“Junk” not junk

My friend and Clarion West classmate David emailed me a link to this article. How amusing, that the story titled “Junk” that I sold only a couple of weeks ago, to Nature, had an eerily familiar proposition, at bottom. Do I get to claim I “got one right,” even if it’s published after the news broke? I wrote it last winter!

But then, as David commented about his own suspicions, it’s long been imagined by some — me included — that the majority of the genome being “junk” is questionable. As I wrote to David:

Of course, there were people suggesting this before, and I’ve long suspected that “junk” DNA wasn’t “junk.” It’s too 1950s to imagine that our genetic structure would be so simple as to have one single blueprint without redundancy built in. Of course, we couldn’t be [imaginatively] equipped to figure that out until we were depending on, well, at the very least an electrical grid that could break down. Robustness sixty years ago meant walking instead of driving your car when it breaks down. Now, we know about how to make systems that work even despite partial breakdowns, and whaddaya know, we start seeing it in biology now that the concept’s there.

Which makes me wonder what other technological problems will trigger new scientific insights say, 50 years from now. :)

On further thought, I think I’m wrong about the human notion of robust systems emerging whole cloth from the spurt in techno-dependency of the mid-20th century; I imagine that the design of massive oceangoing vessels, and of cable systems, and so on in the 19th century and before, and even in the design of weapons earlier than that, had elements of thinking about robustness. But in dealing with highly complex systems that need to be robust enough to continue to function through multiple minor malfunctions, it seems to me power grids, but most especially the Net, is what’s transformed our thinking. The old notion of the genome was very industrial-era; the new one is very data-store. We’re definitely still missing pieces, though. Maybe what we learn in studying DNA will affect computation, in the next spurt? Or maybe vice-versa.

This is why imagining near-future science and tech is so difficult… and so fun.

9 thoughts on ““Junk” not junk

  1. I don’t mind being scooped if it’s a good book. :) It’s added to my list.

    But which part of my post was I scooped in? From the reviews at Amazon, people seem to be claiming he says the opposite of what I posted above: that advances in understanding biology will help us improve our technology. (Which is probably also true: they mutually stimulate one another.)

    Does he address the idea of junk DNA? Certainly I’m not the first to dispute its nonfunctionality.

  2. I can’t remember if he addressed the problem of junk DNA because it’s been so long since I read the book. I had one of those eureka moments when I was reading your post that I’d read something like it before.

    For a non-fiction book it’s quite solid. Usually after ten years any work of non-fiction is pulp, but I still spot references to Kelly every once in awhile in recently published works of non-fiction.

  3. Funny. I have tons of nonfiction I admire that’s older than ten years old. That’s when all the old misconceptions and misapprehensions start to get interesting enough to mine into new ideas and so on. :)

  4. I cut my teeth writing book reviews and haven’t really got out of the habit of keeping up with new releases rather than mining the back catalog. That said, I can only think of one relatively recent work of non-fiction reporting – Black Hawk Down – that can hold a candle to In Cold Blood or Hell’s Angels for sheer virtuoisity.

  5. Got the stats wrong – fiction has a shelf life of ten years and non-ficiton has a shelf life of five years, which makes Kelly’s book even more unusual.

  6. Yeah, exactly, there’s lots of older nonfiction that’s worthwhile in itself. And there’s lots more that’s interesting as a kind of reflection of a culture or a brilliant mind with hopeless misperceptions. Like Alvin Toffler — I find his underlying ideas about the future make tons of sense, but he wrote Future Shock long enough ago that his cultural referents were too mired in the contemporary era, and they look quaint, dated, or even silly. But the theory of the book is brilliant.

    Funny — fiction has a shelf life of 10 years? As a lit major, I think that’s one of the funniest things ever! Not the stuff worth reading. :) However, like someone or other commented — 95% of everything is junk.

    Well, except your DNA.

  7. Yeah, as a lit major I always thought that a novel was a persons ticket to immortality, but having worked at a library and worked as a book reviewer, that is unfortunately not the case…

  8. Well, by those standards the path to immortality is simply via immorality: do lots of evil shit in the name of politics or religion. Who’s more famous or read-about than Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot? We still remember who Bernardo Gui was, for heaven’s sake.

    But actually, I don’t want immortality. I write SF, and it’s a genre that, vital as it may be now, will likely look a little hokey in 100 years, or less. I don’t care… I’m cool with that, but I do want to impact minds now.

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