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The Creativity of Nature:

How One Creative Scientist Harnessed It

By   Shlomo Maital

Prof. Frances Arnold, Caltech

   Frances Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, CA. She won the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, along with two others. She is only the fifth woman in history to win the Chemistry Nobel.

   Prof. Arnold has had numerous personal tragedies. She has overcome all the grief – and not a small amount of gender discrimination. UK border police interrogated her for over two hours, when she told them she was “coming to meet the Queen” (she was – but a lot of nutty people say that, apparently).

     Prof. Arnold won the Nobel for finding a creative way to leverage the powerful creative force of evolution. Instead of designing new chemicals from scratch, to fight crop-eating pests, remove laundry stains or clean up oil spills, Arnold figured out how to get Nature to do it.

     “You start with a protein that already has some features you’re interested in”, she said, “ and use standard lab techniques to randomly mutate the gene that encodes the protein. Then you look for slight improvement in the resulting protein, in the direction you seek. You mutate the improved version again and again and screen the output. You do this with a bacterial workhorse, like E. coli….. you encourage the microbes to rise to the challenge, adapt, survive.”

       In Dr. Arnold’s lab, organisms have been ‘mutated’ to stitch together carbon and silicon, or carbon and boron. “We’re discovering that nature can do chemistry, in the lab, we never dreamed was possible”, Dr. Arnold said.    Arnold has invented the new field of evolutionary chemistry – using Nature’s incredibly creative system known as evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, to create random mutations, select the ones that work, perfect them – and change the world. Nature is creative, in much the same way that humans are – try things, fail, try again, find something that does work and run with it. That is how we humans were created – and according to Darwin, all the millions of species on earth.    

   Arnold has launched a number of startups, including one that synthesizes insect pheromones and fends off agricultural pests by simply driving them crazy and confusing them.

   Much of Dr. Arnold’s pioneering research was done while she fought breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent surgery, radiation and chemo, all while raising three young boys and working day and night in her lab.   And in 2010 her husband Andrew Lange killed himself; her middle son William, 20, died in an accident in 2016.  

     “Why would I give up?” said Arnold. “First you learn you have no control. Then you straighten up, fetch your invitation and go to meet the Queen.”    

       [This is based on an excellent New York Times article, by Natalie Angier, who writes for the Science Times].

 

 

 

    

 

      

 

       

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Who Are You?

By Shlomo Maital

William Revelle, Northwestern University

For years, psychologist William Revelle battled the idea that you can pigeon-hole people into “personality types” or traits. With colleagues, he did a very large study, believing he would find evidence contradicting the five-personality-trait idea. To his surprise, he found the opposite.  

   Martin Gerlach, Beatrice Farb, William Revelle & Luís A. Nunes Amaral   “A robust data-driven approach identifies four personality types across four large data sets”.   Nature –   Human Behaviour (2018)

   Here is a part of the abstract of this article,  published in the leading scientific journal Nature:

   Here we develop an alternative approach to the identification of personality types, which we apply to four large data sets comprising more than 1.5 million participants. We find robust evidence for at least four distinct personality types, extending and refining previously suggested typologies. We show that these types appear as a small subset of a much more numerous set of spurious solutions in typical clustering approaches, highlighting principal limitations in the blind application of unsupervised machine learning methods to the analysis of big data.  

And – here are the four types.

 Average

Average people are high in neuroticism and extraversion, while low in openness. This is the most common personality type.

Reserved

The Reserved type is emotionally stable but not open or neurotic. They are not particularly extraverted but are somewhat agreeable and conscientious.

 Role models

Role models score low in neuroticism and high in all the other traits. They are good leaders, dependable and open to new ideas.

Self-centered

Self-Centered people score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

   Hand on your heart – which are you?   Or do you think this is just spurious research?

 

Thinking in the Bubble:   How to Detect Land Mines

By Shlomo Maital

Writing in the Hebrew daily Haaretz, today, Ruth Schuster reports on a clever creative invention by Hebrew University scientists.

   The problem: undetected land mines.

   “Land mines are the scourge of the survivor. They lurk in the soil for years and even generations after the fighting ends. Up to 20,000 people a year are wounded or killed after stumbling on hidden mines, and there has been no safe way for man or beast to detect them. According to Hebrew University, more than 100 million land mines remain buried around the world. Metal detectors do fine with traditional mines, but plastic ones elude them.”

A huge number of ideas to detect and clear mines have been tried. Here are a few:

Mine detection techniques have remained as pedestrian as they were in World War II: soldiers with sticks and serendipity; dogs, who do get killed; and pigs (a talent discovered by a kibbutznik in Israel). The most noteworthy advance in decades had been recognizing the mine-sniffing talents of the African pouched rat.

Now come Hebrew University of Jerusalem scientists, with a truly creative idea, thinking out of the box, or in the bubble or beads:   Bubbles with bacteria that glow blue when they detect vapors emitted by land mines.. even tiny amounts of the gas, and all mines emit such vapors.

       “Inspired by an idea that was first conceptualized in 1999, the scientists engineered   bacteria that fluoresce when they come into contact with these vapors. The human mine detectors don’t have to keep the bacteria on a leash: they can monitor and react remotely. Nor are the bacteria free-range: they are encapsulated in beads that are scattered across the suspect land. The scientists tested the system with a laser-based scanning system, and the mines were found.”

     Prof. Shimshon Belkin was responsible for genetically engineering the bacterial sensors.   The research was published recently in the leading journal Nature.

The World’s Most Incredible Invention

By Shlomo Maital   

                                                                       photosynthesis

Thanks to an outstanding BBC World Service program, “Discovery”, I have new appreciation for what must be the greatest invention ever:  Nature’s invention of photosynthesis, as a lucky accident through evolution.

   The word itself comes from two Greek roots meaning “light” (phos) and “putting together” (“synthesis”).  Plants use light energy from the sun, together with water and carbon dioxide, to produce two vital things:  carbohydrates, e.g. glucose, and oxygen.  The process is mediated and catalyzed by green chlorophyll.  What happens is:  six carbon dioxide molecules combine with six water molecules, using solar energy aided by chlorophyll, to make one glucose molecule and six oxygen molecules:

     6CO2 +    6H2O  =    C6H12O6 +   6O2  

     Photosynthesis does two things for life on earth: It provides all the organic compounds, and most of the food energy needed for life,   and it maintains atmospheric oxygen levels.  

   The rate at which photosynthesis captures solar energy is incredible:  130 terawatts, which is six times greater than the total power consumption of the human race

   We humans are incredibly arrogant.  But to date, we have nothing that comes close to photosynthesis, as a way of capturing solar energy and storing it as food energy.  Photovoltaic cells are a joke in comparison.  If we humans could store energy as plants can, we could produce power at night, when usage is nil, and use it during the day, thus almost halving our daytime production capacity.  But we can’t.  Only Nature can. 

   And just think – photosynthesis originated as an accident of evolution, one that just happened to work nicely, and that made possible life on earth. 

   Now, THAT’s an innovation!

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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