What I'm Reading (Sept. 30)

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It takes up a third of our life; why do we sleep? Jimming the lock of the lock and key model of biology. How to escape a volcano, like the one on La Palma. The Work Ethic revisited.

“In 1894, Marie de Manacéine, one of the first female physicians in Russia, published a remarkable paper showing that when puppies were completely deprived of sleep, they died after just a few days. Her experiments were performed on 10 puppies, ranging from two to four months old, who were fed by their mothers and otherwise well cared for. As a control measure, she deprived other puppies of food but not sleep. These dogs could be restored to good health after being starved for 20 to 25 days, whereas those deprived of sleep were ‘irreparably lost’ after only four to six days. Her conclusions were clear: ‘the total absence of sleep is more fatal for the animals than the total absence of food.’”

What is the role of sleep in our lives? Certainly, something that occupies a third of our time should have some underlying meaning. Like much of our biological behavior, we have precious little understanding. From Aeon, a mathematical view without any math or equations, Why Do We Sleep?

I have struggled to explain why biological messengers and their messages are similar, not exact. That is especially true in our discussion of the impact of mRNA vaccines versus acquired immunity. Consider this:

“In particular, in systems where ligands bind uniquely to receptors, the number of types of ligands limits how many different cell types or targets can be uniquely addressed. In a combinatorial system, different pairings between a small number of ligands and receptors can specify a much larger number of targets. The differences between the pairings also permit graded effects rather than an all-or-nothing response. …

Humans have around 400 types of receptor proteins lining the membranes of the olfactory bulb in the nose, and these receptors can collectively discriminate vast numbers of odors. That wouldn’t be possible if each odorant molecule had to be uniquely recognized by its own dedicated receptor. Instead, the receptors seem to bind promiscuously to odorants with different affinities, and the output signal sent to the brain’s smell center is then determined by combinatorial rules.”

Perhaps these writers in Quanta may help understand why our underlying biology is about relationships, not absolutes. As they write, “Promiscuous binding that allows one protein to substitute for another might therefore enable the network to acquire new functions without losing the old ones.” Is our immune system all about promiscuous binding? From Quanta, Biologists Rethink the Logic Behind Cells’ Molecular Signals

Have you been following the volcanic eruption in La Palma? For some reason, it reminded me of Pompeii, perhaps because of the seaside geography. That remembrance, in turn, led me to one of my biggest volcanic fears, being caught up in the magma. In a moment of serendipity, the Internet solved my concern, and while not completing allaying my fears, did provide an action plan.

“Unfortunately, instead of immediately evacuating, some Pompeiians took shelter from the falling ash. This may seem prudent, but it is a mistake. Buy that bread. And get it to go.”

From Wired, How to Escape From an Erupting Volcano.

I have been blessed with a career that has been personally, and quite frankly, financially fulfilling. That is not the case for all of us.

“The American work ethic is built on a promise: Work hard, and you’ll earn more than just money. You’ll earn social dignity, moral character, even spiritual purpose. In short, you’ll live the good life. For centuries, Americans have believed that work is indispensable to human flourishing. It’s been a useful belief. In absolute terms, American society is rich: American companies dominate their industries. American workers are productive.

There are only two problems with the work ethic today: Work doesn’t reliably deliver the social, moral, and spiritual goods it promises, and artificial intelligence is about to render the work ethic moot.”


From the Hedgehog Review, When Work and Meaning Part Ways