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I had a microbiology professor at university who liked to point out the role of serendipity in scientific discovery. The oft-cited example is Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. The story goes that he left his lab in disarray on a weekend: petri dishes covered with bacteria were strewn about the lab bench, the window left open. When he returned the following week, dishes that once had bacterial growth were bare. He discovered that a fungus had blown through the window, contaminating his petri dishes, and killing the bacteria on them. Eventually, penicillin was isolated from the fungus.

Man of Culture from FiftyTwo magazine tells a similar story. Here's The Browser's capsule summary:

Story of a scientist and a life-saving compound. Rapamycin was first found in a soil sample from Easter Island. Over many years, it was proved that its immunosuppressant qualities were indeed revolutionary for organ transplants and cancer treatment. Discoveries are made by teams, but without this one man "tireless proselytising" the drug, it may never have been developed.

The bacteria that secretes rapamycin was found in the soil of one of the world's most remote islands. It made its way to Montreal and Surendra Sehgal's lab, where the secretion was found to have antifungal properties. That's luck. The story might have ended there without Sehgal's tenacity.

Sehgal devoted his life to this substance. Later studies revealed its immunomodulating properties and potential for use in organ transplants and cancer patients. When Sehgal's employer was sold to a US company and his work on rapamycin ordered to be destroyed, he made one last batch and stored it in his freezer at home with the helpful label "DO NOT EAT". Years later when management changed over, he eagerly petitioned his new bosses to restart his work on rapamycin. The bacterial culture he recovered...

Reading notes: Exercised

Humans evolved to be physically active by necessity. We had to search for and chase our food for many millennia. Only very recently (evolutionarily speaking) has our food come to us.

Evolving in a calorie-scarce environment meant that conservation of energy is key. When given the opportunity, humans prefer to sit around and do nothing. In the modern world, sedentary behaviour coupled with nearly unlimited access to calories leads to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. We now find ourselves in a situation where voluntary physical activity, exercise, is necessary for good health. Exercised by Daniel Lieberman explores the evolutionary anthropological basis for our need to exercise despite our most basic instincts.

Exercised is meticulously crafted. I found its style similar to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book on human evolution and anthropology that I enjoyed many years ago now. Overall, I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in fitness, anthropology, or evolutionary biology. The ideal reader would be interested in all three (that includes me). What follows are a few of the main points that I took away from the book.

How to Live Forever

Notes from a snowy walk with my son.