Poetry and Mathematics

I recently discovered that a poet, whose verses were forever floating around my childhood home, is responsible for a geometric solution of a cubic equation.  Digging a little deeper, I learned that Omar Khayyam is a celebrated polymath who made significant contributions to astronomy, math, poetry and philosophy.

Pretty cool.

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”

Excerpt from “The Rubaiyat” by Omar Khayyam.

Who is this guy?

Laura Pollitt is giving the department seminar today at Silwood. We were discussing some disease theory (as we do) and stumbled across a photo in Grenfell and Dobson’s Ecology of Infectious Diseases in Natural Populations.  Who is this guy?


Outdoor biting and daily Plasmodium infection dynamics

For an avian malaria parasite, bites from uninfected mosquitoes increased Plasmodium parasite numbers bird blood, demonstrated in this recent paper. Birds not bitten by mosquitoes didn’t have this increase. (This was during the chronic phase of infection).


What time of day is mosquito happy hour? And does malaria go to the same pub?

What time of day is mosquito happy hour? And does malaria go to the same pub?

I found this paragraph interesting (the hyperlinks to the embedded references should work): “..the periodicity of malaria may have evolved as a way to maximize the availability of mature gametocytes when mosquitoes feed [75]. Although this hypothesis remains controversial [76][77] our approach could help identify the conditions that may promote the evolution of cell cycle coordination in malaria as a response to daily fluctuations of vector availability.”

There’s some evidence that malaria may cycle with vector abundance seasonally, but what about daily?

Furthermore, if mosquitoes that bite humans are shifting biting patterns from indoor to outdoor, and late evening to early evening, perhaps because of increased indoor control (LLINs and IRS), will this change anything about how Plasmodium parasites cycle in humans?

What do you all think?

El Pollo Loco

“Ahh we look like big blue condoms!” I exclaimed as Chris helped fit us into our sterile blue synthetic onesies outside of the chicken houses in the crisp cold. There were murmurs of agreement. Hopefully the chickens wouldn’t mind the casual resemblance.

I had decided to forego my work for the day on the charismatic malaria parasite in exchange for inhalation of only the finest chicken dust in the state. There is a separate mad cult within our malaria dominant ranks that studies Marek’s disease in the chicken industry, with the aim of learning its basic epidemiology and evolutionary drivers. Despite hearing myths of said farms and feathery creatures, this was my first time coming face to face with the process and place that spills the data onto the lab benches and computers of my fellow lab-mates.


Chris sporting the much needed beard net.

The sight was staggering. We (myself and another CIDD member) were expertly guided by the young and bearded Chris Cairns into three houses holding numbers of chickens that made me question the accuracy of my sight. Still fairly young (only two weeks old), Chris described the masses as being in that “awkward teenage stage”. The chickens certainly looked slightly disconcerted, sporting small tufts of down that asymmetrically covered their bodies, having not yet formed full feathers yet.  Amazingly, their adolescence would be short-lived, with these birds only living about 35 days before being sent to the dinner table. We circled each house, collecting dust that would be tested later for Marek’s virus, chatting idly, bombarding Chris with questions.

Snow glare threatened immediate blindness as we emerged from each house and removed our protective clothing. I was left thinking on the ride back about how separated we are from the industries and processes that make our food, having once been so intimately connected to the plants and animals we consumed. I was also left thinking, when are we going to get viral vision? I want goggles that illuminate viral particles! It’s 2015, come on now.

Desert Island Books.

For domestic reasons, I have been recently reunited with my book collection. There is a fantastic BBC radio series (70+ years old now) where celebrities talk about the 8 songs/tracks/music pieces they would take to a Desert Island. Music is tough. But much to my surprise, re-studying my ‘library’, my list of eight books is easy. In no particular order:

Failure Is Not An Option. A testament to what humans can achieve freed from Health and Safety, HR and the corporate bullshit of ‘Your safety is our top priority’. Management everywhere need to read this. The best of the Apollo books, by far. As my colleague Marcel Salathe is fond of saying, quoting I think one of the Roosevelts: When safety comes first, America is lost. These guys had higher ambitions, and they walked in the heavens. Americans, read this: it is what you are capable of.

A Bright Shining Lie. I see I first read this a quarter century ago. It is still with me. Searing.

The Donkeys. The folly of man. Even more powerful since Sean and I, and later son Matthew and I, went to the battlefields, this book in hand. The ‘hills’ are slight rises. The mud is awful. The inanity of the carnage unimaginable.

Lindberg. An amazing man, described by an amazing biographer. A biographer who never discovered the extra families his subject raised.

Into the Silence. “They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.” A ballsy lesson for us all: exploration of the world, of ourselves, trumps everything.

The Idea Factory. The ambition of these guys. Let’s bounce a telephone signal from California to New York off an earth-orbit satellite the size of a basket ball… if only someone could figure a way to put a satellite in earth orbit (it was the 1940s). Before that – before that – they had the math of cell phones sorted. Humanity has lost so much ambition.

Steve Jobs. I suppose there are people on the planet who have not read this book. For me, it induced calm. It is ok to imagine that computers should be better, easier to use. I look forward to the day. Meantime, important lesson: one should suffer ass-holes, just in case they’re the one.

Lovelock. The dilemma of the Berlin moment. Better to achieve perfection, just once in a life after years of planning? Or to aspire and never make it? Or to never be in the running?

Avoid Boring People

In ten days, I am in Atlanta at a poultry meeting. There might be 25,000 people there. Not at my talk. But there.

Much to my total pleasure, I have made happen a dinner with Bruce Levin, his wife Adriana, and Ashley and I. Bruce and I are sparring over a number of issues in drug resistance evolution. But I wanted to have a foursome dinner because he is never dull. He tells me in e-correspondence that he cares more about being interesting than about being right. Sean Nee, the most stimulating theorist of my generation, used to say that as well. So too JMS.

Avoid Boring People… the title of one of Jim Watson’s books. Think about it. It washes both ways. And Watson’s subtitle?: Lessons from a Life in Science. Lessons from life I reckon.

I don’t know

Ygritte knows what’s up.

The first time I really learned about qualifying exams, I was an undergrad in a class on comparative endocrinology at Berkeley. My professor was Tyrone Hayes. Every exam was a booklet of open ended questions, including one question where the answer was always simply “I don’t know.” If you want to drive a room of overachieving pre-meds crazy, this is a pretty good way to do it.

One class, shortly after an exam, Professor Hayes announced that one of our TAs had passed his qualifying exam with flying colors. More important than what the grad student knew, Professor Hayes said, was his willingness to admit what he didn’t know.

This was a lesson that was reinforced when I became a grad student and it was my turn to take a qualifying exam. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Especially because most classes aren’t set up like my comparative endocrinology class, so it’s a lesson that is rarely reinforced until relatively late in our academic lives.

It’s a lesson that I was reminded of when I heard this story on NPR today, about a man who has made it his goal to be rejected each day. By doing so, he put himself through a form of exposure therapy for rejection. I’m sure that scientists across the country heard this story while drinking their morning cup of coffee, and thought about all their past and impending rejections. I know I did.

But it also struck me that fear of rejection comes from the same place as the aversion to saying “I don’t know”. And like my professor tried to teach his endocrinology class, we are indeed better scientists – and probably better off as people – when we make our peace with these uncomfortable feelings.

Eradicating the screwworm with 2,700 pounds of dry milk

If there was an insect-mass-rearing version of Godwin’s law, the screwworm* would be Adolf Hitler. The more anyone reads about insect farming, the more likely one ends up reading about the U.S.’s successful 1966 eradication of the screwworm via sterile releases. Using SIT (sterile insect technique) screwworms were not only eliminated from the continental U.S., but by 1984, all of North America, was screwworm-free. How did we do it? By mass rearing 150 million sterile screwworms a week in a screwworm factory in Mission, Texas. Before the program ended, there were over two billion sterile flies being released each year.

That is insane.

Lucky me got some free literature on screwworm eradication from a friendly Penn State librarian.

Lucky me got some free literature on screwworm eradication from a friendly Penn State librarian.

What is striking however, is that screwworms, are like mosquito malaria-vectors in that both require animal tissue or blood to complete their life cycle. For screwworms a successful replacement was developed over fifty years ago. For the mosquito, we still rely on donated human blood or live animals.

There are a lot of reasons why we might want to mass rear the mosquito like we mass reared the screwworm. For those of us who saw Mike Turrelli’s talk at the CIDD this past fall, it takes a lot of mosquitoes to spread an artificially reared mosquito with certain traits (or in his case infection status) into a natural population. Simple things cause problems, like roads. We need a lot more mosquitoes than we originally thought. We need millions.

How do we rear millions of mosquitoes?

How did we rear millions of screwworms? Edward Fred Knipling (“Knip”), a USDA entomologist, developed an “artificial” diet made from slaughterhouse waste (200,000 pounds of beef and pork lungs, 11,000 pounds of dried blood, 8,500 pounds of horse meat), and milk (2,700 pounds of non-fat dried milk). Those 150 million screwworms that were produced a week as a result, fit into a plant that measured 75,000 square feet. In field trials a population could be eradicated in as little as 6 months. Once released into the United States in 1957, the screwworm was eradicated in the Southeast by 1959, the Southwest by 1966 and all of Mexico by 1984.

If it was possible for the screwworm, it seems possible for the malaria vector. Maybe we can even do one better: save some milk, save some beef and come up with a truly “artificial” way to rear mosquitoes without mammalian hosts?

*The screwworm is a parasitic fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax) that feeds on live tissue of either livestock or human hosts. It’s cousin, Cochliomyia macellaria, is a friendlier version that feeds only on already dead tissues and is employed in maggot therapy for medicinal purposes and in forensic entomology to determine time since death.

As a p.s. to this post, my current obsession with insect mass-rearing has turned into a library exhibit I've set up in the display cases on the 4th floor of Paterno. I'll give you a free tour if anyone is interested.

As a p.s. to this post, my current obsession with insect mass-rearing has turned into a library exhibit I’ve set up in the display cases on the 4th floor of Paterno. I’ll give you a free tour if anyone is interested.