31 Dec 2009


I can hardly believe that I really wrote on this blog throughout the year. This is something I have never tried before.

It would be a lie to say that my writing is not influenced by Szeto. In fact, one of the major reasons for me to start writing is because Szeto’s Blog is so much fun. On the other hand, although I started my blog shortly after his article 'Anniversary', that particular piece made me hesitate. He explained that after reading hundreds of blogs of all kinds, he thought he could write better things. [http://ccszeto.blogspot.com/2008/12/anniversary.html]

I do not have the privilege to write such a statement. As Brahms said, who would dare write another symphony after Beethoven? The fortunate thing was he did, and it was not bad at all. One cannot do anything if he has to compare with others all the time.

Friends reading this blog would realize that I am not as knowledgeable as others may think. My repertoire is actually very narrow. This creates problems in my social life. In Hong Kong, one cannot join a conversation if you know nothing about stocks and the local media. When you talk, you are out of context.

A couple of months ago, I tried to tell a joke on brown fat when I was having lunch with my colleagues. As you may imagine, the response was a concerted "Huh?". After a while, DS finally asked what brown fat was. I briefly explained its role in newborns, and the conversation went dead. It was not fair. The identification of brown fat in adults was one of the big news in medical science this year!

With this background, I kept writing. Deep down I also agree that it is quite silly to tell jokes about brown fat, but it is comforting to think that there must be somebody out there who shares the interest.

Happy New Year, my friends.

24 Dec 2009


One hot topic in global warming is its effect on the sea level. Skeptics have questioned the validity of the predictions and the underlying mechanisms. For example, my friend refuted the enormous contribution from melting ice using Aristotle’s principle (See http://ccszeto.blogspot.com/2008/05/melt.html).

At present, the prevailing view still supports the notion that temperature change affects the sea level. Firstly, there are large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Since these ice sheets are on land, Aristotle’s principle does not apply and any melted ice adds water to the sea, a phenomenon known as eustatic change.

Secondly, materials expand in volume when heated up in most situations. The same holds true for water. Although we are just talking about changes in several degrees Celsius at most, the effect can be considerable since the net volume of the sea is so huge. This is known as thermosteric change.

In last week’s issue of Nature, Robert Kopp and colleagues estimated the sea level 125,000 years ago. That was the last interglacial stage when polar temperature was 3-5 degrees Celsius warmer than today.[Kopp RE et al. Nature 2009;462:863-7] Compared to previous reports, this work used integrated analysis of the most comprehensive data sets from different geographical locations and stringent mathematical modeling. Surprisingly, their conclusion was also one of the most alarming. According to their model, there is 95% probability that the global sea level at that time was at least 6.6 m higher than today. There is also 67% chance that the level was at least 8.0 m higher. In addition, the rate of sea level rise was very likely to be greater than 5.6 m per 1000 years.

In layman terms, if global temperature increases at the present rate, it is unlikely that the sea level can have a major impact during our life time but it is very likely that many predictions by scientists can come true in 1000 years. If the suggestions are sensible, we should support the measures to combat global warming. On the other hand, we must never forget that humans have many other silly methods to destroy the world before the passage of 1000 years.

17 Dec 2009


One of the hottest news now is the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Although the countries still dispute much with each other in terms of financial input and policy enforcement, let’s wish that Hopenhagen does deliver hope. Having lived under the gray sky of Beijing for six months, I support campaigns to reduce pollution.

On the other hand, as I read more about the topic, I must say that we really know little about each environmental factor and its effects. For example, increasing nitrogen deposition and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has occurred over the last few decades. Each factor alone is known to reduce biodiversity through promoting the growth of above ground plants. As a result, above ground resources such as light become less available to plants below, resulting in a decrease in species. Biodiversity is important for community stability and resistance to diseases and invasive species.

With this background, the logical prediction is that when both nitrogen and carbon dioxide increase, there should be an additive or synergistic effect, resulting in further reduction in biodiversity. However, in a recent report by Peter Reich, the effect of both factors on biodiversity appears to cancel out each other.[Reich P. Science 2009;326:1399-402] In a 10-year project, 16 plant species were grown under different combinations of carbon dioxide and nitrogen levels. Although elevated carbon dioxide and nitrogen reduced biodiversity by 2% and 16%, respectively, both factors in combination only reduced biodiversity by 8%. Though the cause of the observation is unclear, it is possible that nitrogen and carbon dioxide may affect plant growth and changes in resources in different layers and thus have differential effects.

This is just a simple example to remind me to be humble and not to draw quick conclusions. Readers of this blog, however, may laugh and point out that the article caught my eyes mostly because of the amazing study duration.

10 Dec 2009


My father sent me a story.

During a talk for executives, the speaker performed a simple demonstration. He took out a big glass cylinder and filled it up with big spheres right to the top. “Is it full?” he asked after putting in the last sphere.

The audience was silent at first, and then a man hesitantly said yes.

The speaker smiled. He took out a bag of marbles. Sure enough, the marbles filled the gaps between the big spheres easily. “Is it full?” he asked again.

This time, the audience gave a concerted “no”. The speaker took out a bag of sand and filled the remaining space.

“What do you learn?” he asked after the demonstration.

“No matter how busy we may seem,” one manager replied, “we can still fit things in our schedule if we try hard enough.”

“No,” the speaker shook his head, “if you fill your time with marbles and sand first, there is no way you can get the big spheres in.”

What are the big spheres in your life?

Luckily, I am surrounded by people with great success. I have no problem searching for answers.

Three years ago, Boss and I were attending a conference. On the plane, he was reading Halftime by Bob Buford. When I looked interested, he explained that this was a book about mid-life. At that point, a man’s career was usually quite established. It should be time to reflect. Instead of striking for further success, one should start doing things with lasting significance.

Naturally, I asked what was significant to him. You can probably imagine he would not want another New England paper or NIH grant.

“I want my daughters to see me as a good father,” he answered, “and I want to be remembered for building a great team.”

Would I be too greedy to pick these big spheres first?

3 Dec 2009

Sleeping Beauty

Although I could not remember the source, someone wrote that daughters believed in every word from their fathers before they reached ten years old. It does not seem to apply to my girl. One of her favorite questions is “Daddy, are you lying?”

I regard myself an honest person. It must be because I made up too many bedtime stories.

Angelina is lately thrilled with ballet. Apart from practicing, she also watches DVDs about ballet.

Last week, we watched Sleeping Beauty together. This is the longest ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It contains a prologue and three acts. My wife left before the fairies came to the party. In contrast, knowing the story very well from books and the Disney movie, Angelina and I continued to watch happily.

Later, it came to the scene where the Lilac Fairy persuaded the Prince to save Princess Aurora, who was put to sleep by a magical curse one hundred years ago. Only the true love’s kiss could wake her.

After around twenty minutes, the Lilac Fairy was still dancing around the Prince. “Why doesn’t he go inside the castle?” Angelina finally asked.

Like most fathers, I provide an answer for her every question.

“He is worried. Aurora fell into sleep on her sixteenth birthday. Now one hundred years have passed. The Prince does not want to marry a woman one hundred and sixteen years old.”

“Daddy, are you lying?”