[Big Ideas 001] Genes, Proteins, Pluto

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Geneticist James Watson: The Man who Discovered DNA

James Watson was a member of the team that discovered DNA is organized in the shape of a double helix (i.e., intertwining strands of nucleotides on a superstructure of sugar). In 1962, Watson & his teammates won the Nobel Prize. Watson was also the Director of the Human Genome Project. Read the original interview in the July 2003 issue online here.

A gene associated with violence could exist in 2 forms:
(1) Express a lot of enzyme => anger dissipates fast,
(2) Express little enzyme => children who were abused.

* * *

A protein called POMC is broken down by proteases into:

  • Endorphins 安多芬/內啡呔: makes you happy
  • Melanocortin 黑皮质素 (MSH): made when you’re in the sun

“When you make MSH, you’re also making endorphins. So my theory is that that’s why the sun makes you happy.”

* * *

“Just let all genetic decisions be made by individual women. That is, never ask what’s good for the country; ask what’s good for the family.”

Planetary Scientist Alan Stern: Champion of the Probe to Pluto

Alan Stern was the principal investigator for the probe mission to Pluto. “Stern has made a career of investigating the solar system’s frontiers.” Read the original interview in the Feb 2004 issue here.

A planet is defined as a body that orbits its star and:

  • Large enough to become round under self-gravity (otherwise it’s called a rock), and also
  • Small enough so that hydrogen fusion does not take place in its center (otherwise it’s called a star).

After the interview with Alan Stern, Pluto was downgraded from a (full) planet to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The reason for IAU’s decision is Pluto “has not cleared its neighboring region of other objects.”

Pluto was one of the first discovered in the Kuiper Belt – also known as the 3rd zone of the solar system – featuring a colection of trans-Neptunian objects. The Kuiper Belt is interesting because it features >100,000 miniature frozen worlds, i.e., planetary embryos frozen in time during their gestation. For unknown reasons, the planetary formation processes in the Belt area halted.

Scientists were interested in Pluto for two reasons amongst others:

  1. Plato and its moon (Charon) form a binary object, similar to the Earth-moon system. The New Horizons space mission to Pluto was the first mission to such a binary-object system;
  2. Plato is shrinking in size with an atmosphere “escaping rapidly like a comet’s” – this is what we believe to be the same process that happened to earth during the evolution of its atmosphere.

Contrary to popular belief, despite its distance from the Sun, Pluto is expected to be as bright as dusk on earth, “with enough light for you to easily read a book.” You could also expect atmospheric phenomena such as fog, cloud, haze or snow.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

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