‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’

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Hemoglobin molecule

 

Look between your legs, look at your hands and feet – and you will see how forms can be functional. But were you to look through an electron microscope at the cells from which our limbs and organs and the blood that nourishes them are made – things become decidedly
less obvious. The forms our brain cells, liver cells, bone cells or muscle
cells have say little about their function.

 

 

Reading a number of articles this past week about the recent E. Coli outbreak here in Europe – some of them describing in detail how the bacteria operates within the human body – I was reminded of something fundamental and astonishing that perhaps not many people
are really aware of.

 

 

Brain cells communicate with each other, building pictures of what we see, defining what we hear, taste, touch and smell, what we remember, what we do, who we are, by sending chemicals called neurotransmitters across the synapses between neurons. The human being
itself is a conglomeration of billions of specialized cells, magnificently
organized and faithfully reproduced with each successful conception and birth.
How the double helix of DNA folded into the nucleus of each cell, something
incredibly tiny, can spawn an entire creature knowing when and how the early
cells should begin specializing so as to create vertebrae, nerves, eyes, hands,
intestines, arteries, lungs, sexual organs, skin and hair – is literally
impossible to grasp.

 

 

I would wager that most of you reading this do not spend much time thinking too carefully about how certain crucial processes actually occur in your own body, day in and day out. If and when you do consider them, how do you picture them – respiration, the
making of proteins from strands of RNA, how calcium ions enter cell membranes,
how cells can determine friends from foes, how serotonin crosses from one nerve
dendrite to another, how blood cells acquire oxygen and relinquish carbon
dioxide? Those of you who read a bit of science might call to mind some of
those illustrations common in text-books or New York Times science articles
employing colorful models that attempt to give a good, crisp, visual metaphor.
But though immensely helpful as visual aids for processes that are extremely
complicated, they are misleading as well. The naked truth of what goes on is
much messier and much more miraculous. Everything is happening simultaneously
and in three dimensions. The more one learns about the living bodies of
different species on a microscopic level the more amazed one is at their
resilience and reliability, the more astonished one is that more things do not
go wrong more often. All of the deliriously complicated and orderly sequences
that take place in order to make a human being (or any being for that matter),
all of the mind-boggling sequences of chemical interactions that take place at
any given moment within and between cells – all occurs because of the shapes
the molecules have. The shapes, essentially, are determined by DNA. Each
molecule has a three dimensional configuration that defines what it is and what
it does, where it can go and what it can capture.

 

 

If you are with me thus far and thinking, ‘Well, that’s interesting … I guess’ – it means I am not yet describing this phenomenon well enough.

 

 

For instance – I think many people appreciate that what blood does, among other things, is convey necessary nutrients to the cells that make up our various tissues and carry away their waste products. We tend to picture this process as a scarlet river or stream
coursing through arteries and veins and capillaries with chemicals dumped into
it, getting to and back from all of the target tissues along the way. It is a
perfectly adequate metaphor. But the underlying truth is that blood itself is
made up from cells, cells that are shaped specifically to hold iron and to
transport oxygen – iron and oxygen have their own shapes based on their
elementary composition. The fit, literally, is all-important. The fit
determines the efficacy of the entire arrangement. What the bloodstream more
closely resembles then is a dynamic flow of elementary structures all fitting
together like micro-puzzles. The same can be said for water. The same can be
said for the entire Earth. Everything upon it, alive or dead, exists in a realm
of biophysical shapes that relate to each other for one purpose or
another.  The aforementioned neurotransmitters that define how we feel, who we are, what we remember, who and how we love and hate, do not just ‘jump’ across nerve synapses, like the cute
little globules depicted in many textbook illustrations. What actually takes
place, during every second of your life, is vastly more complicated and
connected – and all of it is based on the shapes of the molecules in play. If
you would like to get a flavor for just one essential activity that goes on
within most living cells, check out the following description of the
mitochondrion.

 

 

The more one thinks about these things, the more awestruck one becomes. If one thinks about it too much, one can end up paralyzed with awe. As Ahab declares in Moby-Dick, “The truth
shall drive thee mad.” One has to know how much reality one should bite off in
order to derive the most from one’s limited life span. Other creatures and
mammals do not have to deal with this issue at all. They act and react more or
less automatically; blissfully ignorant of why it all happens, what they are
made of, how it all works. Is there some advantage to the human being’s
capacity to realize and study these things? Does our self-consciousness and
intelligence offer some Darwinian advantage or might it simply be a by-product
of some other evolutionary chain of events? We are a curious species in this
way. We write poetry, we build hospitals and care for our sick and aged. But we
also kill each other with a very primitive and bestial ferocity. The old,
reptilian brain coexists with the mid-brain and forebrain and the mixture of
the three is who we are. I wander …

 

 

Shape is function.

 

 

The level of reality, very real indeed, I am calling attention to here, one I suspect that is rarely thought about and hardly, if ever, discussed in public forums, is what might be called the profound but penultimate level. The ultimate level would bring us into
the realm of quantum theory.

 

 

The molecules themselves are made from atoms and atoms in turn have their own structure, each one looking, graphically at least, like mini galaxies and solar systems. (Try and find a
copy of the 1968 video/book ‘Powers of Ten’.)

 

 

 

According to this theory, which probably describes our reality quite well, the building we live in and the ones across the way, our brains and bodies, our ocean and sky, our
computers and the volumes lined up on our bookshelves, all of the living and
the dead about us, when one comes down to it, are made from atoms, each with a
multi-particle nucleus and a haze of electrons about it – from which a case is
casually made that, regardless of how solid we and our surroundings appear, we
and all of it actually have many open spaces – we are essentially humming
atomic assemblies.

 

 

Sidebar: One result of this kind of thinking – what I would term reality based thinking, and well written descriptions of the phenomena I mention have been readily available to anyone interested for a long time, one does not have to be a scientist – is that the
inanity of virtually every organized religion jumps out at you. Wearing a veil
or not eating pork or believing a consecrated Eucharist to be the body and
blood of Jesus Christ quickly sift out as the colorful, repressive, neurotic
responses to the human condition they are.

 

 

When I was younger this used to be one of my favorite mantras, from the late Ernest Becker’s book ‘The Denial of Death’: «I think that taking life seriously means something such
as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived
truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic
underneath everything.  Otherwise it is false.  Whatever is achieved
must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without
deadening, with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and
of sorrow.»

 

 

These days I favor a less demanding, less protestant, easier and more hedonistic version: eat, drink and be merry.

 

 

That is certainly enough for now. Perhaps the best thing to do at this point would be to shut down one’s media device and take a walk in the countryside, take a nap within a gentle sand dune by the sea, go out for a great meal, fall in love. Onward.