CAP Congress 2012

I was at the Canadian Association of Physicists Congress for 2012 at University of Calgary last week, partly volunteering and just running amok listening to talks from different fields. It’s a good change that once in a while you get to listen to something that is completely outside your field, like thermophotonic imaging or string theory (which completely go right above my head).

The talk I found particularly awe-inspiring is the plenary session by Dr. Robert Austin from Princeton who does cancer research among other things. You might be tempted to think that physicists has nothing to do with cancer research, or as Dr. Austin put it (not precisely his word), physicists are jean-wearing bad-hair technicians for biologists. What he does, I think, is putting numbers into perspectives. His main point is that statistically we never beat cancer, ever. Cancer will always comes back no matter how much chemotherapy. His argument is that cancer cells, like any other living organism, evolves. It’s the basic function every living cells knows how to do and so they cannot be a cure for cancer. He demonstrated that with an experiment on a small chip comprised of grids. One side is the food the other side is the antibiotic hundreds of time stronger than the bacteria can withstand. The grids created a gradient of fitness with the middle being where the bacteria was dropped into. He showed that within 5 generations, the bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics and started to thrive in places where it normally wouldn’t have.

Moreover, he showed that given the exact gradient of fitness, the exact same resistance emerges down to the same gene!

I found this marvelous in so many level. First, it is a demonstration that while mutation is random, the result of evolution is not. Given the same environment, the exact same genetics and phenotype will be selected. Second, the rate of this evolution is so rapid it contradicts the believes that evolution takes a long time. More likely, it is because the danger is more pressing in this environment therefore the selection comes fast and very specific.

Thirdly, it demonstrates his point very clearly: if cancer cells are anything like these organisms, it will evolve to survive and nothing will stop it, not the antibiotics enough to kill a man. There will be no cure for cancer. How true that claim is, I do not know. I can only say that is argument has a valid point and it would be a waste of time to deny the possibility. Instead, we should try to find both experimental evidence and theoretical description to either proof or disproof it. Dr. Austin mentioned that even if it is true and there is no cure for cancer, it might be possible to prolong the development of the disease and allowing the patient to live with a good quality of life for thirty years or so. I think that solution is a good one. If you’ve ever read the Andromeda Strain, you’ll know that there is no such thing as destroying a micro-orgasm, you can only learn to live with them.

Another talk that fascinates me is about antihydroden. Oh yes, we do have antimatter to play with now at CERN (nothing to do with LHC, by the way. The project is called ALPHA. Totally different things.) It’s like a sci-fi geek’s dream come true. Of course, like always, there isn’t a flashy application for it, yet. But for every science nerd out there, these are cool stuffs anyway.

Two other things I did was volunteering for the conference being the tech person  and giving a talk. Not about the MOT, unfortunately, that I don’t have anything new to show for it. So I presented my co-pet project that was actually conceived years back but we didn’t write anything up on it until recently. It’s about using a lens as an optical filter cavity and what kind of performance we get from it.  Here’s the gallery of slides I did for the talk for my own keeping and just in case someone is interested.

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About vekin

I'm mostly a scientist, but occasionally a writer and an artist, and most definitely a dreamer.

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