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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Authors and models

This is an essay that I resurrected from a defunct blog. It is about an organism with a very small brain — and a fruit-fly.

The news a few years back was briefly full of the man who said unwise things about an unnamed Thai royal and collected a savage gaol sentence for his efforts.

We were told repeatedly that this "author" only sold seven copies of his self-published book, his only production to date. To call such a person an "author" seems a bit of a stretch.

I happen to be a member of the Australian Society of Authors, and my publishers release, on average, a couple of books a year, but I avoid the word "author" like the plague. I prefer to call myself a writer.

What is it that makes people want to seek grander descriptions? I am sure that the failed US vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, would have described herself as an authority when she was in reality just the mayor of a large piece of frozen real estate. Of course, if she and her ilk keep on denying that things are hotting up, Alaska may soon be a tropical paradise.

This thought occurred to me a while back when I saw a Youtube piece in which this inherently shoddy piece of mental floss attacked the funding of  "fruit-fly research in Paris France". She said that it "really did not make a whole lot of sense", characterising it as a complete waste of money. The reaction of fruit-fly researchers everywhere was to say that it's harsh to be called a waste of money by a waste of space.

You can see her for yourself at, but there are quite a few versions out there on the Internet, because the glib stupidity of the throwaway line made the whole blogosphere quite incandescent. My choice just has the short version, 48 seconds of context plus the offending phrases.

Now we need to get one thing clear, here: the silly woman was actually attacking a particular project. It involves research into the control of the olive fruit-fly which is now a pest in California. It matters little where the research is done, the research has the potential to be immensely valuable in California, one of the States that she and her friend failed to carry.

Most of the blogs missed this distinction, and concentrated on the value of "fruit-fly research" per se. This is understandable, because to the lay reader, the efforts of researchers to study obscure organisms like the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the bacterium Escherichia coli, the white mouse, the white rat and a few other standard life forms makes little sense unless you understand that these are used as models. They are used because we understand them, because we know a lot about them, and because they have comparatively short life cycles.

We understand these organisms remarkably well, there is a giant literature on them, and these days, their entire genomes are known. Scientists can discover principles using these organisms as models, but it is remarkably easy to ridicule "fish that glow in the dark" or "the mouse with an ear growing on its back", especially if you ignore the true background. I think the bloggers ignored the true background to Palin's fatuous line, but it matters little, because I'm fairly sure she had no idea what it meant either.

Fruit-flies gave us the first evidence that mutations existed, the first clear proof that genes lay on the chromosomes, but even today, they give us evidence on the sorts of conditions that are caused by genes that go wrong. The humble fruit-fly is a source of wisdom, whether it is studied in Paris, France, or Paeis, Texas, or Buenos Aires, or Vladivostok or Wagga Wagga.

But Sarah Palin had no idea of that, in my opinion. I believe she just thought fruit-flies were irrelevant to humans, which is a reasonable point of view if you are a creationist, as she seems to be. Somebody else, some anonymous hack who wrote the lines for her autocue, was the author of her woes. She just delivered the lines.

Ah, that's it! I knew there was something bad about being called an author.

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