Saturday, August 25, 2007

Short story

"You did what?!"

Henry's shout escaped through the window and echoed round the forecourt, startling students and Japanese tourists alike. In his office, Professor Charles Baker just smiled at his colleague's amazement.

"It was quite simple, really," he said calmly. "Stochastic process theory has been very well-researched over the past fifty years, and its application to evolutionary biology is frankly rather obvious. I'm surprised no-one's done this before."

"But see here, Charles, what you're saying can't possibly work! An equation that predicts evolution? For a start, you'd need to feed it more information than biologists could ever gather."

A slight frown passed briefly over Baker's face. "For a long time I thought the same," he admitted. "And you're right that low-level evolution - minor variations of size and colour - isn't easy to track. However, if you consider the broader sweeps of change, the fluctuations pretty much even out. See, it follows directly from Kline's Lemma." He pushed over a perilously balanced stack of scribbled workings.

Henry raised his hands in supplication. "Charles, I know you can do more maths in a day than I've managed in twenty years. I'm a zoologist, for Pete's sake. But what you're telling me is... well, the implications are..."

"I know," interrupted Baker, "and I already discussed some of them with the Department of Epidemiology. We've got a full-scale trial scheduled for later this year. We're aiming at the common cold for starters. If I'm right, we'll be able to predict how it'll evolve to wiggle out of the traps our immune systems lay for it. Throw in the right drugs and bingo! no more blocked noses every winter."

He paused for a moment, and another frown flashed across his brow. "There is one thing that's worrying me, though," he said slowly, almost reluctantly. "I tried running the equations backwards as well as forwards, and it worked superbly. Every fossil species we've ever discovered just falls naturally out of the model! So I pushed it back even further, towards the start of life."

"Then, in the data from three and a half billion years ago, I started to notice gaps in the flow - little jumps, where a species hurdled a barrier that by rights should have killed it off. At first I assumed that I'd made an error, forgotten to take some factor into account. I spent weeks searching for a pattern in the data, to correct my mistake. And I found a pattern, but it wasn't any of my doing."

He pushed over another sheet of paper, this one with a complex system of swirling lines printed onto it. "This, Henry, is a graphical representation of the flowlines. Don't worry about the maths, just tell me what you see."

Scratching his head, Henry stared at the graph. "You know," he said, "these darker loops at the bottom look almost like symbols. That's a bit queer, isn't it?"

"Very," agreed Baker. "I thought exactly the same as you, of course. So I got one of the lads from Linguistics to take a look at it. I didn't tell him where it came from, of course, but nonetheless he pointed me straight to an expert in Middle-Eastern archaeology."

"The symbols are ancient Hebrew, Henry. And when they were translated... well, read for yourself." He pushed a final scrap of paper over, this one with three words on it. Just three words.

As Henry studied the short phrase, his expression changed from puzzlement to utmost shock. With a short scream, he hurled the paper away from him, jumped out of his chair and ran from the room. The tourists looked on in puzzlement as he sped across the grass of the forecourt.

Professor Baker sighed gently as he picked up the fragment of hand-written English from where it had fallen, and replaced it on the table. Would Henry ever forgive him for his discovery? Would the world? He looked down again at the three words that had elicited such a reaction, as if hoping they would disappear.

Three short words - encoded in the gene flows, buried in the very origin of life.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Weirdness is...

...reading a Philosophy of Science textbook whilst three pints* under. Seriously, weed has nothing on this. I think I may be a logical positivist.

Or maybe it's just that beer lends itself to anti-realism:

"Dude, what if, like, it didn't matter what stuff actually was - just sorta, y'know, what it did?"

"Woah, duuuude..."

FYI, this is all preliminary to an adult education course I'm signed up for: "Dawkins, Darwin and God". The course leader is a Christian and evo-devo biologist. I suspect that his Amazon review page may provide the best course outline - it's likely to be evolution-friendly but Dawkins-unfriendly.

Since I'm the closest thing the atheist community has to a Dawkins fanboy**, this will be interesting for me. If nothing else, it's going to be an extremely good training ground for my framing skills.

I do have this slight worry, though, that I'll turn up and every other member of the group will be a Dawkinsian atheist. That would be freaky.

* Real ale, of course. 5% abv minimum. This explains much.

** E.g. I don't actually stab voodoo dolls of him. Atheists are about as far from a cohesive group as it's possible to get without investigating the possibilities of small felines.
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