The Necessity of Translation

I recently re-read this satirical essay from the 90s called “How to speak postmodern.” Here are some excerpts:

For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us.” This is honest but dull. Take the word “views.” Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better “vocalities,” or even better, “multivocalities.” Add an adjective like “intertextual,” and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about “postcolonial others”? To speak postmodern properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar racism, sexism, ageism, etc. For example, phallogocentricism (male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).

 

Finally, “affect us” sounds like plaid pajamas. Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like “mediate our identities.” So the final statement should say, “We should listen to the intertextual multivocalities of postcolonial others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities.” Now you’re talking postmodern!

It’s lighthearted, but he’s really making a point here. Most people, I think, understand if a thing is described as racist. That term is common enough.

But how about some other words? Xenophobia, nativism, decolonizing, misogyny, internalization, intersectionality, gaslighting, microaggression. These are very specific words, developed to accurately describe real things. They are important words.

But I think that when we sling these words around, they go over many peoples’ heads. They’re very technical; they’re jargon. Jargon is “a type of language that is used in a particular context and may not be well understood outside of it.” So, sure, when we’re Tweeting about these things, we could tell people to “look it up” or to “educate themselves” (which I have seen people do). But how many people would really take the time to do that?

Often, I have heard Trump supporters say that Trump “tells it like it is.” And, while this is incorrect in a factual sense, it is true that Trump doesn’t use jargon. He speaks at a middle school level.

Let me emphasize that “speaking at a middle school level” is not an insult. It’s kind of what I have to do for work every day. It’s why I wouldn’t describe MRI as “non-invasive imaging with unlimited depth penetration,” because I know that I’ve already lost like half of my readers. (Note that this is a real sentence that I included in a press release, and of course my editors chopped it out.) We have to translate in order to make things accessible.

Look, I am not trying to belittle or look down on any person here. However, very few people have the training or time to understand thick scientific jargon, and it’s the same for ANY kind of jargon — including sociological jargon.

I honestly think it resonates with more people to say: Trump unfairly judges Muslims to be bad people, and he is mean to women when they don’t look pretty, and he boasts about his policies being the literal cure to every problem, and he doesn’t truly apologize for his actions. Discuss the actions that warrant the labels. Discuss the actions that are sexist, racist, xenophobic…

Unpacking what we’re saying includes more people in the conversation. It’s tiring, I know—I do it every day with science. Please don’t think that I’m saying that any of these sociological words are unnecessary—they are so necessary. Just this summer, I had a lengthy discussion with my amazing friend Emily who taught me about the weight behind the word “racism” — how it comes with connotations of power imbalances, and sociologically means more than just “prejudice based on race.” So these words are complex, and wonderful examples of how nuanced language can be. But we have to speak to people who may not understand what they mean, we have to speak to people who feel like we’re talking down to them. We have to talk to each other.

Yet another tribute to cold weather

It’s a sleepy hot Friday and I’m thinking how I am grateful that I did not grow up with snow. I am grateful that I never had to experience the frustration of gray slush, or, I don’t know, all the other complaints that you snow-dwellers have. I’ve been able to preserve the naive notion that snow is a magic thing, while all the cynics and haters are rolling their eyes.

This isn’t a life-long love affair; I only went skiing for the first time last year. I haven’t read all the snow-literature and poems and consequently my own writing will be full of cliches, like a pre-teen writing poems about his deep insights into middle-school love. I have very little originality to add.

But, for me, snow is an overarching symbol of a glorious soft season. Constantly having to adjust the little colored Christmas lights because I scotch-taped them to the wall and they kept falling down. That chocolate babka I baked with the wrong kind of yeast and yet everyone still loved it. Teddy eating that painfully hot pepper at that Mexican place after a long day on the mountain and then realizing that Stefan had cut all his hair off. Walking up Mont Royal alone. Making Armenian string cheese while deer wandered through the yard. Our warm and opening relationship.

2015 was hard and tiring and yet it closed with snow. 2016 has been a sweet, forgiving year, and it too will close with snow—a bookend with books on both sides.

Some thoughts on a cloudy day

Some rambles from the other day when it was cold outside, lol.

I’m writing out on the balcony, in need of an avocado. I’m extremely cozy in my ratty old university sweatshirt with coffee-ish looking stains on the wrists and chest and a bit of toothpaste smidged on one of the block letters, and as I’m looking down at myself surveying this sweatshirt I am realizing that there’s actually a lot more vague possibly “coffee” stains than I previously thought and I start to think that maybe I am actually pretty gross for wearing this thing. ????

It’s cloudy. Soft. A breath of fresh air from the exhausting acrid heat of the last few days. Is there a word for “sunshine” that doesn’t sound so fricken happy? Because “piercing, relentless sunshine” actually sounds sorta lovely and that is not what I’m going for here.

There’s something sweet when the sky is low like this, nearer to you, cozier. Not to mention the air is less like a smothering blanket and more like a friendly presence. It fills me with breath that I almost dare not let out because I know that in Los Angeles a day like this is a fleeting rare angel. Stay, stay, stay, I say; and it’s funny because I know my friends at high latitudes beg the sun the same way I beg the clouds.

The only thing I even remotely miss about being “spiritual” was that writing in mystic, ethereal, symbolic language came so much more easily, and I didn’t feel as silly doing it. This weather unlocks a little of that again in me, perhaps because it’s such a rare occurrence here. And so, something about these cool clear dim days, when the sound of every bird’s tweet and car’s passing rush is liberated from heat’s oppressing crush and amplified like a bell in a tower, something about it brings about a feeling like a butterfly landing on your finger. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or it will go. But you also want to touch it—gently—as much as you can.

Wonder

“Wonder” is such a fabulous word. An expression of curiosity and exploration when used as a verb and an expression of amazement when used as a noun, and often these definitions exist in a wonderful superposition. During field trips to the Galápagos and Indonesia, one of my professors encouraged us to continually make an effort to begin our sentences with “I wonder…” To begin our thoughts with openness, curiosity, and amazement.

As Caltech’s de facto biology writer, I have been reading through a hefty molecular cell biology textbook* trying to understand the basic principles of life. And let me tell you, WOW, this book is hitting me in the face with new wonders on every page. A few examples of some things I’ve learned in the first five pages:

  • Your body is made up of 10,000,000,000,000 cells, all of which originated from one single cell that started to divide. Ten trillion cells—more than the number of stars in our galaxy—from a single cell!
  • If you’re over ~20 years old, you’ll have noticed that the way that computers store information has evolved drastically, from big clunky floppy disks or VHS tapes to miniscule chips in an iPhone. So you would expect that, because cells have been evolving and diversifying for over 3.5 billion years, the way they store information would have evolved too, or you’d expect that you wouldn’t be able to read the information of a seaweed cell the same way you read that of a horse cell. Lol, nope. As from the textbook: “You can take a piece of DNA from a human cell and insert it into a bacterium, or [vice versa], and the information will be successfully read, interpreted, and copied.” That’s some crazy machinery.
  • A single strand of DNA is made up of long sequences of four different chemical compounds (A, T, C, or G). Each strand has a direction in which it is read, symbols interpreted from one direction to another. So when we say DNA is “read…” it’s not a metaphor. DNA is a language.

These are only the “amazement” types of wonder. At pretty much every sentence in this book, my brain is screaming, “?!??!” How the crap did all these chemicals come together to encode information that directs the production of more molecules? When did any of this happen? Why did these complex processes like replication and transcription evolve this particular way? ARE WE “ALONE” IN THE UNIVERSE?!

I’m sure some of my biochem-y questions are going to be answered as I keep reading. But the bigger questions of life’s existence and context in the Universe are legitimately open ended. They remain to be continually wondered at.

 

 

*Molecular Biology of the Cell, Sixth Edition.

Hello babies.

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

It has been five years since I got on a bus for Caltech’s freshman orientation. Orientation is largely to remind you that Caltech is exceptional and I am sure that this year’s orientation will be similar. The university boasts (not incorrectly) that it is home to some of the most intellectual students in the country, students who are all unique but share some common denominators — an appreciation for nerdy humor and clever solutions, the love of science and the love of a mathematical universe of stars and cells.

We get really caught up in the “being a scientist” thing that sometimes we forget the “being a person” thing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could also start off orientation by saying: Caltech is home to kind people. No superlatives (the MOST! kind) and no sexy quantification (3:1 ratio of nice people to assholes!). What if we could say: here, you will find people who seek to do right by others, who say thank you to cashiers and baristas, who try their hardest in this mathematical world to respect and honor the ridiculousness that is our existence on this pale blue dot floating out in a lot of emptiness. During elementary school we’re taught to be kind to each other but as soon as you get a little older, the adults assume you already know that baby stuff and move on to drilling Maxwell’s Equations into you. Can you imagine if a dean at frosh camp just spent one minute away from “the importance of hard work and intellectual curiosity” and just reminded us to be a little nicer? I think it could make a difference, even just an epsilon of difference, if we all just remember, sometimes, to be nice. In all spaces, not just Caltech. I dunno.

“Hello freshmen. Welcome to Caltech. It’s hard when you’re here and nice when you graduate. It’s small and difficult and rewarding. On the outside, freshman, you’ve got four years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, freshmen—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Back to the blaug

Look dude, I have twelve partially-to-mostly written drafts just sitting in my WordPress posts folder. Twelve. One of which is titled “A Remotivational Blog Reboot” from July 2015 that obviously didn’t serve its purpose.

Recently I came across the blog of a girl I used to know. I read a few posts, and I thought — egh, this is bad. And then I realized — her writing may be bad but hey at least she’s fuckin’ DOING IT. Anyone can post a thing with their thoughts and words, and who am I to disparage when I have TWELVE DRAFTS UNPOSTED largely for fear of being disparaged?

In a broader sense, what writer’s early, earliest works are not just that — works — not great, practice paintings?

So, time to start posting my own stuff again. Disparage away!

A writer

Found in my drafts folder from October 2015. I wonder why I didn’t publish it.

I used to think it was an embarrassing thing to say that I wanted to be a writer. That it was, in some way, less valuable, less impressive and intellectual than saying “I want to be an astrophysicist.” So in college I pursued science, and I liked it to an extent. But I’ve loved writing ever since I learned to string together sentences, and it was always something I wished I could make a life out of.

And now here I am at 22. And I am getting paid to write stories on brand new discoveries about the universe made by world-class researchers.

It feels so surreal. I’m really a person who sits at a blank screen and fills it with words and sends those words out to the world.

This is what I’ve wanted to be for the last four years. And now I’m doing it. And I’m getting better at it. And I’m getting paid to do it.

I feel really lucky that I got a job right out of graduation, but for a little while I couldn’t say that I felt like I deserved it. I struggled so much with academics at Caltech, and that really permeated throughout my entire life—I came to define myself as a bad student, as someone who just barely scraped by. And I wasn’t happy with the science that I was doing. So I cannot express how EMPOWERING it is to have this job, to be a writer, to see all the possibilities and opportunities for improvement and to feel like I’m making strides every day toward something tangible that I love. I still feel excited every time I publish another piece. Several people have gone out of their way to send me an email, some kind of “good job” or that they liked a piece I wrote and each time it fills my heart up with so much happiness.

I feel so lucky and happy and grateful to be in this stage of life now, and I am so thankful to everyone in my office and everyone who encouraged me in this odd “science writer” dream along the way.

A Tiger-Striped Surprise: Ice Volcanoes on Enceladus

I wrote this piece as part of my grad school applications last fall.

At first glance, Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus appears to be nothing like its namesake, the giant of Greek mythology whose breath caused volcanic eruptions. Enceladus (the moon) is a frozen celestial body smaller than the state of Arizona. No one would have guessed that its name would turn out to be serendipitously appropriate.

When the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2005, scientists didn’t intend to conduct more than a quick flyby of Enceladus. But any expectations of Enceladus as an inert, cratered moon were soon dismantled as Cassini captured images of four large, hot fissures sliced across the south pole, like the jagged claw marks of a tiger. And so it was revealed that Enceladus truly is living up to its mythological namesake: from these so-called “tiger stripes” spewed at least 100 ice volcanoes, jetting particles and water vapor far out into space.

The discovery of these plumes was a shock. One wouldn’t initially expect moons to have active processes like violent geysers of particles — moons are usually too small and cold to produce much energy. Craters on our own Moon indicate that its surface hasn’t changed for three billion years. For tiny Enceladus to have such vigorous volcanoes, something must be happening internally to generate heat and energy.

The most natural explanation for such a small moon to be producing so much power is a process called tidal flexing. Tidal flexing occurs because Enceladus’ orbit around Saturn is not perfectly circular, so the huge planet gravitationally squeezes and stretches its tiny moon as it orbits. This constant exercise of the moon’s rocky interior causes it to heat up. But scientists expect that this tidal flexing can only generate about 10% of the power that the plumes output, so Enceladus must have some sort of other unexpected internal heat storage.

Chemical analyses of the plumes hint at more subsurface secrets. Samples of the plumes reveal “salty” sodium particles, indicating the presence of silicate rocks. Along with the abundance of water vapor particles, this data paints an image of a deep subsurface ocean with a solid rock bottom.

Liquid water, heat, and a water-rock interface are a crucial combination of ingredients for the chemistry of life that has made the once nondescript Enceladus a prime target in our search for extraterrestrial life. The idea that life could potentially arise under a crust of ice on a tiny moon of Saturn has revolutionized concepts of habitable environments. Enceladus is an embodiment of the surprises of our solar system that we have yet to uncover.

Mars may harbor subsurface liquid water

I wrote this piece as my “Discovery Story” assignment for En84, “Writing About Science,” at Caltech, and got an A. The press release I drew information from is here and the original paper is here.

 

Ancient Mars was a warm and wet place, coursing with rivers and lakes. Though the lakebeds are now dusty and the water long gone, researchers have recently discovered evidence that the present-day Mars may not be as dry as we thought. The evidence suggests that a thin layer of salty liquid water may exist just under the Martian surface, condensing in the cool hours of night and evaporating in the morning.

Conditions on Mars are not favorable for liquid water — Martian temperatures and atmospheric pressures only allow water to exist as ice or vapor. However, the Curiosity rover recently detected a chemical compound in the Martian soil that could make it possible for water to exist in a liquid form.

The compound, called calcium perchlorate, lowers the freezing point of water, acting like an anti-freeze by allowing water to exist in a liquid state even under temperatures where it would normally form ice. Under particular humidity and temperature conditions, perchlorates can also absorb water vapor from the atmosphere, forming salty liquid solutions called brines that can then trickle down into the soil.

While perchlorates are abundant in many places on Mars, this is the first time they have been detected along with the right humidity and temperature for brines to form. Additionally, these conditions were detected at the equator — the driest and hottest region of Mars. If the delicate brine-forming conditions can exist even on the harshest region of the planet, it’s likely that milder regions can stably support brines as well.

The authors measured air humidity and temperature at the equator using Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) over a Martian year. They describe the brines as “transient” because the proper humidity and temperatures for brine formation don’t last throughout a full Martian day. The salty solutions only have one night to condense before evaporating with the sunlight.

Liquid water is considered a crucial building block for life, but these brines are unlikely to harbor it — they are simultaneously too short-lived, too cold, and too exposed to solar radiation to support terrestrial organisms.

“Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brines on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes,” says the lead author on the study, Javier Martin-Torres of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology. He is also a member of Curiosity’s science team.

Though for now this finding seems to have few extraterrestrial implications, it is part of a collection of Curiosity’s discoveries that are transforming our perception of Mars. Last year, Curiosity measured sharp spikes and drops in atmospheric methane concentration, implying that somewhere on Mars is a source producing the organic chemical. Scientists have also observed dusty geysers of carbon dioxide erupting from the polar ice caps in the warming of spring. Mars is turning out to be a much more diverse and dynamic planet than we thought.

Challenging the Precious Metal Paradigm

This article was originally published in Caltech’s weekly newspaper, The California Tech.

A team of Caltech scientists and students has discovered a groundbreaking new method of synthesizing carbon-silicon bonds—a method that is easier, cleaner, and a thousand times cheaper than the current state-of-the-art. The Tech sat down with graduate student Anton Toutov and undergrad Kerry Betz, members of the Grubbs lab; and postdoc Wen-Bo “Boger” Liu, a member of the Stoltz lab; to hear the story of how they pursued a seemingly improbable reaction to make a cutting-edge achievement in chemistry.

Lori Dajose: First of all, let’s talk about why your new method is so revolutionary to chemistry.

Kerry Betz: Well, carbon-hydrogen (C–H) bond silylation—replacing a hydrogen atom with a silicon group in a molecule—is normally pretty challenging. You have to use these expensive, rare, and sometimes dangerous metals like platinum, palladium, and iridium, as catalysts. But our reaction uses potassium tert-butoxide as the catalyst. Potassium is naturally abundant, making our compound safe and inexpensive—no more need for those precious metals.

Boger Liu: Additionally, replacing a carbon-hydrogen bond with a carbon-silicon bond is really crucial in making important molecules called organosilanes, chemical building blocks valuable in manufacturing basically everything from new medicines to new functional materials, like next-generation liquid crystals for LCD screens. The idea of making organosilanes catalytically without precious metals seemed so naive and lofty—it was unprecedented. This “precious metal paradigm” was like an axiom in chemistry that few scientists had attempted to challenge.

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From left: Kerry Betz (’15), Anton Toutov, and Wen-Bo “Boger” Liu have recently published a paper detailing the use of potassium tert-butoxide as a catalyst in silylation reactions. Photo courtesy of Allison Maker.

LD: What inspired you to challenge it?

Anton Toutov: Two and a half years ago, I noticed organosilanes occurring as unexpected byproducts from my unrelated experiments with biofuels. It was kind of random, but this really provided the crucial proof-of-principle that we didn’t need to use crazy expensive precious metal catalysts for the carbon-silicon reaction to occur. I just decided to run with it.

LD: And you started looking for people to run with you.

KB: Yes. Around the same time that Anton’s project was gaining momentum, I was looking for summer research. I met with several potential mentors, him included. He was just so incredibly excited and animated talking about it, and I thought, “Wow, he seems like a really fun guy to work with!” I was relatively new to this type of chemistry, so I didn’t have the same bias that more experienced researchers had with regards to this precious metals paradigm.

LD: Boger, you teamed up with Kerry and Anton a few months later. What inspired you to join?

BL: Well, one of the key components of the reaction involves breaking a carbon-hydrogen bond in a heteroarene and replacing it with a carbon-silicon bond. I had done some research on the first half of that process—methods for breaking C-H bonds. Anton and I would have coffee every Saturday, and one day he showed me how he had been using a potassium catalyst for this reaction. I couldn’t believe it. I knew this would change the entire field of C-H silylation chemistry. It was natural for me to get on board with him.

AT: I had worked on the problem alone for some time and solved it to an appreciable degree, and then I knew I could use some really talented and passionate people to help improve the reaction further, and broaden its scope. When Kerry and Boger joined the project, it just took off.

BL: Originally, we began by applying the method to a class of molecules called heterocycles, biologically important scaffolds present everywhere in nature. When it became unbelievably clear that it was really working, we each branched out to apply the method to different classes of molecules.

AT: We were each working in our own direction, simultaneously pushing the project forward on several different fronts. Kerry was making molecules that have never been made before, discovering interesting subtleties about the reaction, and developing some sophisticated hypotheses.  She’s now a completely independent research chemist, and a leading world authority on Earth-abundant metal catalysis, working on extending this method to other molecules. I’m so proud of her. And Boger, he is such an amazing talent. He helped me to optimize the reaction to an excellent level, synthesized a large amount of new molecules using our method, and helped me to develop several new methods based on our general concept. He has also been working on elucidating the mechanism of the reaction, which is currently a big mystery that nobody in the world seems to understand! All in all, I had just the best team imaginable with which I could bring my C–H silylation reaction to life.

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Kerry Betz is the third author on the recent silylation paper. She is an undergraduate in the lab of Professor Robert Grubbs, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005. Photo courtesy of Allison Maker.

LD: Your method isn’t just a new way of synthesizing organosilanes—it’s also a better way than the existing state-of-the-art. Tell me about that.

BL: First of all, we found that the reaction could actually occur under pretty mild conditions. We’re talking room-temperature here—the lowest temperatures this reaction has ever occurred at. In addition, there were no harmful or dangerous byproducts, just hydrogen gas—which is valuable itself!

KB: The method is really environmentally friendly. Using precious metals produces toxic metal waste that has to be filtered out from your desired products—our method has no such drawbacks. On top of being green, it is thousands of times cheaper than using precious metal catalysts. And if being clean and cheap wasn’t enough, it is also pretty easy. This is the kind of thing that could probably be taught in an introductory freshman lab, like Ch3a. It’s shocking how it just blows away this precious-metal paradigm that has been around for almost a century.

LD: Your paper was recently accepted and published in Nature. What was it like for you, to be published in such a prestigious journal?

BL: Well, we got the acceptance email on my birthday. It was a fantastic present.

KB: My birthday was a few days before we got our paper accepted, so it was like a birthday present for me too. I was actually having a really bad day. Then I got a card from Anton saying, “Happy birthday… oh and by the way, congratulations on your publication acceptance into Nature.” It has been so amazing; I’ve been able to help this project come from an uncertain, possibly controversial beginning, to an unprecedented and publishable conclusion.

AT: Yes, and it’s really just the beginning. There’s so much to come, and we are the pioneering lab for this research. Our hope is that this discovery will change the way that people think about chemistry, and about the logic of chemical synthesis in particular.

 

The full paper was published in Nature on February 5, 2015, titled “Silylation of C-H bonds in aromatic heterocycles by an Earth-abundant catalyst.”