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Post no. 92

June 3, 2012

I’ve nearly finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s been fun so far except when he tries scaling up subatomic particles to the size of peas to give us a sense of perspective. A millimetre here or there means miles either way at the scales he’s trying to explain, but still. He’s an arts man, not a scientist, so we can overlook his tenuous grasp of the esoteric exponential notation.

On the plus side, being an arts man allows him to come up with something like:

Proteins can’t exist without DNA and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume, then, that they arose spontaneously with the purpose of supporting each other? If so: wow.

This is from Chapter 19, The Rise of Life.

Obviously one does not need to rope in God at this point. We should come to terms our inability to fathom the depths of time and what can happen over such long periods. We know what a long time is but we don’t know what it means. It’s like a child knows that his mother and father are married, but he doesn’t know what it means.

DNA and the rest, for a biologist, are a given. There is nothing more fundamental in life. A bacterium’s DNA can be “read and understood” by a human cell practically all the time. It is the language of life. When I used to do biology, we were so blinded by the awesomeness of the arrangement that we hardly ever paused to question why it was like that.

Not that anybody knows the answer to that yet.  I don’t think anybody ever will (I’m not looking for the usual DNA-is-so-important-that-its-structure-had-to-be-preserved-across-all-kingdoms answer)

I have two points to make.

1. Science is a fantastic activity. It is the result of a universe that has become aware of itself, in a way. Ok, as far as we know it’s just an otherwise insignificant form of life on an otherwise insignificant planet in a run of the mill galaxy.

When you think about it you really can’t understand why the universe should follow a logic that is intelligible to us negligible inhabitants.

2. A non-scientist asking why a thing is this way and not that will (nearly) always create confusion. We can add little to Bryson’s “wow”. Perhaps this is another way of saying that no single human activity has all the answers. Trite, I know. But often overlooked.

That’s that, then.


From → The Elephant

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