Thanks, CWRU, for forcing me to get the paper bag out again

It’s rare that I have much in the way of reluctance to leap into writing about a topic. Any regular reader of this blog should know this to be true, given the topics I regularly take on and how often my writing draws flak my way from various proponents of quackery and pseudoscience, in particular the antivaccine crowd. Still, sometimes a topic gives me pause, although, I must admit, the reason is that blogging about it will bring embarrassment to me. Usually, I can overcome this reluctance, as I have done in discussing, for example, how my alma mater, the university from which I obtained both my undergraduate and graduate degree, has an actual program in magic (i.e., anthroposophic medicine). Then there was the example of how reiki had infiltrated my old stomping grounds at MetroHealth Medical Center, one of the hospitals at Case Western Reserve University where I rotated during my general surgery residency. Then, just last week, there was the most embarrassing fact that I had to acknowledge, namely that the cancer center at Case has gone woo, even going so far as to host the 2011 meeting of the Society of Integrative Oncology.

So what more could embarrass me? One more thing, it would appear, so much so that it’s time to get the paper bag out again; you know, the one I routinely used to get out when surgeons and other physicians spouted embarrassing things back in the day.

I had heard about this a couple of days before P.Z. Myers blogged about it, but had decided that I probably wasn’t the one to blog about it. Then, P.Z. had to go and rub my face in the embarrassment of it all by writing about a paper published by a faculty member at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine named Erik Andrulis. He was, I have to admit, depressingly spot-on in pointing out that a comparison to jabberwocky is inevitable. I, however, have another comparison that I think more apt, as you will soon see. First, though, I must admit that I found it very surprising that someone like Andrulis would publish a paper like this. If you look at his publication list, with one glaring exception, it looks pretty respectable. Basically, he studies enzymes that metabolize RNA called RNases:

My group has been asking two broad questions: How does the spatiotemporal control of RNase interactions and post-translational modifications relate to RNase recognition and metabolism of specific classes of RNAs in living cells? How does RNase activity relate to cell structure and function? To answer these questions, we are studying Dis3, Rrp6, and the ribonucleometabolic exosome. Dis3 is a processive, sequence-nonspecific 3′ to 5′ RNase that is homologous to eubacterial RNase R/II. Rrp6 is a distributive, sequence-nonspecific 3′ to 5′ RNase similar to eubacterial RNase D. The exosome is a multi-subunit complex or set of complexes that contain(s) putative RNases (Rrp41, Rrp42, Rrp43, Rrp45, Rrp46, Mtr3 are eukaryotic homologs of the eubacterial RNase PH) and the S1 RNA-binding domain proteins Rrp4, Rrp40, and Csl4. We have proposed and are testing the hypothesis that these subunits assemble into multiple independent, functionally interrelated complexes called exozymes.

All of which is perfectly respectable and important, as far as science goes.

However, then there was this:

Extending upon this RNA research, I recently compiled an incommensurable, trans-disciplinary, neologistical, axiomatic theory of life from quantum gravity to the living cell.

Uh-oh.

Yes, this is the paper that P.Z. had so much–shall we say?–fun with. It’s also the paper that the CWRU press office described thusly:

Erik Andrulis, PhD, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology, advanced his controversial framework in his manuscript “Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life,” published in the peer-reviewed journal, Life. His theory explains not only the evolutionary emergence of life on earth and in the universe but also the structure and function of existing cells and biospheres.

In addition to resolving long-standing paradoxes and puzzles in chemistry and biology, Dr. Andrulis’ theory unifies quantum and celestial mechanics. His unorthodox solution to this quintessential problem in physics differs from mainstream approaches, like string theory, as it is simple, non-mathematical, and experimentally and experientially verifiable. As such, the new portrait of quantum gravity is radical.

The basic idea of Dr. Andrulis’ framework is that all physical reality can be modeled by a single geometric entity with life-like characteristics: the gyre. The so-called “gyromodel” depicts objects–particles, atoms, chemicals, molecules, and cells–as quantized packets of energy and matter that cycle between excited and ground states around a singularity, the gyromodel’s center. A singularity is itself modeled as a gyre, wholly compatible with the thermodynamic and fractal nature of life. An example of this nested, self-similar organization is the Russian Matryoshka doll.

By fitting the gyromodel to facts accumulated over scientific history, Dr. Andrulis confirms the proposed existence of eight laws of nature. One of these, the natural law of unity, decrees that the living cell and any part of the visible universe are irreducible. This law formally establishes that there is one physical reality.

Yes, it’s a Theory of Everything. And it turned out to be so embarrassing that the CWRU press office retracted its press release.

But what about the paper itself? Well, let’s just say that I’ve rarely seen a paper that says so little but takes 105 pages and 800 references to say it. Indeed, my eyes started to glaze over about 20 pages into it. The article is entitled Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life and appeared in an open-access journal entitled Life. I’ll cite the abstract:

Life is an inordinately complex unsolved puzzle. Despite significant theoretical progress, experimental anomalies, paradoxes, and enigmas have revealed paradigmatic limitations. Thus, the advancement of scientific understanding requires new models that resolve fundamental problems. Here, I present a theoretical framework that economically fits evidence accumulated from examinations of life. This theory is based upon a straightforward and non-mathematical core model and proposes unique yet empirically consistent explanations for major phenomena including, but not limited to, quantum gravity, phase transitions of water, why living systems are predominantly CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), homochirality of sugars and amino acids, homeoviscous adaptation, triplet code, and DNA mutations. The theoretical framework unifies the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms, validates predicted laws of nature, and solves the puzzle of the origin and evolution of cellular life in the universe.

Back when I was in high school, I had a friend named Joe. Joe and I were science geeks. (I realize that this must come as a huge shock to readers of this blog, but I assure you that it’s true.) Back when we were in junior high school (7th and 8th grade, to be precise) we used to enjoy speculating about the nature of the universe and coming up with all sorts of what can only be described as wild-ass theories (conjectures, actually) about the nature of reality. In fact, I fondly remember one particularly off-the-wall bit of rambling we engaged in while on the way to our destination for a school field trip. Encompassing speculation about the nature of reality, made-up new particles, and all sorts of other flights of fancy, It was tons of fun. As silly as they were in retrospect, these speculations and “what ifs” were probably part of what inspired me to become a scientist. However, eventually I did grow up and realize that speculation in science is but a starting point, but you need evidence. Andrulis’ paper reminds me of my adolescent flights of fancy, were they to be written by someone who has a command of the language of science that Joe and I had not yet achieved to make them sound as though they were anything more than something we pulled out of our proverbial posteriors. Certainly, 105 pages after his abstract, Andrulis answers none of the big questions in the abstract.

In fact, what Andrulis does is to base his entire “theory of everything” on something he calls the “gyre” (hence the jabberwocky references by P.Z.):

Now, therefore, to know what life is and how life works, scientists need a scientifically accurate theory. The aim of a scientific theory is to construct a formal structure–in which the natural world is being modeled–to explain, predict, and control systems, events, and objects. Insofar as the physical, chemical, and biological sciences are true, physical reality and life itself thus reflexively model such a scientific theory; tautologically, the natural world subsumes said theory. Several investigators have detailed what would be required of a unifying bioscientific theory [1,10-24]. The correct theory would be expected to not only explain how the living cell works now, but also to provide insight into the evolution of life on Earth.

In the theory proposed herein, I use the heterodox yet simple gyre–a spiral, vortex, whorl, or similar circular pattern–as a core model for understanding life. Because many elements of the gyre model (gyromodel) are alien, I introduce neologisms and important terms in bold italics to identify them; a theoretical lexicon is presented in Table 1. The central idea of this theory is that all physical reality, stretching from the so-called inanimate into the animate realm and from micro- to meso- to macrocosmic scales, can be interpreted and modeled as manifestations of a single geometric entity, the gyre. This entity is attractive because it has life-like characteristics, undergoes morphogenesis, and is responsive to environmental conditions. The gyromodel depicts the spatiotemporal behavior and properties of elementary particles, celestial bodies, atoms, chemicals, molecules, and systems as quantized packets of information, energy, and/or matter that oscillate between excited and ground states around a singularity. The singularity, in turn, modulates these states by alternating attractive and repulsive forces. The singularity itself is modeled as a gyre, thus evincing a thermodynamic, fractal, and nested organization of the gyromodel. In fitting the scientific evidence from quantum gravity to cell division, this theory arrives at an understanding of life that questions traditional beliefs and definitions.

And the justification for the use of a “gyre”? Check it out:

Throughout history, scholars have used the gyre in their models. For example, in ancient Greece, Democritus posited vortex motion to be a law of nature. In the 16th century, Copernicus modeled planets gyrating around a stellar singularity and Descartes proposed his vortex theory for planetary motion in the 17th century. The 19th century found Helmholtz rediscovering the Democritean law and Lord Kelvin and Maxwell using the gyre as the basis of different electromagnetic theories. In the early 20th century, Bostick used the gyre in his spiraling helicon fiber model and Thomson proposed that atoms were vortex rings. Many others have promulgated the gyre as core model of nature.

Perhaps one reason for their theoretical appeal is that gyres are detectable throughout the cosmic and tellurian realms. Astronomically, galaxies, solar systems, comets, and lunar bodies gyrate. Atmospherically, tornadoes, hurricanes, eddies, and vortex streets are all gyres. Oceanographically, there are seven major gyres. Molecularly, numerous nucleic acid and protein structures–DNA double helix, RNA hairpins, pseudoknots, α-helices, coiled coils, and β-propellers–all gyrate. Cellularly and organismally, shells, horns, antennae, flagellae, and the cochlea all carry a spiral imprint. Given its theoretical pedigree, empirical ubiquity, and dynamic character, the gyre appears, a posteriori, to be a prime candidate for a core model of natural systems.

I’ll give Andrulis credit for imagination. But for science and making up a coherent “theory of everything”? Not so much. In fact, as P.Z. asks, what is it with the whole “donut” thing? What are we? A bunch of cops on break? OK, OK, I know that was a cheap shot, a “cops and donuts” joke. It was just too easy, and sometimes I have a hard time resisting something that easy. Mea culpa. Hopefully, any law enforcement officers who might be reading this blog will forgive me my succumbing to stereotypes and instead be amused at the similarities between what Andrulis writes and some other fun forms of pseudoscience.

For example, it’s hard not to make connections between Andrulis’ paper and a lot of crank pseudoscience. For instance, it wasn’t so long ago that I wrote about a crank named Jim Carter, who postulates that all matter is made up of donut-shaped particles that he dubs “circlons” that behave thusly:

i-8caec96a2e083704e6781809a2f71cec-Circlon.png

Then, in Andrulis’ paper, we have this image:

i-cddd908a6a35bd1cb1f203186304efa8-gyre-thumb-450x641-72248.jpg

Which, I must admit, reminds me a lot of the sort of woo that a certain apologist for homeopathy named Lionel Milgrom favors:

i-b88847ec4ca0656a66ff609279116c69-fig2.jpg

Or perhaps this other gem from Milgrom:

i-e659b069436936a046eb26bd82d9b343-Milgromwoo-thumb-400x532-72250.jpg

That’s right. Andrulis’ paper and the diagrams within it resemble physics cranks or the most wild diagrams used to defend homeopathy that I’ve ever seen.

What I still can’t figure out here is why. What inspired Andrulis to write such a monumental and ridiculous “theory of everything”? His science seems decent enough. He looks as though he’s on his way to a successful career as a researcher. Why roil the waters and jeopardize it? He doesn’t seem like a crank, as Jim Carter and Lionel Milgrom clearly are; that is, unless this paper is the first public indication of crank tendencies. Another question is how this paper ever got published in the first place. It makes no sense unless it’s an elaborate Sokal-style hoax. However, if that were the case, I’d expect that Andrulis would have ‘fessed up to it by now, and he hasn’t. In fact, he seems proud of the paper if his faculty web page is any indication. Right there it reads:

Extending upon this RNA research, I recently compiled an incommensurable, trans-disciplinary, neologistical, axiomatic theory of life from quantum gravity to the living cell.

I suppose you could call it that. Personally, what I could stand to read of it read like those more than 30 year old speculations I participated in with my friend. They were entertaining enough at the time, but in retrospect I suspect we were still a bit too enamored of Star Trek technobabble. Be that as it may, Andrulis’ paper reads like bad science fiction. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t throw The Force and Midi-Chlorians. In fact, while looking up a good link about Midi-Chlorians, I found this article by Chris Knight entitled Midi-Chlorians: Physiology, Physics, and the Force. The depressing thing is that this article makes a heck of a lot more sense than Andrulis’ article does. In fact, if the article is accurate, George Lucas, of all people, has a better grasp on a “theory of life” than Erik Andrulis does. At the very least, Chris Knight creates a more plausible “theory of everything” based on a fictional science fantasy universe than Andrulis does using allegedly scientific arguments.

And, yes, I know that the whole concept of midi-chlorians was a horrible idea. It’s just that Andrulis’ idea is even worse. He would have been better off writing fan fiction saying that it’s The Force that binds everything together. At least then we would have known it was fiction.