Night photos

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The city isn’t so bad at night, and the lights can be pretty.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

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Summer is a Sunshower

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Summer is a sunshower
The light catching on the rain
The pool speckled with ripples
Eyelids beginning to droop
As heavy as water

Summer is green tea
A half-glass of lemon and mint
Moist like the morning air
Fluid as time and thought

Summer is a tropical depression
With large galls and rumbling clouds
When the parents are too tired to fight
And the kids too tired to listen

Summer is a bird call
Long and low and lazy
Stuck between pleasant and tiresome
Echoing the subconscious
Listless
Unhinged

Summer is aloe
To rub on burnt skin, freckled welts,
And scars that will never heal
Only fade

Summer is discovery
A never-ending journey
Down dimly-lit streets at midnight
With mosquitoes as companions
And reality a bit altered

Summer is peppered chicken
Sizzling and savory
Eaten warm for dinner
And cold for breakfast
Mixed with fresh greens
And scrambled eggs
And repetition

Summer is freedom
Sickly-sweet and desired
Terrifying and unwanted
An enigma
A paradox
A contradiction

Summer is a sundae
Thick and gooey and whole
Whipped cream and chocolate sauce
Warm from the stove
Melting cold cream
Tasting like salted caramel

Sweet as an evening free from worry

Summer is a Sunday
Forever and always
The conclusion of one age
The prelude to another
Church mornings and busy evenings
Peanut butter and honey
Pop songs on the radio
Card games never finished
A breath of relief
Which becomes a perpetual sigh

Summer is over
And yet it never ends.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Should Genetic Engineering on Humans Progress?

In 2009, the Canadian-French sci-fi/horror film Splice was released in theaters, telling the story of two scientists playing God and the animal-human hybrid that comes of it. With a disturbing plot and gruesome ending, it gives a chilling warning for the dangers gene splicing present. Now while this movie and terms like “gene splicing” may call to mind an idea of a futuristic, alternative universe, genetic engineering actually plays an important role in the reality we live in. With biomedical advancements being made every day (or so it seems), humanity is approaching the next step in our evolution, which can be both exciting and terrifying.

There are regulations for this progress implemented all over the world. Researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan discovered in 2014 that 29 countries had an outright legal ban on gene editing, while other countries’ regulations were more ambiguous. Some countries, like China, India, and Japan, had bans but did not necessarily have legal enforcement behind them, while others, like the USA, had a moratorium on this research.

However, in this article written by the Associated Press, it was recently revealed that, for the first time in American history, US scientists edited the genes of human embryos. Officials at Oregon Health & Science University confirmed that the experiments took place there and were purely “an exercise in science” in which the embryos were never supposed to be implanted into a womb or allowed to develop.

And in this article from the Washington Post, also released in the past week, it was said that this experimentation might lead to the ability to “altering human heredity,” which in turn could lead to preventing inherited diseases.

Although this progress is certainly exciting, it raises safety concerns and ethical predicaments. It could mean improvements to our health and well-being, or it could cause the rise of “designer babies” and mad science. All in all, it poses the question—should genetic engineering be allowed to progress indefinitely?

There are many professionals who undoubtedly believe so—Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist and leading pioneer in this field, is one of them. With a Ph.D in biochemistry, she is a professor of chemistry, molecular, and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and in this TED Talk, she gives a detailed and informative explanation of CRISPR-Cas9, the technology she co-invented that edits genomes.

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and CRISPR-Cas9 could essentially help us cure genetic diseases. For instance, scientists in Philadelphia used CRISPR to extract the DNA of an integrated HIV virus from the affected human cells. And the research team led by the Oregon Health & Science University used CRISPR to repair the genetic mutations in the embryos.

Doudna obviously supports this progress, yet she still brings up how she and her colleagues “called for a global pause in any clinical application of the CRISPR technology in human embryos” to fully consider the ethical implications. After all, they do not want to create an abomination like the creature from Splice (and for good reason).

However, CRISPR is not the only gene editor in this field. In a web article by Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post (which has since been removed because of controversy), NgAgo, used by Dr. Han Chunyu and his team and Hebei University of Science and Technology, is said to rival CRISPR. It was initially considered a “scientific breakthrough” in gene-editing but was recently revealed that the findings were unable to be replicated, meaning Dr. Chunyu was forced to withdraw his paper from the scientific journal.

That being said, because of mistakes like the one mentioned above and the ethical dilemmas gene editing present, others firmly believe that it, particularly any involving human genes, should be moderated and even halted altogether. Dr. Paul Knoepfler, an American biomedical scientist and author, focuses on this idea in his presentation concerning the ethics of “designer babies,” or genetically modified human embryos with pre-determined, desirable traits.

(Note: this talk was delivered a month after Jennifer Doudna’s lecture, and thus could be considered an extension or even rebuttal of her ideas, but notwithstanding.)

Knoepfler uses detailed hypothetical situations to describe what children could be like in 2030 with genetic modification technology on the rise. His stance is that while he loves the progress being made, he believes “it opens the door to people going too far.” He explains some of the pros of genetically engineered children, like how they would be less susceptible to diseases which means lower healthcare costs for a society. He also brings in the opposing argument—the support of progress—often, like when he mentions the example of in vitro fertilization. This example demonstrates how human genetic modification has helped humanity in the past, which supports the view that this science should not be stifled.

Moreover, Michael Bess also addresses the dilemmas of designer babies and genetically engineered humans in his novel Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future, coming to the conclusion that moderation and restraint are more ideal. Bess is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and has received major fellowships from foundations like the National Human Genome Research Institute, which shows his dedication to the topic. He discusses the advancement of genetic engineering for humans and the implications they hold for the future, eventually describing benefits for new bio-enhanced capabilities which include longer lifespans, more human interactivity, improved emotional and mental control, and overall more complex forms of intelligence and insight. Such benefits could create a greater socioeconomic divide because of the technological expenses and unregulated population growth—as well as discord between modified and unmodified humans due to conflicts of human authenticity and genetic fads.

This not only provides a clear idea of what of this technology could mean for the future of human society, but also the implications it has for the rich and poor of all nations. Socioeconomic standing is always an important consideration when theorizing the effects scientific progress could have on society. It is one reason why Bess concludes that “restraint is the smarter path,” because rapid advancement could bring the destabilization of civilization as we know it.

Delivering a warning even more definite than Bess’s, five scholarly professionals discuss why no one should alter the human germ line (egg and sperm cells) in a scientific article published in the Nature News international weekly journal. They are thorough and professional in their argument, blatantly stating their opinions like “heritable human genetic modifications pose serious risks” and that it could have negative impact on work “involving the use of genome-editing techniques in somatic (non-reproductive) cells.” They give a clear warning when they state “the precise effects of genetic modification to an embryo may be impossible to know until after birth” and examples of how the gene-editing can presently be used, like how it can “offer a powerful approach to treat many human diseases, including HIV/AIDS, hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia and several forms of cancer.” Urging international discussion on the issue from the scientific community, they conclude that doing so could effectively discourage the alteration of the human germ line while also raising awareness about the dilemma.

Personally speaking, I have always been fascinated by genetic engineering. Though it once seemed like such an abstract concept—editing the DNA of living creatures, especially a human’s—I now see it is a realistic process that should be carefully considered. I realize that genetic engineering should not be allowed to progress indefinitely, at least not without some form of regulation, because it could mean the progression of eugenics and scientific extremism. As exciting as the idea of futuristic, engineered humans is to a science lover such as myself, I now better understand the detrimental effects it could have on society. Granted, genome engineering has been developing since the 1970s (according to Dr. Doudna), so this rapid development is not as rapid as we all think. Still, the conflict between unmodified and modified humans in the future could lead to even greater social divide, whether it be because of socioeconomic standing or appearance. However, I am filled with hope that CRISPR can help us cure genetic diseases and generally improve human well-being. All in all, I feel more educated on this topic and better prepared to react to its progress.

Citations:

Further Reading:

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Statistical Probability of Miracles

Summer is a time for discovery, and today I discovered that the statistical probability of a miracle is higher than you think.

In the 20th century, there was a Cambridge University mathematician named John Littlewood (1885-1977) who had the grand idea of calculating how likely it was to witness a miracle—a statistical anomaly occurring at random in any given time. He suggested that, if a “miracle” is defined as an unlikely event with a probability of 1 in 1,000,000, and if you are cognizant of the world around you 8 hours a day 7 days a week, and things occur around you at a rate of 1 per second, then you would observe about 30,000 things every day, which means roughly a million things a month. So on average, you should witness one miracle every month (or, to be more accurate, every 33.3 days).

He argues that events viewed as miraculous are actually commonplace if considered in the context of how much occurs in a person’s life. And of course, these calculations are based on the assumption that we’re awake and observing things around us for only 8 hours a day. On average, I feel like many of us are observant, at least partially, for more than 10 hours a day, which increases our probability of witnessing a miracle.

However, this law leaves a lot of room for interpretation and can be rather ambiguous. Mathematically, it depends on how one defines the likeliness of a miracle—one in one thousand? One million? A billion? And by changing these arbitrary factors, one changes the frequency.

But that’s beside the point.

Basically, if a miracle is just any type of improbable occurrence, then they actually happen more frequently than expected. Which is uplifting in a way, because it means that, statistically-speaking, you could witness a miraculous event every month.

I like math, and I like numbers (they can be oddly soothing). But I especially like it when math and numbers make the miraculous seem more predictable. Some might think that it takes the magic out of the magical, but I believe it makes the ordinary more extraordinary.

What do you all think? Is there truth to Littlewood’s Law? And how does it make you feel about miracles?

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Secret Life of Bees: A Review and Other Thoughts

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, is a realistic-fiction novel set in the 1960s American South, where temperatures were high and racial tensions were higher. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have granted equal rights for all, but the long-standing divide between blacks and whites remained stubbornly in place, which is thoroughly apparent throughout this tale. Narrated by its protagonist Lily Owens who recalls the time when she was fourteen years old, it is a first-person bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), with undertones of feminism, religion, and death’s tragic influence. Above all, it expresses the beauty and wonder of bees, which in some ways act as the glue (or in this case, the honey) that holds the story together.

Each chapter begins with a different quote about bees from various informative works, and these foreshadow the series of events set to take place in the upcoming section. A quote about the short lifespan of a bee (like “a bee’s life is but short”) implies the upcoming death of a character. A quote about a bee swarm abandoning its nest and searching for a new home (“Scout bees look for a suitable place to start the new colony”) surely relates to how the protagonist prepares to run away from home and set forth on a quest. It is one of the many clever devices the author uses to enhance her story. Kidd also utilizes good imagery, like “the sky had whited over with clouds, and shine spilled across the surfaces”, and figurative language, like the simile “water beaded across her shoulders, shining like drops of milk,” to add more detail and depth to her descriptions. It very much sets the tone and mood of a narration from an adolescent girl observing the southern, summertime world around her.

As a protagonist, Lily Owens leads a less-than-desirable life. She lives on a peach farm in Sylvan, South Carolina (which, as far as rustic southern towns go, is no better than the lot of them). Her family consists of her irritable father, T. Ray, and her African-American nanny Rosaleen. She has no other next of kin, because her mother died in 1954 when she was 4 years old, and this acts as the source of the novel’s main conflict. Lily is not a typical heroine, for she is neither beautiful, courageous, or overly kind; she considers herself physically unattractive and unpopular at school, with her safety-pinned clothes and unassertive personality. However, like any young teen, she still has her hopes and dreams. After discovering her love for English literature and being told by a teacher that she “could be a professor or a writer with actual books to [her] credit” if she tried, she decides she wants to become a writer and/or professor in the future. All of these details make her relatable, evoking empathy from the readers to help connect to her journey.

This journey begins on her 14th birthday, which takes place on Independence Day: July 4th. Her quest, which is a common motif in many coming-of-age stories—The Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example—commences when she joins Rosaleen on her trip to town to register to vote. Even though the Civil Rights Act may have legally granted Rosaleen this liberty, the southern whites of Sylvan prove to be, as ever, resistant to change, and this leads to her being beaten and jailed. Eventually, when Lily rebelliously helps her escape, they become fugitives: a skinny white adolescent and a robust black adult on the run from the law, which is truly reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The parallels between these two novels end, however, when Lily finally finds the home of the Boatwright sisters, a pink house “painted like Pepto-Bismol” where the mystery surrounding her mother is unraveled, where she discovers the power of the Black Madonna, and where she learns all there is to know about bees and bee-keeping.

“The Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia” is especially important. She is a dark-skinned Virgin Mary who appears on the label of August Boatwright’s honey products (the very label Lily had among her mother’s belongings, which is what helped her find the home). Also referred to as “Our Lady in Chains,” the Black Madonna is their role model, their eternal mother, and the object of their worship, because, as August says, “everybody needs a God who looks like them.” The majority of Lily’s spiritual encounters in this story are because of a connection to the Black Madonna, so she is undoubtedly a key figure deserving of special recognition.

Overall, religion and spirituality play a key role in this novel, in both obvious and subtle ways. The South is full of Baptist and Methodist influences, but Lily commonly brings up discussions of Catholicism, which is what the Boatwright sisters more readily practice. With close analysis, one might see how the many eating scenes the characters participate in could be considered acts of communion. In almost every chapter, there is a meal described in detail, and when the characters partake in the food together, they bond much like Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. This idea that sharing a meal is an act of communion is a common one in literary analysis practices, and it certainly rings true in this novel.

Furthermore, there is the motif of bodies of water, whether it be a pond, river, or creek, and this connects to the concept of baptism. Near the beginning of the story, Lily states that, when she is on her quest to find out the truth about her mother, she submerged herself in a creek and “slide down till the water sealed over [her] head” and then “held [her] breath and listened to the scratch of river against [her] ears, sinking as far as [she] could into that shimmering, dark world.” It is the ending scene of that chapter, and in the next chapter the readers see her begin to change and grow. It sounds like the process of baptism—submerging oneself underwater to symbolize a cleansing, to show that they are a new creation. Later on, when Lily is reflecting on the suicide of one of the characters in the river, she says “you could die in a river, but maybe you could get reborn in it, too,” which is further proof that the motif of baptism is prevalent. Religion and spirituality are common thematic concerns in this book because they reinforce the purpose of the story, which is to show how a savior can be found in unique ways among unique people.

But what about the bees? Is this not what the novel is about?

First, let me clearly state that I love bees. I love honey a lot too. This is one of the many reasons why I enjoyed this book so much, because it focused so intently on these things and made me more informed about them and the honey-collecting process.

Bees are very important to the world we live in, and not just because of the honey they produce. While honey is truly “the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses,” bees are crucial because they are responsible for the pollination of over two-thirds of the world’s agricultural crops. Unfortunately, bee populations are declining at an alarming rate due to habitat loss, diseases, and pesticides, and honey bees have officially been declared endangered. No pollinators mean no vital crops such as almonds, berries, and apples, which is disastrous on many levels. Consequently, I greatly appreciated how this book focused intently on bees and taught the reader how to love them. August even told Lily to “send the bees love” because “every little thing wants to be loved.”

I must also point out that I relate to bees, which is something I did not realize until after I read this. It is said that “[bees] are hardworking to the point of killing themselves,” and upon reading that line, my love for bees grew because I now find them relatable. They literally work themselves to death, going unnoticed and unappreciated, but continue to work because it is their nature, and that is how I (and I’m sure many of us) feel all the time.

Nevertheless, bees do serve an important role to this story. When August explains how “Aristaeus was the first keeper of bees . . . and after that people believed that bees had power over death,” we see that bees connect to death, which is actually a quite prevalent matter in the novel. The death of Lily’s mother looms over her constantly, just as the death of April Boatwright looms over her living sisters, especially her twin May. It is peculiar to think the fat, bumbly bee could be symbolic for the nearness of death, but this seems to be true when one examines the facts. Symbolic or not, they still add to the story’s tone and plot, thus making it interesting and sweet (pun intended).

All in all, this novel truly is a summertime story, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to read it in the summer. Every time I discovered a particular quote I liked, I would underline it in pencil, and I found myself doing this every few pages. Some were simple yet impactful, like “You can be bad at something, Lily, but if you love doing it, that will be enough” which is a philosophy I try to remind myself of daily. Another is “Enough was enough. You cannot fix the whole world,” which is still applicable in the modern day. Other quotes were more insightful yet just as meaningful, like “women made the best beekeepers, ‘cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting.”

But my favorite quote from this entire book was this: “I couldn’t understand how it had turned out this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us.” I want to share it with the entire world. The older I get, the more I see how, even in our progressed society, black women remain at the bottom of the social ladder because of persisting racist and misogynistic influences. And while black women are human, no doubt, and each individual has their flaws, they are not the lowly creatures that I feel media and society depicts them as. I hope it is something others can see as well, so that in time, the long-standing racism and misogyny will finally be overcome, and equality will finally be achieved. It is perhaps the greatest lesson this book has to offer, which is why I wish everyone should read this book, and maybe they will appreciate it as much as I do.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic