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Saturday, July 26, 2008

How many biologists does it take to fix a radio?

I love google analytics. You can get all sorts of information about traffic to your web page, including the google searches people use to get there. Admittedly, I really enjoy seeing when people link to my web page, but the google searches are a close second.

This morning, though, I looked through the search tearms, and discovered that someone had found my page by googling for "How many biologists does it take to fix a radio?" And that had me hooked. I've been toying with the idea all morning, and figured I had to try to blog an answer to that. (I've already touched on the subject once, with less humour, but it's worth revisiting.)

Now, bear in mind that I'm actually a biochemist and possibly a bioinformatician - and by some stretch of imagination, a microbiologist - so I enjoy poking fun at biologists, but it's all in good humour. Biology is infinitely more complicated than radios, but it makes for a fun analogy.


This is how I see it going.

  • A nobel prize winner makes a keynote speech, expounding on the subject that biologists have completely ignored the topic of radios. They deserve to be studied and are a long neglected topic that is key to understanding the universe. The Nobel prize winner further suggests his own type of broken radio that he's been tinkering with in his/her garage for several months as the model organism.

  • After the speech, several prominent biologists go to the bar, drink a lot, and then decide that the general consensus is that they should look at fixing broken radios.

  • Several opinion papers and notes appear on the subject, and a couple grad student written reviews pop up in the literature.

  • A legion of taxonomists appear, naming broken radios according to some principle that makes perfect sense to them. (eg. Monoantenna smithii, Nullamperage robertsoniaii). High school students are forced to learn the correct spellings of several prominent strains.

  • A Nature paper appears, describing the glossy casing of the Radio, the interaction of the broken radio with an electrical socket and the failed attempt to sequence the genome. Researchers around the world have been scooped by this first publication, and all subsequent attempts to publish descriptions of broken radios are not sufficiently novel to warrant publication in a big name journal.

  • Biologists begin to specialize in radio parts. Journal articles appear on components such as "purple red purple gold (PrpG), which is shown to differ dramatically from a similar appearing component, "blue green purple gold" (BgpG), and both are promptly given new names by ex-drosophila researchers: "Brothers for the Preservation of Tequila Based Drinks 12" and "Trombone."

  • Someone tries to patent a capacitor, just in case it's ever useful. Spawns three biotech companies, two of which spend $120 million dollars in less than 3 years and fold.

  • Someone does a knock out on a working radio and promptly discovers and names the component "Signal Silencing Subcomponent 1" or "Sss1". 25 more are discovered in a high-throughput screen.

  • X-ray studies are done on Sss22, resulting in a widely acclaimed paper which will later result in a Nobel prize nomination. No one has the faintest idea how Sss22 works or what it does.

  • Science fiction writers publish several fantastic novels that one day we might be able to fix radios by replacing individual parts.

  • The religious right declares biologists are playing god, and that fixing radios is beyond the capacity of humans. The moral dilemmas are too complex. Ethicists get involved. The US president tries to cut funding for biologists doing research on broken radios.

  • A researcher invents a method of doing in-situ component complementation, which allows a single element to be bypassed and replaced with a new one. All new components are attached with green flags attached to them to make studying them easier.

  • Someone else invents a method of replacing a frayed power cord, producing a working phenotype from a broken radio. The resulting media storm declares the discovery of the cure for broken radios.

  • The technique for fixing power cords begins the long process of getting FDA approval. 10 years later (and with a $1bn investment showing that technique also works on lamps and doesn't cause side effects in electric toothbrushes) the fix is allowed to go to market.

  • Marketing is conducted, telling people (with working and broken radios alike) that maybe they should try the cure, just in case they might have a frayed power cord some day too. They should talk to their doctor about if it's right for them.

  • Advertisements appear on tv showing silent smiling people holding on to power cords.

  • Long term studies after the fact show that the new part wasn't as good as it could have been. Sucking on it may cause liver damage.

  • Religious right takes recall as sign that science has failed again. Holistic fixes for frayed power cords appear, as well as organic electricity and antenna adjustment therapies, which work for some people. Products appear on the shopping channel.

  • Technology moves on, the radio becomes obsolete. Several biotech companies acquire each other in blockbuster mergers and begin working on new target components for computer sound cards.

Have a good weekend, everyone. (=

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Blogger CAE said...

Fantastic stuff!

July 28, 2008 1:10:00 PM PDT  

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