Archive for the ‘humans’ Category

R.B. Woodward Lecture on Vitamin B12 Synthesis

March 11th 2016

When I was a post doc at Harvard one of the real treasures was the chemistry library, which had some very impressive archives as you might imagine. Amongst these was a DVD recording of a lecture that R.B. Woodward gave in 1972 following his completion of the total synthesis of vitamin B12 (along with Albert Eschenmoser). If you are into this sort of thing and have 3.5 hours to spare it is a real gem. Here is part 1:

And part 2:

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unusual Potemkin village in East Cambridge

December 17th 2014

Very close to where I work in Cambridge, there is a strange and inexplicable Potemkin village. I have worked in the same building for almost two years and did not notice it until relatively recently.

On the corner of Portland and Main St. there is a building that at first glance does not draw any attention, in retrospect quite deliberately. A few months ago I was walking by and idly ran my fingertips over the “brick” exterior, when I noticed it was covered with a veneer *painted* with windows, doors, etc.

Why the need for this faux exterior I do not understand. I have peered beneath and the true surface of the building is basically just some shabby brickwork; nothing that would obviously explain the desire to masquerade as something else. How strange!

Here is the location on Google maps:

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sun pillar in the Trader Joe’s parking lot

February 9th 2014

sun pillar small

Saw a nice sun pillar when I was walking out of Trader Joe’s today.

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empty blister pack of viagra on the sidewalk

August 17th 2012

viagra pack small
I spotted this empty blister pack of viagra tablets on the sidewalk (6x100mg, the largest dose they make). Stepped on, discarded with haste. I have no idea what sequence of events could have led to this.

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lysine as a critical plot element in movies

June 21st 2012


As far as I’m concerned, lysine is just OK. As an overall class of molecules, amino acids are sort of bland. Slim pickens in terms of functional diversity. Not a lot of a razzle dazzle. And among the 20-22 (depending on who you ask) lysine is about as average as it gets. If there were a Yelp review for lysine I would give it 2 out of 5 stars. And yet I can think of two major movies where lysine was a critical plot element. The first dates back to my awkward middle school years: Jurassic Park invoked the “lysine contingency” as a last resort means to control unmitigated dinosaur reproduction. Clip here.

More recently, and more based in reality, the 1996 lysine price-fixing scandal was brilliantly portrayed by a hefty Matt Damon in The Informant! In this movie I enjoyed how Damon put a slight emphasis on the second syllable in lysine, opposite how I’ve always heard it.

Are there other amino acids that have been pivotal in other movies? I can’t think of too many off the top of my head. Maybe dopamine/levodopa in Awakenings is all that comes to mind.

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microfractionation of human tears

April 23rd 2011

microfractionation of human tears tumb

This is from the GE Life Sciences handbook Gel Filtration: Principles and Methods. It is shown on page 45 with no context whatsoever, other than potential applications of their fancy technology. For non-biologists, this is a so-called gel filtration trace, which is a technique used to separate a mixture of proteins based on their size. The peaks (which range from the big sharp one at ~45 minutes to the smaller lumpy things around 20 minutes) correspond to the proteins that are present in tears. The most basic interpretation of this figure is that there are at least 6 or so proteins that make up the majority of those found in tears. But there are so many more questions!

  1. What are these different proteins?
  2. Whose tears were these?
  3. How were the tears obtained? Did someone go to a funeral with a test tube and collect tears of grief? Did they stab somebody for tears of pain? Perhaps an olympic athlete donated tears of joy after winning the javelin throw.
  4. Would the protein components of the tears be different depending on whether they are tears of joy/sorrow/pain?
  5. Why is the buffer so salty (0.5M NaCl) and acidic (pH 5.3)? Are tear proteins only happy under salty acidic conditions?

It would not be hard to answer some of these questions. For #1, I’m thinking that you could take a few tears (probably wouldn’t need very many), TCA precipitate all the proteins, perform a trypsin digest, then identify them using peptide mass fingerprint analysis.

#4 could be a Nobel-prize winning experiment. Say for example that with joy tears, the peak at 65 minutes goes way up. You have now identified the Hope protein. I’ll go so far as to name it Hopease.

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QR square on Jimmy Fallon

April 2nd 2011

Stephen Colbert belted out an awesome rendition of Friday on last nights Jimmy Fallon.

There is an easter egg at the 3:48 point; some weirdo in the background holding up a giant square barcodey thing (technically a QR Code). Here are some screencaps I took. I couldn’t find any online tools to parse these, it seems like the only way to read them is with an app for your mobile phone. I used QR Reader for iPhone. If you are too lazy to install and take a picture of your computer I will tell you it is a link to this website.

QR code small

Zoomed, cropped
QR code crop

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post office, osmium

April 3rd 2010

I was in the post office yesterday, and I noticed they have these flat-rate shipping boxes, advertised with the slogan “If it fits, it ships.” So you pay $13.95 to ship anything that will fit inside a 12″ x 12″ x 5 1/2″ box, for example. Wouldn’t it be funny to fill up one of these boxes with the densest element on the periodic table, then go to the post office and ship it?

flat rate shipping box

Of course the element I speak of is osmium, which weighs in at a hefty 22.6 g/cm3. If my math is correct here, that 12″x12″x5.5″ box translates into 792 cubic inches, or 12.98 liters. Fill it up with a huge block of osmium and it would weigh 293 kilograms, or 646 pounds.

So you’d probably actually need like 6 people to lift the box. And the fact that osmium costs ~$30/gram, this little prank would cost $8.8 million to pull off. Depleted uranium might be a little more economical. It’s only 19.1g/cm3, so fill up that same box with DU and it would only weigh 546 pounds. Still pretty funny.

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MIT monster eats Boston/Back Bay

December 19th 2008


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these are my bricks

October 13th 2008

brick thumb

Back in 1886 some relatives of mine (I assume) founded the Stiles Brick Company in Bridgewater, MA. The industrial revolution demanded mountain piles of high-quality bricks, and the SBC cranked them out with maniacal fervor. Take a walk through Lowell, Waltham, etc… these towns are 99 and 44/100% pure Stiles brick. I have often dreamed of having a house built entirely out of Stiles bricks, obviously with the “STILES” side facing out, so as to passionately declare that it is MY HOUSE.


At some point, the SBC underwent a merger of some sort and became the Stiles and Hart Brick Company. This business move created an unstoppable juggernaut of brick production that is in full force to this day. However, it entailed a redesign of the logo on the bricks, and they now feature a more modest “S+H” insignia. These bricks are everywhere, but you might never know it since the plain side is usually facing out.


Well yesterday I was wandering around Central Square in Cambridge, MA, where most of the sidewalks are brick-lined. I happened upon a few bricks that were overturned, and was pleased as punch to see that familiar S+H shining up at me. Yes, this entire sidewalk is constructed out of Stiles + Hart Bricks, so as far as I’m concerned it belongs to me. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that much of the metro/Boston area is similarly paved with my bricks, and I would be entitled to claim ownership of all the sidewalks if it ever came down to that.

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