Over at Twitter, I’ve been honoring Black History Month by highlighting the contributions of black scientists, engineers, and inventors. I’ll be attempting to continue a similar trend next month for Women’s History Month, but I thought I would pause for a moment to reflect on the project so far, and share some of what I’ve learned.
Regular readers of HDWKI might notice that the site is undergoing a pretty extensive redesign at the moment. I’m trying to make it easier to use, but various functionalities might blink on and off for a bit as I experiment with the new layout. Please bear with me; it’ll all be over in a bit.
Last time, we looked at the agony and ecstasy of the life of Robert FitzRoy, the world’s first weather forecaster. Like most other weather forecasters, FitzRoy provided an invaluable service, and yet was mocked resoundingly when his forecasts were in error. Unlike most weather forecasters, this criticism drove him deeper into an already deep depression, and he ended up committing suicide only a few years into his new gig. We may empathize with FitzRoy’s plight, but who among us hasn’t at some point been in awe of the sheer inaccuracy of a weather forecast? Why should FitzRoy have it easier than Lady Catherine, Jane Austen’s archetypal ultrarich know-nothing? Of course, this naturally leads us to the question: will we ever be able to make a truly accurate weather forecast?The answer to this question is a big fat no. But the path to that big fat no is quite a bit more interesting than you might expect.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a passing familiarity with the word “photon,” even if it’s only in reference to the torpedoes that arm most of the Federation ships on Star Trek. But just in case you chose to spend your teenage years enjoying sunlight and people that exist in real life, a photon is the smallest possible particle of light that you can have. “But Keith,” you say, “I thought you just said that light is a wave. Now you’re telling me it’s a particle. Most of your arguments in the last post about light had to do with showing how light can’t be a particle. It can spread out, interfere with itself, bend around objects, remember?” Yes, I remember. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. I guess I’ll have to try to distract you by changing topics completely. In a previous HDWKI, we discussed the Doppler effect as a way to find planets orbiting other stars. In it, we mentioned briefly that blue light and red light have different energies, and that blue light is more energetic than red light. Actually, it’s a long-established fact that the shorter the wavelength of light, the more energy the light contains. And you’re probably asking right now: “What does any of this have to do with light being a particle? And, come to think of it, how do we know that shorter wavelengths of light are more energetic, anyway?” I would tell you to stop asking questions faster than I can answer them, but in this case, the answers to the two questions are related in a pretty unexpected way.
In the previous post in our series on the genetic code, we chronicled the adventures of a number of chemists, biologists, and even an epidemiologist as they battled their way to a fundamental truth about genes. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read it yet: genes are made of DNA. It seems like such a basic fact now; most middle-schoolers can recite it. But keep in mind that nearly a century separates Friedrich Miescher’s discovery of DNA from the widespread acceptance of DNA as the genetic material.
We seem to know a lot about waves nowadays. The language of waves suffuses our vernacular: “We’re on the same wavelength,” “That speech resonates with me,” “I get weird vibes from him,” all use wave terminology. We’re intimately familiar with water waves: we see them in the shower or the sink pretty much every day. We have a pretty good grasp on sound waves: we can feel bass vibrations pretty easily and if we play music, we know that we can see vibrating waves in the motions of strings and cymbals, or we can feel vibrations of a saxophone reed or a trumpet mouthpiece. We tend to accept the existence of things like microwaves and radio waves, which are really just light waves that are outside our range of light perception, much as x-rays and UV light are. And everyone can recite from their science classes that light is an electromagnetic wave. But what does that mean? And how do we know it?
In the previous post of this series, we figured out that chromosomes carry genes, and we used genetic linkage and crossing over to start making gene maps of chromosomes. Given enough data on offspring and inherited traits, we could continue this project and make ever more accurate gene maps, identifying the components of chromosomes in ever finer detail. In fact, that’s what went on for some time after Sturtevant’s work in 1913. But we know that this can’t be the end of the story. We know what a gene is now, but we still haven’t talked about a genetic code. How do genes even work? In part 1, we introduced the concept that a gene on a chromosome can ultimately, through a chain of biochemical events, lead to someone having blue eyes: