Mind Ventilated

A couple of things really hit me this week — my second full week at PSC:

Everything I learned is wrong: Just spent some time talking with Markus Dittrich, director of our NIH-funded National Resource for Biomedical SuperComputing. It was nice to talk with someone who I can understand without stopping them to explain every 10 seconds — for some seven and a half years before I became a science writer in 1990, I was a graduate student in biochemistry. But I also see how the stick-and-ball models of the day (my day!!) put me in a very static frame of mind, imparting a certain amount of mental inertia to be overcome. A few years back I wrote a blog entry, Smoke and Mirrors, in which I struggled to understand how sometimes an olfactory receptor can recognize mirror images of a molecule, and sometimes can’t. My “problem” rolled off Markus like water from a duck, because he sees proteins as stringy-wobbly-shifty things that can change with time — a lot — and do far more than we dreamed when my undergraduate research adviser could point at a (granted, simple-minded) model for a rotating membrane protein in a textbook and say, “Proteins can’t do that!”

Science has gone all networky on me: Picture me at a lab bench, trying to keep an evacuated tube full of S-35-labeled compound in my hands (or at least not shattered on the floor; but that’s another story). Small scale, one guy with a test tube. Increasingly it just doesn’t work that way. I’m working with my opposite number at South Florida University on a press release about a big paper that’s going to be coming out. I can’t talk about its substance at the moment because it’s on blackout — but note that the paper has authors in Tampa and Saudi Arabia, and was supported by supercomputing resources in Pittsburgh, Texas, and San Diego. Sampling error, I know — not the same kind of work, and after all I’ve moved to a national resource here at PSC. But the fact remains that, though science was always a community effort, individual findings increasingly require multiple specialists, and the Webbed world no longer needs them to be anywhere near each other.

Mind — ventilated, if not blown. I think I need a weekend.

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