Packing Puzzle

by Ariana Boltax
Guest Contributor


This month, guest blogger Ari Boltax shares her thoughts about various kinds of packing and folding problems. Ari is a recent graduate of Brandeis University and is currently a student at Cornell Veterinary School.

After our winter break, my housemate brought home a packing puzzle. It consists of eighteen blocks in three different shapes. The challenge is to fit all eighteen pieces into a cube. Such a seemingly simple task like “make a cube out of this” kept me at the kitchen table at least an hour every day for five days piling blocks into the box, only to be sorely disappointed when I couldn’t make order from the disorder. One night I was trying the puzzle with a friend, and she joked that maybe if we randomly play around with it enough, we’ll just happen upon the solution. “Sounds like a plan,” I joked, “proteins do it all the time when they fold up, so why can’t we?” Continue reading

Fair Trades

by James Morris
Illustrations by Hannah King

Last week was the NBA trade deadline. Many teams had to decide between building for the future by acquiring young players and draft picks, or making a run for the playoffs this year by acquiring more experienced players in their prime. So what we see are trade-offs, which turn out to be all over the place, even in biology. Continue reading

Snow Daze

by James Morris
Illustrations by Hannah King

Watch Factory, Waltham, MA

Watch Factory after Winter Storm Juno, Waltham, MA, 1/27/15

What is snow?
We do not know.
But snow is lots of fun,
We know.
~P. D. Eastman

What is snow? That’s a simple question. Everyone knows what snow is. But when I asked my teenage son, he wasn’t sure. He of course knew it’s kind of like ice, but when I asked why it doesn’t look like frozen rain (sleet), he wasn’t sure. I then asked several other people, both kids and adults, and they were also unsure.

This is one of those everyday questions that is harder to answer than we think. Snow is something familiar and at the same time unfamiliar. Continue reading

Nature’s Medicine Cabinet

Last week, scientists reported the discovery of a new antibiotic in the journal Nature. The antibiotic was isolated from bacteria growing in the soil right here in New England. This got me thinking about all of the various medicines that come from nature, which you can read about in WBUR’s Commonhealth blog.

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A Prescription for Teaching

This month’s post is on the relationship between the practice of medicine and the practice of teaching. It was first published on WBUR’s Commonhealth blog.

I went to medical school, but now spend most of my time in the classroom. I often think about what I learned in medical school and how it translates – or doesn’t translate – to teaching.

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Stamp of History

by James Morris

November 24, 2014 marks the 155th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Anniversaries are an opportunity to look back – in this case, way back. The Origin changed the way we look at the world and gave us a new window on the past. This essay is a celebration of our remarkable history.

In golf, we are told to focus on the next shot, to just look ahead. Don’t worry about past mistakes: a shot in the bunker, a slice that spins the ball out of bounds, an errant drive that enters the water with a loud and emphatic splash. Perhaps this is why many see golf as a lesson for life: Don’t dwell on the past. Move on. No “what if’s” or “if only’s.”

GolfballIn biology, however, there is no such forgetting the past. Continue reading

Monster’s Ink

by James Morris

 With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to share some of the “scarier” sides of biology. This is not for the faint of heart, so only read on if you are prepared…

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 9.28.54 AMWe often go to the movies for a good scare. Sometimes we read horror stories. But you don’t have to look far to find all kinds of monsters lurking among us. And it turns out that they are not monsters at all. They are instead quite common and familiar.

Consider dinosaurs. You don’t need a scientist to take DNA from a mosquito entombed in amber whose last blood meal was from a dinosaur to create Jurassic Park. Instead, simply look out your window at a bird feeder. Continue reading


by James Morris

For George Buckley, who first introduced me to the word Syzygy.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear everyday. Apart from its usefulness in Scrabble and perhaps crossword puzzles, you might wonder what else it’s good for, or even what it means.

It turns out that “syzygy” is used in many different fields. In astronomy, it describes three planets lined up in a row. This occurs, for example, during solar and lunar eclipses, when the sun, Earth, and moon are all aligned. In biology, it describes pairing of chromosomes that occurs, for example, in a specialized type of cell division called meiosis that produces gametes (eggs and sperm).

The term also describes two closely paired joints in the arm of a crinoid, which is a marine organism more commonly known as a sea lily. Evidently, “Syzygy” is also the name of a Japanese band and an episode of The X-files, according to Wikipedia. And it has other meanings in fields as diverse as poetry and mathematics.

I’ve been a biologist for over 20 years, and I’ve never heard the term before. Continue reading