book lover, professional writer & blogger
Don’t give up just because I said the word nano-biology. It’s actually an extremely interesting and accessible subject.
Here, I’ll prove it:
During a lecture I attended for my degree I found out about the secret world of tiny, ‘intelligent’ molecules. Collectively, they are called chaperonins (or sometimes, chaperones) and they are fascinating.
When I say intelligent I don’t mean anything like iRobot. Chaperonins aren’t molecules that talk or have human intelligence. It’s their nature, structure and resulting function that gives them an inherent – and inert – knowhow, like they’re built for the job they do, but in fact simply illustrate, by their very shape and usefulness, a remarkable tale of evolution – a set of minute adaptations on an unimaginably small scale over a very long time indeed that allow them to perform amazing functions. Chaperonins could lead us to assume (incorrectly but understandably) that a ‘grand designer’ was at work.
Hey, now don’t give up just because I’ve presented minor circumstantial evidence against creationism. My post is not intended to be an argument for either side. It’s just the world as I see it. Let’s continue . . .
So, I want you to imagine a container the shape of a hornet’s nest. Now, imagine slicing the ‘lid’ off carefully, to create a top-opening hornet’s nest. Imagine putting the ingredients for a cake inside the hornet’s nest, closing the lid again and, after a short while (if we were recreating a molecule rather than a cake, this would actually happen in nano-seconds), the cake is somehow fully formed. Forget mixing the ingredients. Forget heating it up in an oven. It’s a tiny cake. Finished, ready to eat – but, probably not that tasty.
Yes, it’s a simple (flawed!) analogy and requires a lot of creative leeway but, what we’ve actually described here is this: the hornet’s nest with the ‘lid’ cut off is a specialist ‘folding molecule’ – it’s our chaperonin. The ingredients we left inside the nest and then saw reappear as a whole cake are other pieces of badly-wounded molecules that have become ‘denatured’ (lost their shape and usefulness) – they are perhaps pieces of a broken enzyme or a faulty hormone. The hornet’s nest molecule carries out an essential job: it works to reconfigure and refold the broken pieces of the other, smaller proteins so they can function properly again. When the ‘cake’ is remade, the damaged protein is fixed back together again and can be let back out into our bodies to continue its own useful jobs.
To put it another way, the chaperonin is just one big nano-chef, rearranging the twisted, unravelled proteins we require for almost every process in our systems. But, chaperonins are even more important than chefs. They’re as essential to us as the food the chef uses to create a new dish. Without their cycles of repair, we simply wouldn’t be alive.
No question about it: many of the fascinating lectures I attended at University led me astray from classical science and took me along the path of creativity and fiction. Really, the two routes are not that different.
It’s not surprising to me how many fiction writers were scientists before they started relying more heavily on their imaginations – or who write fiction in parallel to their science careers.
Think Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice In Wonderland.
Born in 1832, Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and he grew up to be a mathematician but also a satirist (and, incidentally, the inventor of a fantastic word: “chortle”). Carroll’s fictional creations are still loved by millions today, of course. Everyone remembers him for his stories – that madcap, surrealistic energy, brilliant characters and wild imagination. He once said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
But, this apparent willingness to believe in the impossible didn’t reflect his deeply old-fashioned viewpoint when it came to mathematics.
There are many theories about why Carroll wrote Alice In Wonderland (published in 1865). One in particular certainly seems plausible: it was actually his way of tackling what he believed to be a new wave of fanciful mathematical ideas; a clever satire mocking abstract concepts he wasn’t comfortable with. As scientists around him were beginning to experiment with more ‘modern’ ways of looking at maths, Charles Dodgson wanted to illustrate (and, he did it literally when he drew the first ‘Alice’ illustrations) the fact that he preferred the subject as he knew it – reliable Victorian maths; maths that made sense and didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t.
It’s hard to believe that a man who could create the Cheshire Cat or personify a caterpillar on drugs could be so staid and reserved and, dare it be said, boring in his non-fictional beliefs but, he was a dedicated mathematician before he fell into the fictional rabbit hole. Most of his books were non-fiction, after all, and revolved around plain logic and Euclidian geometry. In a sense, he only wrote fiction to draw attention to his mathematical agenda. Only when the order of his scientific world was threatened did he decide to react. The Cheshire Cat, for example, was possibly there to show how stupid the new wave of ‘abstract’ mathematics seemed to him: how can a cat leave behind a grin? It’s just not possible.
What’s ironic is that he wrote Alice with such skill and fun it almost makes you want to forget mathematics exists and just believe in fantasy. Fact or fiction, mathematically sound or not, there is nothing more rewarding that being able to write whatever you want.
I like to think Lewis Carroll secretly enjoyed writing Alice just for the Hell of it, don’t you?