Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Secret Messages in

There were a lot of blog postings about the evolution articles in yesterday's NYT (for example, JE's, Coturnix's and Larry's), but I don't recall anyone mentioning Dennis Overbye's article. I realize that making fun of bad science journalism is getting to be a rather repetitive joke, but this one is just weird. The article is combining two different topics. The first is about a Japanese group that encoded "E=mc^2" in DNA and introduced it into E. coli. That's a cute but in the end rather useless trick, rather like using DNA to solve cases of the traveling salesman problem (which people have also done). Apparently, the Japanese group seriously thinks that DNA in living organisms could be a practical data storage method, and claims that the problem of mutation could be solved be using multiple copies (which would only slow down the decay, not halt it).

It gets more disturbing in the second half -- apparently actually taking seriously the idea that messages could be hidden already (by aliens?) in our DNA. I mean, everyone is amused by finding phage proteins that actually contain the word "PHAGE" using single letter amino acid abbreviations, but that's different from actually assigning meaning to the coincidence. The numerous falsified "solutions" to the Voynich manuscript, the supposed Bible Code (and the facetious Moby Dick code), and the endless reinterpretations of Nostradamus suggests that people can find secret messages even when none exist. What's the point of encouraging such nonsense by even seriously considering it in a major newspaper? I expect a crank volume on messages in our genome any day now -- in fact, were I less scrupulous, I'd write it myself under a pseudonym -- I'm sure it would sell.


john varga said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but in Carl Sagan's "Contact" (the book not the movie) didn't he address this as well?

Of course, he was writing science fiction as opposed to, uh, science fact (?).

Jonathan Badger said...

I can't member exactly (I read Contact probably twenty years ago and I think my copy is still at my parents' place in Wisconsin), but, yes, lots of SF involve secret messages by aliens, whether in DNA or even in the physical constants of the universe.