Through the Looking Glass

By Alexander Peterson

After working in wet lab with phages, the oldest biological systems on the planet, I thought that dealing with the man-made, short-lived software for annotating phage genomes would be easy.  Boy, was I wrong.  It turns out that the unique combination of hardware, software, and settings on every one of our computers made them almost as complicated as biological systems, and liable to similarly diverse responses when exposed to external stimuli (aka, the phage software).  Some computers rejected the downloads outright, while others accepted only certain software, failed at random intervals, or refused to save.  Our group was faced with all these problems and nearly failed the first assignment; only one of our group of four successfully saved the first annotated gene products.

Experiencing these technical difficulties has helped me appreciate the complexity of the tools upon which the physical sciences rest: the software, the carefully-calibrated measuring devices, the meticulously-manufactured glassware.  The fact that it all works as well as it does–so well that we don’t think about it when it works and become terribly upset when it fails (because we are so accustomed to its functioning perfectly)–is amazing.

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