September 18th, 2004


Why I do it: Bioinformatics for Quixotics

I'm still mulling the narrow road between the cities of words and numbers, as it were.1 Around about 03:00 earlier this week, dragnflye and I were discussing Asimov's View From A Height, wherein he recaps the journey that took him from a career in biochemistry into writing.

dragnflye, siocled and I discussed neurologist Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten: Memories of A Chemical Boyhood2, wherein Sacks talks about his love of chemistry from its first beginnings: juvenile adventures in experimental chemistry, some astoundingly dangerous and lucky. Dijkstra might have scoffed a little at kids learning to program that way, but I'm not so sure that any of us didn't. Certainly we've all been covered in the soot of core dumps before (well, I have, at least).
His sociable father loved house calls and "was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society," while his shy mother "had an intense feeling for structure ... for her [medicine] was part of natural history and biology." For young Oliver, unhappy at the brutal boarding school he was sent to during the war, and afraid that he would become mentally ill like his older brother, chemistry was a refuge in an uncertain world.

I wonder if there's an affinity for chemistry that comes from that stability, that structure. dragnflye mused that she might have been drawn into chemistry for that reason. I recalled that my father is a physical chemist: first trained as a chemical engineer, later put to work as a process engineer after his Ph.D., but his love was always physical and analytical chemistry.

The upshot of all this, was that dragnflye asked me why I'm in "this" line of work - this being computer science with applications to the computational life sciences. Upon introspection, I find that to this day I'm still rather idealistic about high-impact science. For instance, I'm attracted to the mass impact of computational genomics on:

  • human medicine: pharmaceuticals and other therapies for

    • cancer

    • heart diseases

    • the rallying points of medical research fundraisers: cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy

    • mental illnesses

  • crop science: food production, e.g., efficency enhancement for major cereal staples

  • environmental and ecological science: sustainable agriculture, water use

Put most simply, it's kind of a "solve the world's problems" kind of topic. Diseases, hunger, depletion (being staved off, if not "cured"). Singularity notwithstanding, I think the natural conclusion to the population growth dilemma of Malthus does tend to be a catastrophe-punctuated series of shifts: diasporas, sea changes in the means of supporting greater populations, or both. (You were wondering where I was going with that diaspora meme?) The problem is, eventually we will run out of sea changes and diasporas. In Cities in Flight, James Blish had Collapse )

So, is it all worth while? Futile? Irrelevant? A secret plot to start the Eugenics Wars?
The lines are open, and operators are standing by.

On a related note: othercriteria, how did you get in this line of work?

1 Edit, 02:45 CDT Mon 27 Sep 2004: zaimoni and sui_degeneris inform me that these are Dictionopolis and Digitopolis of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1960).
2 Edit, 12:45 CDT Mon 27 Sep 2004: A friend and former colleague of my dad's who retired around the time he did has made a habit of sending him books at Christmas. This was one of them, Feynman's Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics another.

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