Archive for the ‘Video’ Category

NobelPrize.org

October 16, 2007

It’s Nobel season, as you’ve certainly noticed. What you might be less aware of is that the Nobel Foundation maintains an interesting web-site at http://nobelprize.org/. Since 2001, all the Nobel lectures have been video-taped, and the videos are all available at the site. Each of the Nobel Laureates since 2001 has also been interviewed, and since 2004, the Nobel Laureates in physics, medicine, chemistry and economics have participated in round-table discussions, and there have been documentaries produced about each of the Laureates. So there’s quite a lot of material to view for all tastes and scientific interests.

The site is a little awkwardly organized, but you can find your way around. As one random starting point that might be of interest, here’s the page about the 2006 Prize in Medicine, to Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for the discovery of RNA interference.

While on the subject of the Nobel Prize, I can’t resist adding the priceless reaction of Doris Lessing, this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, to learning that she won the prize.

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iTunes U

October 11, 2007

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I bought one of the new iPod Nanos last week. One of the main reasons that I wanted one was to be able to listen to and watch the video lectures available at iTunes U while walking or traveling. There’s quite a bit of interesting material available for free download. For example, I’ve been watching lectures from the weekly colloquium of the Stanford Computer Systems Laboratory.

There are also MIT courses about graduate-level Digital Communications taught by Edison and Shannon medalist David Forney, or introductory Biology by Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg, or Mathematical Methods for Engineers (look under Mathematics) by Gilbert Strang, all in video. The podcast section of iTunes Store also has many videos of entertaining 20-minute talks from the TED conferences held over the last few years.

Of course there’s all sorts of other material available; I’m just pointing out some more academic videos.

It’s somewhat annoying how difficult it is to find specifically video material; there’s much more material available only as audio, but the video material is not really specifically singled out in any way. Also, you should know that you can also watch all the material directly on your computer, but if you want to do that, you should also visit this MIT OpenCourseWare page or this Berkeley webcast page. Both of these pages have a lot of additional video courses available in formats other than the MP4 format used by the iPod.

The iPod nano is very small and light. It’s my first iPod, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the earbuds are actually pretty comfortable. The screen is really sharp, but it’s also really tiny, so while it’s OK to look at occasionally to see what’s going on, but I wouldn’t want to watch a long movie on it. The iPod Touch will definitely be a better option for that.

Video Conferencing Using iChat

October 10, 2007

Scientific collaboration is really difficult when you cannot talk directly with the person you’re working with. This has long made collaboration with distant colleagues cumbersome, to say the least. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century, and video conferencing technology now exists that is simple to set up, and works extremely well.

For the last few months, I have been using Apple’s video iChat software, and I can recommend it highly. It seems to have two major applications: connecting family members, and enabling business video meetings.

I have been video-conferencing with my colleague Stark Draper since he went to the University of Wisconsin earlier this summer. Video conferencing reliably works much better than phone conversations, and nearly as well as face-to-face meetings. It might seem surprising that it should be that big an improvement over phone conversations, but in fact human beings are very visual creatures, and a lot of information is conveyed by expressions and gestures. When you talk to somebody via video conference, they really seem like they’re with you in the same room.

If both you and your colleague have a recent Apple notebook or iMac with iSight camera built in, setting up iChat will be very easy; it just takes a couple minutes in all. You’ll need to sign up for a free trial .Mac account, which lets you use iChat (if you already have some other instant messaging account, like a Jabber account, you can also use that). The free trial lasts for 60 days after which you need to pay $100 if you want the full benefits of a .Mac account, but even if you don’t pay anything, you will still be able to continue to use your account for iChat. Since I wasn’t very interested in the other benefits of .Mac, that’s precisely what I did.

iChat uses the H.264 codec, which gives a very nice sharp image, although occasional video compression artifacts are noticeable (they’re interesting if you’ve worked on video compression, like me). There is also a very slight delay, which is noticeable, but not too bad. Actually setting up the video connection is trivial; it’s just a matter of knowing your partner’s .Mac account.

Other software like Skype exists for those of you with Windows or Linux. I don’t have any experience with video-conferencing with these services. If you do have such experience, and especially if you can compare with iChat, I’d be interested in your comments. Perhaps the main advantage for the Macs is just the fact that the camera is already built in.

Here’s a video that shows Steve Jobs demoing the new version of iChat that will be released with Leopard, the new version of Mac OS X coming out this month. It will give you a good idea of what a video chat is like; you might think that the reality is not so nice, but that’s essentially the quality I get with my video-conferences with Stark.

The upgrades for Leopard actually seem pretty minor to me; it will be nice to be able to share .pdf documents or presentations, but you can already basically do that by emailing the files. And I’m not too excited about the ability to distort my image or use weird back-drops. Originally, there was supposed to be a useful new feature in iChat for Leopard which enabled you to share your desk-top with your video partner, but it’s not clear whether that feature has been moved to another part of Leopard, delayed, or dropped altogether. We’ll soon find out. UPDATE: It looks like the desktop-sharing feature exists after all, which is excellent news, especially for people wanting to help out their computer-challenged friends and relations. However both sides of the chat will need to have Leopard for this to work.

Enhanced Chess

October 8, 2007

For a long time, Chess was considered the “ultimate test of cerebral fitness,” as the 1980’s song “One Night in Bangkok” proclaimed. Its popularity probably peaked in 1972, during the Fischer-Spassky world championship match which seemed to capture the interest of the entire world. Lately, however, its popularity has seriously declined, because of a number of factors:

1. Humans are no longer the best Chess players in the world. It’s somewhat depressing to study and play a game when you know that a program you can buy for $50 can out-play you, or any other human.

2. Chess opening theory has become extraordinarily detailed, and onerous to study. Very often, grandmaster games begin with 20 or more known theoretical moves. Moreover, nowadays most new theoretical novelties are suggested and analyzed by computer programs used by top players before their games. If a player does not keep up with opening theory, he will be at a disadvantage, but many people find the prospect of studying openings in this way increasingly dehumanizing.

3. Most games between top-flight Chess grandmasters end in a draw, simply because Chess is almost certainly a draw with best play. To take one example, Kramnik won his match against Kasparov in 2000 with 2 wins, no losses, and 14 draws.

I want to propose here a Chess variant, that I developed with my son Adam, that addresses all these problems. We call this variant “Enhanced Chess.” In Enhanced Chess, there are no draws, there is no opening theory (or endgame theory) to study, there is no advantage for the first player, and humans should out-class computers for a long time to come. The game is extremely skill-intensive; the more imaginative and “cerebrally fit” competitor will definitely win the game.

The game combines a couple existing Chess variants. The first of these variants is “Bughouse Chess.” Ordinary Bughouse Chess is played by two teams of two players each. On each team, one player plays White and the other plays Black. When you capture one of your opponent’s pieces, you hand it to your partner, who can drop it on his own board rather than making an ordinary move. Pawns may not be dropped on the first or eighth rank, but otherwise there are no restrictions on drops; you can even checkmate with a dropped piece. When a pawn reaches the eighth rank, it is promoted normally, but if the promoted piece is captured, it turns into a pawn again. The game ends when one of the kings is checkmated.

In ordinary Bughouse you may communicate freely with your partner. It is normally played with fast time controls (e.g. 5 minutes for each player for the game) as a very amusing social game with lots of trash-talk. Here’s a video of a typical Bughouse game, where the only unusual thing is that one of the players (at the back left) is Levon Aronian, one of the strongest Chess grandmasters in the world, and a participant in the 2007 World Chess Championship:

In Enhanced Chess on the other hand, a single player will control both the boards on his side, so that the game is again a two-player game. Moreover, the moves are made in a strict turn-based order. First Player 1 makes a move with White, then Player 2 makes a Black move followed by a White move, and then the players continue to alternate, always making a Black move followed by a White move. Notice that because Player 1 only makes one move on his first turn, and then Player 2 makes two moves, there is no obvious advantage to going first or second.

Time controls can be as slow as you like; Enhanced Chess is meant as a serious game.

Turn-based Bughouse is a good game, but if it became standard, it would quickly suffer from the problem of excessive opening theory. But that problem can be remedied by using the idea, proposed and popularized by Bobby Fischer for ordinary Chess, of randomizing the initial position. In Enhanced Chess, the initial random position must be identical on the two boards, as in the following diagram of an initial position:

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Chess with randomized initial positions (sometimes called “Fischer Random Chess” or “Chess960” because of the 960 legal starting positions) is already a somewhat popular variant. Levon Aronian is the current “world champion” of this variant, having beaten Vishy Anand (the current world chess champion in ordinary Chess) in a short match in 2007.

One difficult point in Chess960 is how to handle castling. In Enhanced Chess, we propose to handle this problem by simply forbidding castling. Castling is usually of dubious utility in any Bughouse Chess variant in any case, and there’s no reason to carry all the complicated rules baggage. There would also be more than 960 legal starting positions, because while Chess960 tries to ensure that the kings start between the rooks, in Enhanced Chess that is not necessary. (We still required that the two bishops on each side start on opposite color squares).

It would in fact probably be sufficient if at the beginning of the game, the players alternated on deciding the positions of one piece at a time. For example, my first move would decide that the Kings go on b1 and b8. You then decide that one of the Knights should be placed on f1 and f8, and so on (one needs to forbid placements that place the bishops on the same color square or leave no option but for that to happen in the future). This version would remove any element of luck from the game, and I doubt that studying openings would pay with even this amount of “pre-processing.”

Making a pair of moves which repeats a position (on the combined boards) is forbidden in Enhanced Chess, and stalemate is a loss. These rules remove any theoretical possibility of a draw.

It is interesting to speculate on what the “correct” result would be in Enhanced Chess if God played against God. There is no obvious end to the game until positions start repeating. It’s clearly just idle speculation, but how many moves do you think would need to occur in the perfect game tree before one side won?

In practice, I don’t think that Enhanced Chess games would typically last any longer than ordinary Chess games, although a big difference is that players would definitely need to rely much more on intuition and much less on knowledge and calculation. One other big difference, which would definitely be a drawback for some players, is that reduced-material end-games would cease to exist. Enhanced Chess would be much like Shogi (Japanese Chess) on steroids, but maintaining all the familiar pieces (and removing the advantage of moving first).

Finally, I should address why I think computer programs will play Enhanced Chess poorly, at least in comparison to ordinary Chess. The main point is that programs basically use a search algorithm, that would be hobbled by the much larger number of possible moves in each position (remember that for each turn you get one move on each board, and all the drops mean many more possibilities as well, so for each turn there might be 10,000 possibilities for the computer to consider, instead of 30 or so). Evaluating a position will also much more difficult for a computer in Enhanced Chess compared to ordinary Chess, because material and mobility are less important. I would anticipate based on these points that Enhanced Chess programs would perform significantly worse than Shogi (Japanese chess) programs (where there are drops, but only one move per turn), and even in Shogi, computer programs still fall somewhat short of the top level.

In the 15th century, a series of major rules modifications were accepted into Chess (the modern Queen, Bishop, and Pawn moves, Castling, and en passant) that succeeded in reviving what had become a rather dull game. It seems to me that something similar will need to occur again before Chess can reverse its decline and regain its status as the King of Games.

 

World Chess Championship 2007

September 24, 2007

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The World Chess Championship is being held now in Mexico City. It began on September 12, and is scheduled to finish on September 30. Unlike some of the World Championships of the past, this one is a tournament between eight players rather than a match between two. The eight players are Vladimir Kramnik (the current world champion), Viswanathan Anand (the world’s highest rated player), Levon Aronian, Alexander Morozevich, Peter Leko, Boris Gelfand, Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk.

In the picture above Kramnik (to the right) is playing Anand (to the left), while Gelfand (between the players) and Grischuk (behind Anand) observe. All of these players play at a fantastically high level (the general level of human chess players has steadily improved with time), but sadly fewer people pay attention now that computers play even better.

The only one of these grandmasters that I’ve personally played against is Peter Svidler, in the 1995 New York Open. I was doing very well in that tournament, and had a chance to win a large prize, but then I played Svidler with the Black pieces, and he crushed me. The memory is actually not so bad, because it was very interesting to play him and to talk to him afterwards (he was 19, but it was already clear that he could potentially challenge for the world championship), and I nevertheless achieved a norm for my international master title in that tournament.

The World Championship tournament is a double-round robin, so it will last 14 rounds. After nine rounds, Anand leads with a record of 6-3, followed by Gelfand with 5-4, Leko, Grischuk, and Kramnik with 4.5-4.5, Aronian and Morozevich with 4-5, and Svidler with 3.5-5.5. Today Kramnik plays Anand with the White pieces; he’ll need to win to have much chance of catching him. But even if Kramnik does not win, he’s guaranteed a match against the world champion in 2008.

(UPDATE: Anand held Kramnik to a hard-fought draw in round 10, and then followed up with a win against Morozevich in round 11, so with three rounds to go, he holds a substantial 1.5 point lead over Gelfand, and looks likely to become the next World Champion.)

(UPDATE 2: Anand has won the world championship, with Kramnik and Gelfand tying for second place. The cross-table of the results is below):

WCh Mexico City MEX (MEX), 13-29 ix 2007               cat. XXI (2752)
----------------------------------------------------------------------
                                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8 
----------------------------------------------------------------------
1 Anand, Viswanathan     g IND 2792 ** == == == 1= =1 1= 1=  9.0  2848
2 Kramnik, Vladimir      g RUS 2769 == ** == =1 == 10 =1 ==  8.0  2799
3 Gelfand, Boris         g ISR 2733 == == ** == == 1= 11 =0  8.0  2804
4 Leko, Peter            g HUN 2751 == =0 == ** == =1 0= =1  7.0  2751
5 Svidler, Peter         g RUS 2735 0= == == == ** 0= == =1  6.5  2725
6 Morozevich, Alexander  g RUS 2758 =0 01 0= =0 1= ** == 01  6.0  2700
7 Aronian, Levon         g ARM 2750 0= =0 00 1= == == ** =1  6.0  2702
8 Grischuk, Alexander    g RUS 2726 0= == =1 =0 =0 10 =0 **  5.5  2675
----------------------------------------------------------------------

To learn more about the tournament, you might start with Macauley’s rather artistic coverage of the first game between Kramnik and Anand in round 3. More videos of this type head are at macauley.blip.tv. You might also head over to the excellent chess web-site The Week in Chess for news and annotated game scores, and the ChessVibes blog for many on-the-scene videos (often including instructive post-game interviews with the players) and the games in an easy-to-use Java player (I already pointed to some remarkable videos from earlier this year at ChessVibes in a previous post.) But perhaps the most interesting coverage of the World Championship tournament for intermediate or stronger chess players is by the Internet Chess Club, which has a team of strong grandmasters presenting annotated game videos.

Viral Video Geniuses

September 5, 2007

This is one of the funniest videos I’ve seen in the last year, by video director Nalts.

Another of my favorite video directors is Christine Gambito, known as “HappySlip.” She often does very funny one-woman skits based on imitating her relatives (including her father who is always shown from the nose down, eating junk food and saying “disaster”), but I’ll show a different type of video here, because it sets up the third one in this post:

So now you know enough to properly appreciate this one, where Nalts “sneaks into HappySlip’s Pad:”

Music in Computer Games and Windows on Macs

September 2, 2007

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For certain genres of computer games, such as grand strategy games, the music can make a huge difference in the experience. One of the reasons that Civilization IV has been such a great hit is its wonderful music, particularly composer Christopher Tin‘s beautiful menu track “Baba Yetu” and opening track “Coronation.”

This music has attracted considerable notice; the picture above, taken from Tin’s website, is of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Master Chorale performing “Baba Yetu” at the Kennedy Center. Tin makes “Baba Yetu” and “Coronation” (actually remixed versions slightly different from the computer game versions) available for download at his samples page, along with other samples of his work. (To download, just right-click and “save link” instead of left-clicking.) If you’re curious, the lyrics for “Baba Yetu” are actually a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili.

My son Adam really enjoys playing the historical grand strategy games produced by Paradox Entertainment (Europa Universalis II, Victoria, Crusader Kings, and right now especially Europa Universalis III.) These games also have excellent music, but there are some tracks that he prefers more than others, and the music sometimes gets too repetitive in Europa Universalis III because there’s not as many tracks as he’d like. Adam also told me would play Crusader Kings mostly for its excellent music, and he would read the “Civilopedia” in Civ IV because it would let him listen to “Baba Yetu.”

Well, to give him a little more control, we made a playlist in iTunes, and put in only the tracks he likes from the games we own, and now he’s completely set. He just turns off the game music and uses his iTunes playlist instead. Speaking of iTunes on Windows, this is a funny quote from Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs a couple months back:

And speaking of running Windows on an Intel iMac using Bootcamp, which is what we do to run Windows-only games, this is a very funny link, but it’s not really accurate. Honestly our iMac running Windows (we actually run Windows XP instead of Vista because it runs games better, and is more stable) is easily the fastest and most stable Windows machine I’ve ever seen, probably largely because it’s missing all the bloat that normally comes on a PC (and because I’m very careful about what gets installed on it.) Walt Mossberg from the Wall Street Journal also reports that an iMac running Vista is the best Vista machine he’s seen.

The Life of the Lab Biologist

September 1, 2007

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky to be able to attend, as a student, the 2006 Molecular Biology of Aging summer course at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory. This three week course was intensive; part the time was spent in lectures, where many of the world’s leading experts on aging explained their research in detail (and the students were able to ask lots of questions), and the rest was spent in the lab. There was also often time to attend some of the many other stimulating talks in molecular biology or neuroscience being held elsewhere at Woods Hole. Because the subject was so far from my normal research, I took vacation time to attend; I suppose it doesn’t seem like much of a vacation, but in fact Woods Hole is incredibly stimulating, and it was one of the most memorable and refreshing vacations I’ve ever had.

We performed real experiments in the lab, as the other students were all biology post-docs and grad students who were there to learn cutting edge techniques. I was also assigned to a group, led by Dr. Meng Wang, a post-doc in Gary Ruvkun’s lab, and we learned how to perform RNA interference (RNAi) screens on the nematode worm C. Elegans.

The RNAi technique lets you suppress the transcription of any single gene in the worm’s genome. An “RNAi screen” means that you divide the population of worms that into groups organized so that each group has a different gene suppressed, and you make sure that you have a group for each gene in the genome. For each group of worms, you check whether it has some phenotype that you’re interested in (in our case it was the ability to breed at a later age than usual). That way, you can quickly find genes that are involved in the phenotype.

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The picture above is from the lab at Woods Hole. From left to right are Michael Morissette, Andrew Midzak, Serkalem Tadesse, myself, and John Cumbers. The others have finished their work, but I was slower than everybody else, so I’m guessing that I was still counting worms or something.

Biologists work incredibly long hours at the lab, often doing work that is exciting in terms of its implications, but sometimes pretty dull and repetitive in the doing; biologists are dedicated people! On the other hand, lab life seems much more social compared to the life of a computer scientist or physicist. (Although there is much more social interaction in those fields than in fields like history, as I know by observing my historian wife. I always find it ironic that humanists, who tend to be outgoing people, usually find themselves working in a much more solitary way than scientists.)

One thing I learned was that lab biology is largely a matter of learning and using “protocols,” which are basically like scientific recipes. Take a look at this amusing video, which features the highly talented John Cumbers (who was one of my lab-mates) and produced by the Brown iGEM team:

Another protocol was for “picking” worms (moving them from one petri dish to another). An adult C. Elegans is only about 1 millimeter long, so picking them up is not easy. You do it under a microscope with a special thin wire (a “picker”). You sort of try to scoop them up, but the worms run away! It’s like a video game, except not nearly as fun, really. Here’s a video showing the technique in action.

You should notice by the way that the picked worm is glowing. That’s because the worm is a mutant: a gene for a fluorescent protein has been spliced into its genome attached to another gene (daf-12) of interest. That way you can know where daf-12 is expressed in its body. (This video was submitted by user a99xel to YouTube).

Richard Feynman

August 31, 2007

Richard Feynman has been one of my heroes, ever since the end of my freshman year at Harvard. After my last final exam, but before I headed home for the summer, I was able to sit in the beautiful Lowell House library, without any obligations, and just read chapters from his wonderful Lectures on Physics. After that there wasn’t much doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.

There’s a lot to say about Feynman, but I will restrict myself for now to a couple rather recent items which give a picture of the character of this remarkable man. First, there is this 1981 BBC Interview, recently released to the web, where you can see him briefly discuss a few of the things that were important to him.

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Secondly, if you haven’t read Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track, the collection of his letters edited by his daughter Michelle Feynman that was published in 2005, you owe it to yourself to do so. I was skeptical at first that a book of letters, even those of Feynman, could be very interesting, but I wound up reading every word.

Let me just give you one example of a pair of letters from 1964:

Dear Professor Feynman,

Dr Marvin Chester is presently under consideration for promotion to the Associate Professorship in our department. I would be very grateful for a letter from you evaluating his stature as a physicist. May I thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely,
D.S Saxon
Chairman
Dick: Sorry to bother you, but we really need this sort of thing.
David S.

Dr. D.S. Saxon, Chairman
Department of Physics
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California

Dear David:

This is in answer to your request for a letter evaluating Dr. Marvin Chester’s research contributions and his stature as a physicist.

What’s the matter with you fellows, he has been right there the past few years–can’t you “evaluate” him best yourself? I can’t do much better than the first time you asked me, a few years ago when he was working here, because I haven’t followed his research in detail. At that time, I was very much impressed with his originality, his ablity to carry a theoretical argument to its practical, experimental conclusions, and to design and perform the key experiments. Rarely have I met that combination in such good balance in a student. Was I wrong? How has he been making out?

Sincerely yours,
R.P. Feynman

The above letter stands out in the files of recommendations. After this time, any request for a recommendation by the facility where the scientist was working was refused.

Edit: In the comments below, Shimon Schocken recommends Feynman’s “QED.” I thought of this book after finishing this post. It’s an amazing work. In it, Feynman gives a popular account (you don’t need any physics background to follow it) of his theory of quantum electrodynamics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. But it’s a popular account that makes no compromises in its scientific accuracy. The other books recommended in the comments (“Six Easy Pieces” and “Surely You’re Joking”) are also definitely great books, but “QED” is somehow often overlooked, even though it is the book that Feynman himself recommended to those interested in his work.

Mitochondria

August 22, 2007

As I mentioned in my previous post about Lenny Guerente’s book “Ageless Quest,” aging research has, within the last 15 years, gone from being a scientific backwater to a mainstream field of scientific research, with new discoveries now regularly featured on the cover of Nature or Science (as in the Nature issue from June 2007 below.)

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Although we now are capable of manipulating the aging process, including significantly extending the lifespan of many laboratory animals, it is still a frustrating fact that there is no consensus about the ultimate cause or causes of aging.

One viewpoint, which is probably only held by a significant minority of scientists in the field, is that the aging process is strongly connected to mitochondria, which are the power plants or batteries of our cell, converting nutrients into useful packets of energy in the form of ATP. We’re used to the idea that electronic equipment fails when the batteries go dead, so it’s not such a stretch to take a close look at the mitochondria.

What’s more, mitochondria produce much of the “pollution” in the cell in the form of the free radicals that are a by-product of the oxidative phosphorylation process (the process that turns nutrients into energy). Those free-radicals can damage proteins or DNA, particularly the mitochondrial DNA (this is special DNA, inherited from the mother, that resides in the mitochondria rather than the nucleus) that codes for a few essential mitochondrial proteins.

So one theory says that there is a kind of vicious circle, whereby old mitochondria start emitting more free radicals, which further damages the mitochondria, until the mitochondria are so damaged that they don’t produce sufficient energy and start damaging the rest of the cell. Right now, the consensus view on whether the experimental facts really fit that theory is “Maybe.”

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If you want to learn more about mitochondria, I highly recommend “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life (you’ve just got to love that title), by Nick Lane. Lane’s book is popular science, but it’s a very deep book, and actually proposes theories, including theories of aging, that you won’t see elsewhere in the literature. It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s very worthwhile.

Alternatively, you might enjoy this video of Douglas Wallace lecturing on the role of mitochondria in diseases and aging. Wallace, a professor from UC Irvine, delivers highly entertaining and persuasive lectures.