Several weeks ago while reading my latest New York Review of Books I felt as though my head was about to explode. My mind was on fire trying to understand the concepts and ideas described in two different articles: one reviewing a book about cracking the genetic code and the other reviewing books about black holes and Einstein’s theories. The first dealt with micro concepts, the second with macro. And I struggled mightily with both.
H. Allen Orr’s review of “Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code” by Matthew Cobb, dealt with DNA and RNA coding, amino acids and the secrets of the genome, heredity, and indeed life itself, all obviously very hard to wrap my head around. The exciting story of Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule opened the door for much additional fascinating research in molecular mechanics – the nature and composition of DNA, the proteins and amino acids attached in specific patterns to its “double helix” structure, the genes and how all this is packed into our cells and into the egg and sperm launching us into life resembling our parents. Importantly, these discoveries have also provided researchers with the keys to find cures for heretofore incurable genetic diseases. Also DNA research has played an increasingly important role in forensic science, resulting in conviction of the guilty and exoneration of the innocent. But regrettably, this research has also opened the door to “Frankenfoods”, the genetically engineered crops that fatten our livestock, anchor the processed food industry and enrich Monsanto.
Moreover these discoveries are fascinating because somehow they relate to the very nature of life itself – amazingly, all living organisms are made up of the same structures. After the “cracking” of the genetic code, the fundamental discovery was made that the code is nearly universal across all living organisms – “bacteria, fungi, plants and people”. So in our molecular composition, we are more similar to fruit flies and trees than not. All these infinitesimal structures – the proteins, the DNA, the genes, are virtually invisible, but they’re there….in all of us. They make sure we develop as fully formed human beings and not fungi or fruit flies. They signal the right cells to develop properly into bones. muscle, skin, digestive tract, nerve cells, blood and the arteries and veins for its transport. And finally, for better or for worse, they make sure we get the eye color, the hair, the particular nose, the intelligence, the talent, the physical ability, and indeed the emotional qualities and disposition of our parents, all determined by the genes in their DNA.
On this chilly day, while sitting outside for a few moments in the sun enjoying its warmth, I briefly glanced up at this dazzling bright star and wondered about its energy, so bountiful that it’s beyond understanding. I mean, the sun was warming me, warming the deck, the lawn, and all the trees and mountains around me. It was warming the state of Vermont, my home state of Arizona, the whole North American continent and in fact the whole planet. Yet in addition to warming the earth, it warms all the other planets that it illuminates in the solar system. But what about all the sun’s warmth, all the sun’s energy that does not strike our earth or another planet, and which is dissipated in billions of miles of cold empty space? What percentage of the sun’s light and heat goes off into this nothingness and is wasted – maybe 99.99 percent? What an incredible thought – that this bright blazing orb has been burning for millions of years and will burn for millions of more years, and will continue to warm this tiny little bit of the cosmos called earth, and bring it life. Yes, the warmth and light of the sun is the source of all life on earth – its energy transformed into the nourishment that sustains everything.
Other macro thoughts that stagger my mind relate to our solar system, our galaxy and other galaxies. First, it’s terribly hard to understand merely the size of our solar system. But it’s mind-blowing to consider that there must be hundreds (thousands?) more such systems in just our humble galaxy, the Milky Way. And there are millions more suns out there just like ours. And as my mind is stumbling toward some primitive understanding of our solar system and our galaxy, it heats up, flames out and stops working completely when it tries to understand that there are millions (or is it billions?) of other galaxies similar to the Milky Way in the universe.
And the recent news of Juno, our probe to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, absolutely astonishes me. This cluster of instruments and machinery, assembled and packaged painstakingly here on earth, just traveled 1.7 billion miles to settle into an orbit around Jupiter. It traveled at the incredible rate of 130,000 miles per hour but even at that speed had to travel for five years to cover that distance. And yet this object traveling this far to get a good look at the largest planet in our solar system is really so insignificant since Jupiter, Earth, our entire solar system, and our galaxy are all just a tiny remote and insignificant configuration in the immensity of our galaxy and the universe.
Then just several days ago, a New York Times article described a new array of radio telescopes presently being assembled as a unit in South Africa. And though just in its structural infancy, the first several units in the array reported that in a tiny area of the sky where 70 galaxies had previously been revealed, more than 1300 galaxies were now detected, some “erupting in cataclysms as massive black holes in their hearts spew radioactive high-energy particles across the dark sea of space”. Come now, over a thousand Milky Ways observed in a tiny area of the sky? Absolutely mind-boggling.
Priamvada Natarajan’s article in the New York Review of Books that provoked these “macro” thoughts reviewed two fascinating books concerning Einstein’s concepts and theories about space, time and matter; gravity, black holes and relativity, pretty heavy intellectual lifting for me. For example, how can the speed of light be a constant, coming toward me at the same speed whether I am moving toward the source or away from it? And if the speed of light is constant, then time must become relative, speeding up or slowing down. Can time do this? How?
One of the books reviewed by Natarajan relates the fascinating account of the search for the mythical planet Vulcan. Applying principles of Newtonian physics to the wobble in the the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune, so naturally a “tiny hitch” in the orbit of Mercury led astronomers to believe that there was another planet between Mercury and the sun. Not ever finding this planet led to another explanation years later – this by Einstein, that Mercury’s orbital jiggle was caused by a “perturbation resulting from the pocket in space-time created by the sun”, it being an object massive enough to warp space-time.
Other “pockets”, dents or punctures in the space-time fabric posited and described by Einstein are created by black holes, a conception that again, is very difficult to absorb contextually. Black holes are “singularities” formed from collapsed stars possessing a gravity so great that light cannot escape from them and thus are invisible, perceived only because they bend light rays passing by them. As an example, to have the immense gravity of a black hole, “the earth would have to be packed into an object the size of a penny”!
Just as astonishing is the recent news that we have finally detected gravitational waves, which, according to the general theory of relativity, are caused by the collision of black holes. Yes, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced the first detection of these gravitational waves at very complex arrays of instruments constructed in Louisiana and Washington. Scientists determined that two black holes, 36 and 29 times the mass of our sun, collided and coalesced into a single black hole 62 time the mass of the sun (how the heck can they know this?).
All these macro concepts discussed in the article surprise, astonish, confound, and ultimately confuse me because I have so little of the prior knowledge context into which to place this information. But thank God there are minds like Einstein’s and those of many other physicists and astronomers today, that are able to grasp and assemble the speed of light, the fabric of space-time, black holes, light years, galaxies, quasars, gravitational waves and the like into cohesive and understandable constructs in their own minds and faithfully and persistently continue to try to impart them to us.
Back to the micro – considering my insignificant aging body and the marvels it contains, it is amazing to consider that the genes I received from my parents and have passed on to my son make us somewhat immortal. Those little pieces of me will go on and on through his children and their children – a little fragment of my intellect, my eyes, my hair color and composition, my stature, my strength, and, God help them all, my personality and disposition – through those little sub-microscopic things called genes.
Another “micro” thought – while science has been able to provide answers to so many questions dealing with life, health and disease, it has never really been able to answer fundamental questions that deal with reproduction and aging. How do all living organisms reproduce themselves? How does an otherwise dead and dormant seed suddenly come to life when encountering warmth, light and moisture? How does a life begin at that magical moment when conception occurs? And this magic of reproduction occurs in all living organisms from the mite, to the fruit fly to the whale. And as mysterious and incomprehensible as all this is, what about the “binary fission” reproduction of bacteria and the six step process of virus replication?
And while so much around me goes through an annual and seasonal cycle of life – the trees, flowers, grass, and the insects, while animals and I are on a longer and more linear cycle of birth, life and death, we really don’t know what causes aging. Indeed, efforts to counter aging, to confound the natural cycle of life, seem to be exercises in hubris and appear insulting in a way – who are we to dare understand aging and death, much less to challenge and try to change the natural order of things?
While I do not know if there’s a heaven, or if there is, whether I’m going there or not, I have to remind myself that I slept for an eternity before I was born and could simply sleep for another eternity when I die. Our human minds are such that a total obliteration of life when we die is incomprehensible – hence the invention and maintenance of religion, whose primary purpose is to somehow explain death and the purpose of our very finite lives.
In contemplative moments, when thinking about life and death, I sometimes think that when I die I will find myself in a kind of place where all knowledge will somehow be revealed to me. I will suddenly understand everything – all the why’s and wherefore’s relating to the above. I will be able to finally comprehend the content and the dimensions of the universe. Someone will successfully explain gravity to me. I will finally understand how and why every object, all the “stuff” in the universe – the Earth right here under my feet and all of the innumerable other entities near and far – are composed of the very same basic elements that are listed right there on my humble little “Periodic Table”. I will finally understand procreation, birth, life and death. I will finally make sense of stars, galaxies, black holes, infinity and eternity.
All these ruminations, these humble and meager little thoughts and questions that my limited mind conceives, deserve responses, don’t they? It’s not fair that I was blessed with the ability to ponder the questions but cursed with the limited intellect and finite life that prevent me from finding the answers. Yes, all these micro and macro concepts boggle my mind so I guess I should stop complaining, continue to marvel and just be thankful that at my advancing age I still have a mind capable of being boggled.