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. Here is a (very) brief synopsis.

She knew better than anyone about plans going awry. And this has nothing to do with her not winning the Nobel Prize for her work with DNA’s double helical structure. (FYI, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the prize in 1962, four years after Franklin’s death. Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. However, Franklin was not credited publicly for her work with DNA, off of which Watson based his model, for several years afterwards.)

Most people aren’t aware that Franklin’s initial work had nothing to do with DNA; it had nothing to do with anything remotely biological.

Her whole doctoral thesis was based on coal porosity.

In fact, her work with coal led to improved x-ray diffraction techniques and a better understanding of the relationship between crystal structure and non-graphitizing carbon.

Franklin went from being a student at Newnham College (one of the women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge) to being a wartime chemist at the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she completed enough coal research to obtain her doctorate. From Cambridge, she worked as a post-doctoral fellow (still in coal) in Paris where she was most happy. Then she returned to England to work at King’s College (where was most unhappy) but where she completed her famous work on DNA structure. Once she left King’s College and arrived at Birkbeck, she began her work on the tobacco mosaic virus, for which she made significant advancements.

And throughout all this, she found enough time to climb mountains all over Europe, become an amazing chef and seamstress, and speak nearly perfectly fluent French. On top of that, as one of very few women in science, she had the gumption to stand up to her male counterparts and supervisors. But it wasn’t because they were men and she was looking for a fight; it was because she was a fireball and since women weren’t common in STEM at the time, the men were the ones on the receiving end. She was determined to get what she needed to obtain the results she knew were correct.

And they were correct.

She sounds like freaking Wonder Woman.

Franklin was a no-nonsense and dedicated scientist with a more porous filter than my own. If she was right, she let you know it. If you didn’t like her, fine; you weren’t going to stand in the way of her work. If she needed something and you said no, she’d plow right through you to get what she needed.

My mother worked for a government contract company back in the 80s; she was in charge of all the contracts between the company and the Department of Defense and had the highest security clearance available. Before she got to that point, she had backed one of the company’s executives into an elevator, yelling at him over union policies. And she was probably all of 24 at the time.

My mother and Rosalind Franklin have a lot in common.

Regardless of a short-fused temper, Franklin went from one project to the next with the same gusto, in spite of the fact that they were all extremely different from each other. She didn’t always know where her work would take her, but she always demanded of herself to give her absolute best. World War II, the economic crises in Britain and France, and the fickle (not to mention male-dominated) nature of federal funding made knowing her next project, location, and paycheck more than interesting, to say the least.

She butt heads and burned some bridges along the way. In the end, it didn’t matter to her. There was always another project, another opportunity to contribute her first-class expertise to science. Why bother being forlorn over a lost working relationship with a prejudiced or arrogant colleague when science, unbiased and welcoming to those who dare to rise to the challenge, holds an infinite number of undiscovered mysteries?

I am in the process of learning how to channel my inner Rosalind Franklin. Embrace the chaos and try to make it as orderly possible; and do it with grit, and, when necessary, a little sass.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

What Was Newton Thinking?

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This guy must have been standing on the shoulders of Goliath. Isaac Newton was, and still is, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. I mean, come on, the guy invented CALCULUS!!! (My apologies to those on Team Leibniz.) How many people sit around and say, “I think I’ll spend my time coming up with a whole branch of mathematics that is verified by scientific principles…which I also invented”?! Not only did he introduce the world to new concepts such as derivatives and integrals, but also he quantified the foundation of the physical world in three deceptively simple laws which went unchallenged until the advent of quantum mechanics almost two hundred years after his death.

Classical mechanics, founded on Newton’s laws, is a deterministic field: given information about all particles’ positions and velocities at one time allows us to predict future and determine past positions and velocities at any other time. However, it fails for things like black-body radiation, heat capacities of solids, and the photoelectric effect. And why is that? Classical mechanics doesn’t take into account that light (and electrons) behave as both particles and waves. It is impossible to simultaneously know the position and velocity of an electron (thank you, Werner Heisenberg); so quantum mechanics can only predict probabilities, not exact values. Obviously in the time of Newton, the means to observe these phenomena were non-existent.

Then came along the likes of Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, and the infamous Albert Einstein who single-handedly spun the scientific world off its kilter with his four papers published during his time working in a Swiss patent office. (Interestingly enough, this modern-day genius struggled to obtain the post of patent office clerk after flipping the metaphorical bird to his professors at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic and being turned down for a position as a research assistant. And yet in spite of all this he was at the forefront of this war on Newtonian physics.) Max Planck has his own constant named after him, which is the proportionality constant between the energy of an electron and its wave frequency. And Erwin Schrodinger was the mastermind (or rather, disturbed mind) behind the famous Schrodinger cat paradox where he attempted to explain superposition by mentally placing a cat in a box containing a vial of cyanide. The probabilities of a mallet either striking the vial or remaining motionless are equal; so the cat is both dead and alive until someone opens the box and observes either a cranky kitty or a kitty corpse.

However, even with this new field of quantum mechanics, Newton’s laws of motion are still being used to describe physical systems. Scientists and engineers are trained to use these equations so that they become second nature. Classical mechanics is by no means obsolete, and Newton’s incredible legacy continues.

But in my humble opinion, one of the greatest things Newton did was make the above statement. Heck, it’s so amazing, Google Scholar uses part of it on its homepage. Newton had an incredible mind and made an immense and lasting contribution to the scientific world. But he didn’t spin straw into gold. He had predecessors who provided a foundation for his own work: Galileo, da Vinci, Copernicus, Kepler. All of these mathematicians and scientists made their own significant contributions that eventually inspired Newton, who in turn inspired others like Faraday, who found parallels between mechanics and electromagnetics, and the above-mentioned scientists who discovered quantum mechanics.

This waterfall effect is the way of science. Everyone contributes. Even if the results are wrong, that person has found another way that that technique won’t work, thereby saving other scientists some time. The ones who receive the accolades are recognized by their work that was motivated by many before them. That’s not to say that person didn’t deserve to be rewarded for their efforts; but at the same time, it diminishes what those before him or her were able to accomplish. They were the ones who helped pave the way.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Everybody is a genius; but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

We are all on the same team; we should all be contributing to making this world a better place. Some people are recognized, and others are not. But our lives are not determined by awards. The people who matter will remember what we did, and that will inspire them to continue our work and the work of those before us.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak