The Breakfast Table

Personal Science

Dear Matt,

I’m sure you’re right that biologists will continue to figure out how more and more of the body unfolds origami-like from the genome. And this stuff with the homeobox genes–where a little genetic hacking gives rise to fruit flies with legs sprouting out of their heads–is truly amazing. But I guess what I long for are more great insights like the ones that emerged half a century ago–how a molecule’s function arises from its structure, how information is conveyed through molecular shape. These kinds of epiphanies don’t make headlines as readily as finding the gene for, say, biology envy. Ultimately the manner in which meaning expresses itself (and I promise I’m going to drop this refrain now) is so wonderfully mysterious: how a chemical code gives rise to a complex organism, how a neural code gives rise to a mind, how marks on a piece of paper make pictures and stories in our heads.

Speaking of mysteries, did you catch Nicholas Wade’s piece in this morning’s “Science Times”? It seems that the origin-of-life question–how the first living things wiggled out of a dead soup of chemicals–is as intractable as ever. But at least, Wade implies, our ignorance is getting richer and more interesting. The harder scientists look, the earlier they find primitive fossils, meaning that life had less and less time to get organized. Of course, this delights the creationists, who rush to argue that the hand of God must have intervened. But it’s not just religious folk. Here in New Mexico, some scientists at the Santa Fe Institute believe that something other than blind chance and chemistry had to be involved. They talk about mathematical laws of complexity–so far they haven’t settled on any–that would make it natural for life to arise. (I guess I’m more with Stephen Jay Gould on this: I like to think that our existence is a wonderful fluke, only as meaningful as we make it.)

I guess I do envy how easy it is to get news space for even the most minor story with a medical twist. The assumption seems to be that readers are more interested in their bodies than in abstract ideas like what the universe is made of. But cosmology and astronomy also get a fair amount of ink. I was glad to see the prominent play given to Ken Chang’s “Science Times” piece today on colliding stars. This research won’t cure a disease. It probably won’t even result in more destructive weapons. It just makes the universe a little more interesting.