Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Last Ottoman

Every Tuesday afternoon, when I take my bath in Cağaloğlu Hamami, Mustafa Ozkan appears fatter than I remember him from the week before. How my masseur manages to develop that corpulence despite his strenuous profession – all day long he pummels and presses and twists and kneels and steps up and down on his customers, in all that heat in the sauna room – puzzles many bathers. “It’s the baklavas.” Mustafa will say, with a carefree smile. Yet fattening Mustafa more than the sweet pastry is the melancholic abandon that has bound him since the day Seifka Pamuk left Istanbul. It was twelve years, three months and four days ago that the auburn-haired girl from Aksaray of central Anatonia flew out from Ataturk airport, made a connection in New York City, and arrived in Pittsburgh to study the soulless magic of chemistry. Feeling that some flesh inside his chest was torn away, Mustafa has been eating ferociously to fill in the void. Seifka has sent three letters. The first one came within a month of her arrival in Pittsburgh. Page after page, she complained of the tasteless food in American diners and the drab city street lined by houses of uniform fabrication, painted in colors one indistinguishable from another. She wrote nostalgically of how she went to the same and only Turkish restaurant near her school three days in a row, even though its döner kebab was too dry. That she missed the sight of the sea, and the hours that she spent with Mustafa on the Galata Bridge fishing for sardines, as the sun cast its fading rays over the waters of the Golden Horn. She mentioned the imminent dreadful qualification exams in three weeks. Four weeks later, Mustafa received the second letter. Seifka had passed the exams but was now occupied with laboratory research. The third letter followed shortly, telling him that she had met a music student from Mexico. There has been no more Seifka in Mustafa’s life.

I lie face down, my chest on the marble slate heated by the steam circulating in the octagonal room. Mustafa takes off his T-shirt, revealing his hairy chest and pear-shaped belly. He puts his hands on my back. “It’s tense here.” he says, as always, and starts to rub along my spine. Mustafa has very strong hands, which is why I choose him for my massages. He presses his fingers deep into my flesh, and I can sense his almost sadistic pleasure of inflicting the transient pain on another man. After the pressing comes the pummeling, and then the twisting backward of my arms as far as they will go without dislocation. In the culminating act, Mustafa steps onto my back with both his feet and walks from my waist to just below my neck and then down again. Soon we are both covered in sweat, Mustafa’s sweat. I feel a little disgust, but soon enough soap comes in and dissolves it.

Mustafa steps out of the room – it’s tea time – leaving me wash off the soap myself. The afternoon sun pours in through the star-shaped windows in the domed ceiling, and, when shining on my skin, it elicits a different sensation of warmth than the moist steam. I turn the faucets fully open, and wait until water has filled the marble basin. I reach in and touch the bottom, just as I touched it when the bath first opened its doors in 1741. I let my fingers register how the stone has become polished by two hundred and sixty six years of running water. Sultan’s subjects, rich and poor, have cleansed themselves under this same roof. Now it caters to the city’s well-heeled residents and Western tourists. The place has otherwise changed little, like me.

The place where a man truly belongs is where he wishes to die. My city is Istanbul – I have peregrinated the world but have always come back to the banks of Marmara – yet I cannot die, not since my fateful encounter with Shabalba when the crushing snow cut off the pursuing Russian cavalry but also stranded me for a week in the high Urals. I will live my endless days of ennui, in this city of solitude and melancholy.

I take a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. In the northwest quarter of the labyrinthine complex of shops, I drop in No. 49 to buy a pouch of oleander that I place next to my pillow at night. Bahar, fifteen-years in age, with a smile that can sweeten earl tea and long eyelashes that pierce like Cupid’s arrows, persuade me to buy a pack of rosehip tea and get the oleander for free. Turning away to greet her next customer, she never notices the resigned sadness in my eyes, the shaking of my hand at the touch of her fingertips when she gives back my change, or the tremor in my voice as I say good-bye. How she resembles her grandmother, Yelda Seyh, the courtesan whose chamber I frequented after returning from the bloodbath on the shores of Cyprus. Yelda, the Red-Leafed Oleander – at that time the most beautiful belly dancer between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – exorcised my nightmares of raped little girls and mutilated human bodies with her ecstatic cries in orgasm. But how do I make Bahar believe that her mother is the fruit of my loins? In a few years she will look to be my older sister.

I walk by cafés where people are smoking hookah and playing backgammon. I walk by restaurants where American tourists applaud Dervish dancers. I don’t stop. I pass by a small mosque in disrepair adjoined by a dilapidated wooden house, in front of which a wrinkle-faced woman is hanging her washed clothes. In an ice cream stand, a man in white robe is performing the traditional trick of serving Turkish ice cream: his swift wrist keeps the ice cream at the tip of a long rod tantalizingly close to yet always out of reach of his customer's grasp. The onlooking Chinese backpackers laugh in amusement, but I walk on. Oh, the simple delight of seeing something for the first time! Now, I am cursed with a jaded memory, like a film that has been exposed so many times that on it only blank remains.

I spend the rest of my evening sitting on the north wall of Istanbul University, a stone’s throw from the great Süleymaniye Mosque. At sunset, as the sky turns purple and the cruise ships on the Bosporus light up, the speakers on the minarets sing Koran. As the tunes from mosques near and far reach my ears, they interweave with each other like a counterpoint of Bach. On the narrow street below, an old Muslim is selling watermelons and cherries from his wheelbarrow. Waiting for customers that never come, he sits there and eats sunflower seeds. Mechanically he cracks each seed, pops the kernel into his mouth, and throws away the shell. There is a pile of shells by him. He has not sold anything. But he is not worried. Neither am I. I sit there watching him. I have eternity to do nothing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mechanism of Na+/H+ antiporting

Desalination of E. Coli. in Homeric hymn

Heed, the readers of Science,
Secret ways of the antiporter.
This family of membrane proteins,
Trading one sodium inside cell, with
Two protons outside,
So all life is alive, in acid and brine.
Its structure recently unveiled,
Using extraction from E. Coli.;
Yet its method of act,
Hitherto uncomprehended.
This method we tell, by a host of
Molecular simulations;
By thinking and rethinking of
Clues already seen in labs:

Three membranous aspartates,
Protonating and deprotonating,
Move the protein in action.
Asp a hundred sixty four,
Deprotonating and protonating,
Binds and releases sodium ions;
Asp a hundred sixty three,
Protonating and deprotonating,
Opens the gate to peri- and cyto- plasm.
Asp a hundred and thirty three,
Be the pKa high, be its charge negative,
Keeps the antiporting in flux.
To ascertain our theory,
We return to the bench,
Modifying the protein by
Happily the outcome,
With our predictions agreed.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Keep the Change, Stupid!

Bank of America's new gimmick is its Keep the Change program. The ads are all over the places: TV, radio, billboards, subway trains. They feature coins idling on escalators, in dryers, under the carpets, and in other odd crannies. These are the loose changes that BOA vows to help you save: if you use the BOA debit card, your purchase will be rounded up to the next dollar, and the difference will be deposited in your BOA savings account.

Keep the Change, this concept of aided saving, is laughable at best, if not entirely senseless. Having outgrown my piggy bank in teens, I only saved quarters for parking meters and washing machines, and I had barely saved enough quarters before the smart cards caught on in the laundry rooms. If you count on loose changes for your savings, you'd better vote for a financially responsible president so that social security will always be there for you. With two purchases a day, 50 cents of change per purchase, you will save $30 a month, $360 a year. Not exactly helpful for your retirement, or your children's college tuition.

That's why BOA disguised this laughable concept in their advertisements: it's not just about helping you save your money; it's about putting those otherwise lost coins into real use. A misdirection, but a clumsy one. If you are using a debit card, there will be no loose change to begin with. So why round up the price and put the difference into the savings account? Why not just keep the change in the checking account for your next purchase, and put aside larger sums regularly into savings? Why is a BOA debit card better than any other debit card?

When a good magician pulls off a trick, he uses enough misdirections to ensure that the audience cannot reconstruct the mechanism by logic deduction. A good magician knows that people are not stupid. If only the brains of BOA knew that too.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Stem Cell Called Sputnik

In April 2004, 206 members of Congress signed a letter urging President Bush to loosen the restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research.

Stem cell controversy is another knot in the long string of conflicts between ideology and intellectualism. As it is more a rule than an exception, intellectualism has been on retreat. In 1995, President Clinton signed into law the Dickey Amendment, banning federal funding for all research in which human embryos are destroyed. Although Clinton later considered revising the restriction to applying only to research that directly destroy human embryos, George W. Bush took office before the revision took place. On August 9, 2001, the new president announced that no federal funding would be available for research on new human embryonic stem cell lines.

On the surface, the focus of the stem cell debate is this: is the blob of scores of embryonic cells, 8 days since conception, a human life? Or more poignantly, does it have a soul? To most biologists, the answer is an obvious no. Without a beating heart or a thinking brain, this blob of cells is no more human than a severed, wiggling tail of a lizard. To the God-fearing people, the answer is an obvious yes. According to the church's interpretation of the Holy Script, God gives each human egg a soul at the time of its insemination., which, blasphemously, makes God the greatest voyeur ever, as He must be watching all the fucking on earth in order to promptly mete out the souls.

Questioning the inception of human soul, of course, has been a popular pastime since Aristotle first heard it from Plato. But the current participants of the debate argued with a vigor unsurpassed in history. Although emotional involvement is not unheard of within the pale of metaphysical debate, legislative actions have been rare. Clearly, the current debate is not just about the definition of human life. There is more at stake.

In this fight over stem cell controversy, the two sides are not fighting about the definition of the human soul; they are fighting about whose definition matters in present-day America. Has science firmly established its persuasive upper hand, or does the religious belief still holds its doctrinal sway? The outcome of this conflict will not only determine whether God gets to keep his job of administering the souls, it will also call into question whether God will continue to manage heaven and hell, or to keep calendar for Judgement Day. God already got a black eye when the earth turned out to be orbiting the sun. If the church concedes this time again, God may start to claim unemployment benefits very soon.

So far, God gets to keep his job, as long as George W. Bush keeps his. Bush, in his moment of epiphany, saw the unity of faith and democracy. Perhaps in his reading of the Declaration of Independence, Bush subconsciously added the words "by God" to the end of the sentence "all men are created equal", thereby uniting creationism with democracy. Regardless of his source of inspiration, Bush formulated Bushism in the same spirit as the Chancellor in V for Vendetta:

Hegemony through democracy.
Democracy through faith.

By refusing federal funding to the human embryonic stem cell research, Bush unequivocally demonstrated his resolve to promote God in American life. In this, he was not only restoring faith in this hedonistic country; he was also reviving the tradition of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Face it. Capitalism, and American business, stand to gain as much from brainwashing as Communism or Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. The technique is the classic one from George Orwell's 1984: exaggerating the threat from an external enemy. McCarthy did it in the 1950s; Bush does it fifty years later. Invariably, the Congress goes along. The problem is, although the Capitol Hill is full of white men, there are only a few balls, and they are often black.

So what caused the change of hearts of congressmen in April 2004?

In March 2004, the leading scientific journal Science published a paper entitled "Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst", where the now crestfallen Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang reported the first cloning of human embryonic stem cells. Technically, Hwang's work would also be eligible for federal funding in the United States. Nevertheless, the report sent shock waves across the stem cell research community across America. Overnight, American policymakers realized that if America did not foster a favorable environment for stem cell research, it would lose its race in this promising arena of medical research. The next revolution of medicine may take place on foreign soil. The thought of having to order their transplant organs from Korea along with Hyundai cars in the future was scary enough to frighten 206 congressmen into advocating hESC research.

In October 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik disillusioned the American public from their ingrained belief of capitalism's superiority over communism. It also brought American scientists and intellectuals back into relevancy to American life. Hwang's cloned stem cell achieved a similar, albeit shorter-lived effect, until sadly the scandal broke out that discredited Hwang and his research. But with the current anti-intellectualism mentality in America, and the government's negative stance on hESC research, it will be only a matter of time when America wakes up to find that regenerative medicine has become a reality overseas, that its sons and daughters are the last terminally ill to die.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Cabaret von Einstein

For two hundred, you can learn general relativity from a brunette.

Cabaret von Einstein sits at an obscure corner off Langestrasse. Zurich, like most European cities, is small, and its Langestrasse is no more than a mile long. I crossed the Sihl River from its north bank, where I was staying in a small hotel for the night, and walked from one end of Langestrasse to the other in less than fifteen minutes. Just as I read on my guidebook, this red-light district of Zurich was extraordinarily clean, and aside from a few short solicitations from heavily perfumed women, I walked alone untroubled.

I passed by half a dozen cabarets, and dropped in one of them. It was surprisingly empty, especially for a Saturday evening. A few customers sat sipping Champagne with their consorts, and long hiatus passed between girls who came on stage to dance around the lonely stainless steel pole. Men walked in and out. Few sat down. I sat down for a few tunes. But when a girl put her hand on my right knee and suggested that I buy her Champagne, I apologized and left.

It was on my way back to my hotel that I discovered Cabaret von Einstein. Trying to avoid the enticing offers of the pretty ladies, I walked along a side street parallel to Langestrasse. Nothing stirred on the street, until I approached the crossing of the river, where I noticed a neon light spelling E=mc2. Below, a lanky, bespectacled bouncer stood at the entrance. Painted on the wall was "Cabaret von Einstein. Unsere Mädchen lassen dich Relativität verstehen." (My translation to English: Cabaret of Einstein. Our girls let you understand relativity.) No one was waiting in front of the door.

The sign scratched me in the loins. I walked in, and was shocked to see a full house: scores of men sat everywhere on the couches, beanbags, tatamis, barstools, arranged in a cleverly designed close packing pattern. More than three dozen ladies, attired in diverse styles, some casual, some prudish, yet some sensual, bustled around. On the right of the entrance door was the dancing stage, but instead of the stainless steel pole, there hang a whiteboard like one used in a college classroom, and it was being covered with mathematical equations by the slender hand of a full-bosomed woman, thirty-something looking, and wearing reflective lipstick. I heard her speak, as I entered the room, with an Australian accent and a pulsating prurient undertone:

"Thus I have shown that a black hole has no hair."

This, of course, refers to the famous result in relativistic astronomy that a black hole is always spherical and without magnetic field lines, regardless of the deformities and magnetization of its generating star. But told by that voice, it etched in my mind forever.

I sat down on a lazyboy, facing the stage. There was some lingering giggles from the crowd in response to the lecturing woman's concluding remark. But most men seemed to be engrossed in their conversation with their companion girls that the sentence fell silent on their ears. Now the woman on stage, finishing her performance, put on a casual jacket checkered in red and yellow, and walked to my side.

"Mind if I sit down?" She asked.

"By all means; it would be my pleasure." I replied, a little despite myself. I ordered two glasses of Champagne. She gulped.

She was the mistress of the house. She was an assistant professor of physics at Harvard before, but had been running the cabaret since 2002, shortly after she was denied tenure.

"I was doing well, publishing in Physical Review Letters and Nature, and getting grants from the Department of Energy. Everyone saw promotion coming my way. Then Larry Summers ascended to the Harvard throne." She paused, and, raising her Champagne flute over her hazelnut eyes, she examed the yellowish liquid against the flickering blue track light. "I was running against an African American dude. A brainy guy, I hold no grudge against him. It was really a match of gender versus race, and the trophy went to the latter." She searched my face for clues of my siding. I had none. She finished her Champagne, and asked me: "What's your field of study?"

I am a physical chemist. I was in Switzerland for a one-week conference on computational chemistry. I was staying overnight in Zurich on my way back to New York. I told her that my research interests included allosteric effects in proteins, computation of free energies, and signal transduction in living cells. I added that I would also be happy to pay extra to have a wavy-haired lady explain to me the essence of string theory while wearing a G-string.

She sneered, and opened the menu on the table. It was the beverage list. The top items were:
  • Veuve Clicquot de Relativité, CHF 200
Enjoy a bottle of Brut with a blondie or brunette and have a discussion on Einstein's space-time invariance.
  • Laurent-Pierre de la mécanique quantique, CHF 300
The Champagne is dry, but our ebony temptress will wet your experience with an exposition of Dirac's bra and ket.
  • Gloria Ferrer avec la biologie moléculaire, CHF 300
Toast to the discoveries in biology since Watson and Crick with an Asian butterfly.

The mistress told me that those were the most popular, unless I cared to hear about the special: a bottle of Bollinger special Cuvée and a well-endowed woman to discuss active research on the premises.

"All the girls here are working on some cutting-edge problems when they are not entertaining the guests. Most girls have Ph.Ds, but they can't find other fit employment. Some girls are studying toward their Ph.Ds in the nearby Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, a.k.a ETH, where Einstein also got his Ph.D. They are remarkably undaunted, knowing where they will most likely end up after getting their degrees." But the Cabaret provided steady employment, and an intellectually stimulating environment for the girls to do ground-breaking research. The mistress earnestly informed me that her cabaret was the largest employer of women in scientific research.

The price of the special was jaw-dropping. But it was worth the money, the mistress assured me. Stanley Prusiner learnt of the prion knock-out mice from a girl working in the cabaret in the early 90's; Andrew Fire got an inkling of RNA interference when he drank champagne with Lily, a girl who had since abandoned science altogether and was now working in the Malibu Bar , a cabaret on Langestrasse.

"Extraordinary girl, that Lily. She could please with her brain as well as with her booty." She sighed.

We chatted more. I was astonished to learn how many scientific milestones could be attributed to these Cabaret specials. Nearly everyone who ran up his tab on the special went home to publish major scientific breakthroughs, and reaped ample reward of a flourishing career and generous grants. All told, Cabaret of Einstein had indisputably shaped the landscape of today's scientific research.

"Of course, sometimes some girls grunt about not getting the credit of their research." The mistress went on, "But really, giving the results away to the man scientists in academic institutions was the only chance that these valuable discoveries could be made known to the community. Just imagine the editors' reaction when they get a submission from a Cabaret off Langestrasse." Then she looked at me expectantly,

"So, special for you?"

Looking around the packed room, I recognized a few figures. Some had been to the same conference with me; some I had seen pictures of in magazines or met in prior conferences. It was a mixed crowd of old and young. Whereas most of the young men ordered off the menu, one after another the older men requested the special.

I stood up, left money on the table, and put on my jacket. The mistress was incredulous: "Leaving already?" Nodding, I made for the door. I needed to get in that Malibu Bar before Lily got off work.