Monday, October 28, 2013

The human machine: non-standard components

The previous post in this series can be found here.

In a previous post I alluded to the origins of mitochondria, the tiny chemical power plants found within all our cells. These hard-working machines are responsible for aerobic respiration, which is the way in which the vast, vast majority of the energy you use is released from the chemical energy in the food you eat. The way in which they do this is very cool, involving currents of electrons and protons in a manner very similar to standard battery. If you're interested in this then I direct you to my earlier post on this topic here, but in this post I will be discussing a rather odd thing about mitochondria: they're not in fact human...

What do I mean by this? Well, obviously they are, kind of, human since they're inside all of us, they're born with us and die with us, they don't wander off on their own to live an independent life elsewhere. Nonetheless, mitochondria are different to the rest of the machinery in our cells - they have their own genomes, they regulate their own replication, they make proteins their own unique way - in fact they closely resemble lifeforms that we might consider to be evolutionary polar opposites of ourselves: bacteria. That sounds pretty odd, right, that there might be bacteria living inside our cells that somehow want to help us by churning out energy for us to use? Seems pretty implausible, but there is a mountain of evidence supporting it.

If it barks like a bacterium...

Firstly, mitochondria do, kind of, look like bacteria. They are about the right size to be bacteria (0.5-1 micron in length) and have internal structures similar to many bacteria. The main difference is that mitochondria possess two membranes and no cell wall, whereas most bacteria for one membrane and a robust cell wall. The inner membrane of mitochondria is also far more ruffled than most bacteria, creating a much larger surface area - this is highly important for reasons that I'll come to!

Spot the difference: mitochondria on top, bacteria on the bottom. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Being a foreigner in Finland (Intro)

The major goal of this blog has always been to try to make fundamental research accessible to interested non-specialists.

Another worthwhile thing to do, from the "Trenches of Discovery", is to describe what life is like in those trenches.

One of the most notable aspects of the postdoctoral research lifestyle is that you get to spend 2-3 years living in a series of places you might not otherwise have chosen to live. I've just finished three years living in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I can say with pretty firm confidence that, prior to landing that job, I had never seriously considered the prospect that I might one day live in Finland. I had also never been there.

I've moved now. This is sad and exciting. I'm now employed by the University of Sussex. I've spent the six weeks between living in Finland and living in Britain, back in New Zealand on a kind of small time-frame sabbatical type thing, visiting Auckland University. I wish I could live in three places at once.

While it is still fresh, I want to write here what life is like (for a foreigner) in Finland.

Nature, culture, day-length, work-day-length, an individual's mental state, whether some of Jesus' achievements can be considered to be miraculous or not, just about everything about life in Finland, is dictated by the seasons. So, I've decided to serialise this thing into four pieces, about life in each season, starting, in the next post, with winter. The rest of this post will be a more general introduction.

What is Finland?

The Finnish coat of arms. The Nordic countries' coats of arms kind of satisfy their stereotypes. Here, the Finnish lion, drunk, and drooling, in a field of summer flowers, has unfortunately stabbed itself in the eye with a rather randomly human fourth limb.

Finland is a pretty remote place (though some others are more remote) and it doesn't try hard to be noticed on the world stage. Unless you approach Finland, it probably won't approach you. Therefore, for many people, the extent of their knowledge about Finland is that it is that cold, dark, place between Russia and Sweden. This is more or less what my knowledge of Finland was in 2009.

Finland is indeed the cold, dark place between Russia and Sweden. This is actually quite a good description of Finland in a historical context as well (on a couple of levels). It is only very recently (1917) that Finland became an independent nation, it previously having been a part of either Russia or Sweden, depending on the year. The national identity is, thus, very new compared to most of the rest of Europe. The Finnish language is, also, not a part of the Indo-European language family and as such has no close relative in all of Europe, except Estonian (a very close relative) and Hungarian (only recognisably related if you're a linguist). It's like a small pocket of something else, kind of European, but a little bit different, sitting up in the corner there on the map. Of course, people are people wherever they are, so the individual people of Finland are themselves no different to individual people in France, Fiji or the Falkland Islands, but the collective culture can differ.

Finland is very far North. Helsinki, the capital, despite being on the south coast of Finland, is still further north than the tip of mainland Britain. For those elsewhere than Europe, Finland has a similar latitude to Alaska, which is further north than all other U.S. states and most of the places that Canadian people live. For people from the better hemisphere, no permanent settlements exist as far south as Finland is north. Some bits of Finland are as far north as some bits of Antactica are south. This means that the longest nights in Helsinki are long (about 21 hours or so) and the longest day is even longer (about two months or so). I'll try to let that sink in later. The summer is nice and warm, without (normally) getting uncomfortably hot. And the winter is cold, though no colder in its extremes than a city in the U.S midwest. It's hard to express how much this significant difference in season affects everything in Finland, but hopefully I can get a bit of it across in the next few posts.

Finland is quite big (bigger than Britain and New Zealand, for example), but relatively unpopulated (just 5 million people in the whole country). This means there is a lot of space. Finland is also the nation that has the greatest proportion of its surface covered by water. This means that a huge chunk of Finland is lake, with most of the rest being forest. This sounds a bit like pointless trivia, but this large quantity of open space, and preponderance of lake and forest does have a strong influence on culture and frame of mind. There are no mountains, although I wouldn't quite compare Finland to Denmark or The Netherlands; there definitely are hills.

Finally, despite being somewhat remote geographically, and not a particularly boisterous nation, modern Finland is far from remote from the rest of the world, culturally. I didn't learn to speak Finnish. I found by far that the most difficult part about trying to learn Finnish was not the language itself, but the fact that almost every single Finn speaks English fluently. I used to joke that the second most spoken language in Finland is Finnish. It didn't really go down that well.

What's to come...

In Finland, when someone is awarded a doctorate, they customarily buy a top-hat and a sword. That is a real sword. Hopefully  Finnish PhD graduates do a little better than that lion.

Experiencing Finland needs to be done (at least) twice for each season. You can appreciate moments more when you know what has lead to that moment and what that moment is leading to. I've found this particularly true for autumn, typically the most bittersweet of seasons anywhere. A Finnish autumn, in the moment, is delightful. There is a charge in the air, that, if you arrive for the first time in autumn, you notice right away. I didn't understand its origin the first time, but I came to associate it with an atmosphere left over from the vibrancy of a Finnish summer. And, the true poignancy of a Finnish autumn can only be experienced when you fully understood what the beginning of winter is like in Finland.

The darkness brought by the beginning of winter in Finland is oppressive. There is no point in hiding that. The second half of winter in Finland is wonderful, and easily one of my favourite things I've experienced, anywhere. But the beginning of winter can only be described as profoundly oppressive. This isn't necessarily an entirely bad thing. Witnessing anything extreme adds a sense of thrill and perspective. A Finnish winter definitely aids in quiet reflection. But it is only thrilling because it is extreme. Once the darkness breaks, however, winter turns into an almost literal wonderland, at least for a kiwi. You can walk on the sea. You can commute to work on skis (and some colleagues did). In one Finnish winter you see snow take thousands of forms and... apologies for geeking out... through these forms mimic many different kinds of rock, be they sedimentary, volcanic, granite, sand, or otherwise.

"Spring", in Finland, doesn't exist. Or, at least, it does, but what the rest of the world calls spring, happens for about fifteen minutes, at around 4pm, sometime late in May. Instead of spring, there is a long, ordinary length season, that would be more appropriately labelled "the thaw". This season is bleak and barren. Whatever got buried, under the snow, at the beginning of winter, be it leaves, grass, dog poo, bikes, cars, or even people, will emerge five months later, in April. The sterility of the cold and the snow passes, but what it leaves behind is the dead husk of the previous summer. None of any part of nature (plant, animal or human) will believe winter is over until it can be absolutely sure, so the city sits and it waits, continuing to wait long after the last snow has melted, and the tension builds.

Until summer arrives explosively. I'm only a little bit joking; you can see the grass grow in Finland in June if you sit and watch it. I've never been anywhere that feels more vibrant and full of life than Finland in the summer. August, in Helsinki, is my favourite thing in the world. I spent a significant chunk of each of my three Finnish Augusts wishing I'd had the chance to experience a Finnish August as a barefoot, lakeside, tree-climbing, berry-picking, lake-swimming, night-time book reading, eight year old. As it stands, I just got to be a sandal-wearing, seaside, tree-appreciating, berry-eating, sea-swimming, night-time book reading, 28 year old, which is still pretty good.

And then autumnn comes again. Nature, and the rest of Finland, prepares for rest, and the intensity of the summer gradually dissipates into winter.

[More in later posts...]

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