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Jocelyn Paine

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Drawn by TAB for TiBS

December 21, 2008

I  want to introduce you to the cartoonist pen-named TAB.

TAB has been drawing cartoons for over 30 years. What is unusual is that his cartoons all illustrate research papers, in the journal Trends in Biochemical Sciences. They are detailed, often containing enough information about the metabolic pathway — or whatever is being illustrated — to make any description of mechanism in words superfluous. Many are drawn as "naughty boy" tableaux that remind me of the Bash Street Kids from the Beano.

You can see four of TAB's cartoons in an interview between him and TiBS General Editor Richard Reece, TAB of TiBS. This was originally published in the December 2006 issue of The Biochemist. The final cartoon shown was rejected by TiBS for being "too political"; it reads:

It took the eukaryotes 3,000 million years to evolve from the refuse heap — and just a few months of Reaganomics to undo it all again!

Why, in a computing blog, do I write about biochemistry cartoons? Because I would love to see such cartoons accompanying computing research papers, program reference manuals, user guides. In his 1972 ACM Turing Lecture The Humble Programmer, Dijkstra remarked that computing is unique: our basic building block has a time grain of less than a microsecond, but our programs may run for hours. What other technology, he asks, spans such a range, a ratio of 1010 or more? When explaining such complication to our users, images are good. But please, not the tired old PowerPoint clip-metaphors that've been pasted in a million times before. Not the cogwheels and crowbar every documenter who has ever lived picks to symbolise adjustments to program settings. Make documentation fun!

There is more fun from TAB and other cartoonists in the book Sticky ends: an unrestricted collection of TIBS cartoons, edited by Steve Prentis, Elsevier, 1983. As far as I know, this is out of print, though Amazon US currently has one used copy. It would be good to see TiBS bring it back.

A famous Burl Ives song goes:

Mares eat oats
And does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy.
A kid'll eat ivy, too,
Wouldn't you.

I assume the words are poor agricultural advice, ivy being toxic. But they have always reminded me of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, sometimes expressed as the slogan: DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein. Which is almost the title of an Elsevier 1982 book of research papers that also contain TAB cartoons: DNA Makes RNA Makes Protein, edited by Tim Hunt, Steve Prentis, and John Tooze. Because RNA can be reverse-transcribed to DNA, the slogan and the title are better stated as: once information gets out of DNA into protein, it can't get back. But the restatement doesn't help me, because the words keep running through my mind to the Burl Ives tune:

Oh, DNA
makes RNA,
and RNA makes protein;
Prions make protein too,
Mad go ewe.
It would make a nice cartoon.

And perhaps TAB has drawn a Christmas cartoon. Elves will be transcribing DNA, with the aid of a prominently-riveted steam-shovel while wearing hard hats. One elf will have lost his hat and knocked himself out, bashing his head on the methyl group of an overhanging thymine. Santa sits smugly, or snugly,  in a soft recess of the cell membrane, couched in something spongy that resembles bubblewrap. He laughs: "H2O H2O H2O". He is dispensing presents to hopeful boys and girls. The boys and girls are genes; the presents are gene regulatory proteins, neatly wrapped in parcels that fit precisely to the gaps between their hands. Good boys receive repressor proteins that block gene activity. Bad boys don't. Their punishment for the year's naughtiness is to be expressed and made to toil on a treadmill for the following year, manufacturing the protein they code for. Behind them are sleigh riders. Instead of whipping their reindeer, they whip the boys to stop them slacking.

The sleigh riders are skilled drivers. You can tell because their sleighs carry no-el plates.

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