Friday, January 12, 2007
Algae Scientists Cage Match
Yesterday was my last day in San Francisco, and I spent it well. Hiked to the top of Buena Vista Park with some friends and got a little random mandolin serenade from a guy on a park bench. Then, for evening entertainment, I went to learn about algae at a very cool community media center on Valencia Street. Like a lot of biodiesel enthusiasts, I’ve heard about algae’s potential as a feedstock. If it lives up to its promise, algae could possibly do for biodiesel what seed crops can’t: lift it to a place where it could replace consumption of petroleum diesel. But that day is not today, and I’ve been jonesing to hear more about this from someone who has actually worked with the stuff. In other words, a real, live scienteest. Like manna from heaven, that scienteest was delivered in the form of Jonathan Meuser, a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.
I’ll write a lot more about everything we learned from John in a more formal capacity on the biotrekker site, but for now, I’d just like to give some fun general impressions. When I first learned about the whole algae thing, I had to chuckle. I imagined thin, pale men and women with glasses, all dressed in white. I pictured them slaving away in the poorly lit basements of universities and colleges, sallow-eyed and scorned by their parents and peers for their choice of career paths.
“What’s it going to be, son? Doctor … lawyer … engineer?”
“No dad, I’m going to be a scientist.”
“Why, that’s great, Eugene! Chemical weapons and pharmaceuticals are biiiig business these days.”
“No dad, actually, I’m going to study algae.”
There would probably be a lot of silence at that point. It must be a little like telling people that you’re majoring in Byzantine Poetry.
And there would probably be a lot of taunting.
“How’s the snot-studying going, Eugene?”
“It’s algae. It’s not snot.”
“Ooooh, snot snot? Huh Huh Huh. Did you hear that Dirk? Snot snot?”
That’s not to mention the nicknames: Algae Boy, Spirogyra Freak … you know how teenagers can be.
One day, you figure out that it’s possible to turn algae into one of the fastest growing alternative fuels, and if you can crack the code and get the Dirks of the world to pass legislation funding your projects, you will not only make more money than your lawyer father, you will literally save humanity from itself. Who’s the snot studier now?
At least, that was my fantasy, so you’ll forgive me if I was a little disappointed that Jon turned out to be a casually cool California native with a healthy complexion who could play the charming resident role on one of the many prime time hospital shows. He is skinny, though.
Still, there were two points that evening where my dreams came true. The first happened when Jon put up an energy efficiency graph, comparing the efficiency of petroleum fuel and ethanol. The point of the chart was to show that a lot of energy goes into the extraction, production and transport of petroleum, and regardless of how inefficient it is, the companies doing it will simply charge the consumer as much as they need in order to cover those costs. I think that was the point anyway. To be honest, I never figured the chart out. I’ve tried to be a chart guy, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m pretty sure I was the only person there who still counts on fingers. But one of the gents near the front was a chart guy.
He said, “That’s a bullshit argument.”
Jon thought he was talking about the argument for petroleum.
The guy near the front said, “No, I mean your argument, that’s not true.”
In the science world, that’s like getting pimp-slapped by a raving methadone freak. The room was tense, but after a thirty-minute discussion of the chart, with talks of MIT studies and Bayezian analyses, they came to some form of agreement. It was the equivalent of a bare-knuckle cage match. Jon said that he encouraged people to have a critical look at all the information being discussed. That was the pile driver that allowed us to move on.
In the second round of mind-blowing discussion, Jon put up a slide of several multi-colored blobs, photos of algae under a microscope. He asked if anyone knew what types of algae were being displayed. I again felt like a two-bit hack when several folks in the audience rattled off names that ended in coccum or something similar. During the algae discussion, something like a Jeopardy lightning round happened. Jon and another fellow had a back and forth about lateral gene transfer that Alek Trebek couldn’t have explained to me with an entire deck of cue cards. Just before I began pondering whether Flash Gordon could beat Superman in a foot race, I heard, “The way they think chloroplasts evolved is that it was a bacteria that was able to photosynthesize and some type of eukaryote engulfed it and kept it.”
For future articles, I will do my best to have John explain details like this to me on my own level of science comprehension, which is somewhere around fourth grade. Then, I’ll translate for any fourth graders who might be reading. But to sum things up, and prepare you for future articles, I’d just like to say this: I joke about it, but by the end of the night, there was the prevailing sense that everyone there was on the same team. I came away feeling that it was a room full of people who are changing the world in a positive way. And if we can get the Dirks in government to help them out, we’ll all be a lot better off.