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Saturday, February 11, 2012


C. P. Snow [1905-1980] was a British physicist and novelist [his best known work of fiction is The Masters, anatomizing an English Senior Common Room], who created a considerable stir in 1959 when he delivered a public lecture on "The Two Cultures," lamenting both the bifurcation of the English educational system into a scientific track and a Humanities track and the over-valuation of the Humanities track, with the consequent abysmal ignorance of anything scientific among those who had chosen to study "Greats," which is to say Latin and Greek and their progeny.  Here is a passage from Snow's lecture that gives the flavor of his critique:
"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'
"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had."
Snow's target was the British secondary and tertiary educational system, which divided boys and girls into one or another of two totally independent tracks when they were still at what we would call high school level.  Thereafter, no one in one of the tracks was called on, at any subsequent stage of the educational process, to become acquainted with any of the materials studied in the other track.  The American educational system is of course markedly different.  In high school, students are required to take courses distributed across the intellectual spectrum, and even at the tertiary level, almost all institutions have some form of "General Education" or "Distribution" requirement that compels students to encounter, however rudimentarily, ideas, texts, and facts outside of the areas of their concentration.
Now, as I have several times observed on this blog, only 30% or so of American adults twenty-five and older have completed a Bachelor's Degree or its equivalent, and only slightly more than 50% have had any post-secondary formal education at all [including those who have taken non-academic courses at Community Colleges.]  Since the technical subjects, referred to in educational jargon as STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics], are chosen by a minority of high school and college students, most citizens even in this country are almost completely ignorant of even the most dramatic and exciting developments in the forefronts of science.
At the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, the excitement in the STEM world was mostly in Physics, both theoretical and experimental.  As I have related in my biography, when in 1954, as a twenty year old traveling graduate student, I had tea with the then eighty-two year old Bertrand Russell, Russell remarked that if he had it to do all over again, he would have gone into Physics rather than Philosophy.  I never doubted, nor do I think did he, that had he made that choice, he would have won the Nobel Prize for Physics, rather than for Literature.
But just months before I sipped my tea with Russell, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin deciphered the structure of DNA, and the balance tilted decisively away from Physics toward Biology.  The second half of the twentieth century [and what we have so far had of the twenty-first] has belonged to the mind-bending discoveries of biochemical genetics, molecular biology, and their kin.  The depth, power, and specificity of our knowledge of what goes on at the atomic level in living organisms has advanced so rapidly that books written on the frontiers of those disciplines are out of date in half a decade.
My own knowledge of Biology, which at one point, in my early teens, was pretty up to date, came to an abrupt end when I was graduated from high school and departed for college.  Thereafter, I had nothing to fall back on but the High School Biology text co-authored by my father, which unfortunately got wrong the one factoid that stuck in my brain.  [The book said that the human cell has twenty-four pairs of chromosomes, but the correct figure is twenty-three.  Early staining techniques, which were rather crude, created the illusion under the microscope of a twenty-fourth pair, and it was only with more sophisticated techniques, which came on line after I stopped studying the subject, that the error was corrected.]
However, all has not been lost, for my big sister, Barbara, fulfilled my father's thwarted dreams by earning, at Harvard, the doctorate in Biology that he never succeeded in acquiring.  And although Barbara chose a career path that took her first into math education and then to the World Bank, she has, in retirement, returned to Biology, and now teaches a never-ending series of extremely sophisticated courses on molecular biology and evolutionary genetics in the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.  With great generosity and patience, she has shared with me some of what she has learned, and periodically recommends a book that summarizes some of the exciting and astonishing discoveries of contemporary Biology.
And so, at long last, I come to the real purpose of this post, which is to acquaint you with one of the books by the British scientist Nick Lane, in which, with brilliance, precision, and great clarity, he synthesizes and expounds the cutting-edge work being done by laboratory scientists in the fields of evolutionary genetics and molecular biology.  Lane's books are not easy reading, but they are comprehensible by lay readers like myself.  Let me tell you briefly about one of his books that I have read, a 2009 work entitled Life Ascending:  The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.
The organizing conceit of the book, as the title suggests, is that evolution has fashioned a number of "inventions."  The ten chapters are entitled "The Origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, Sex, Movement, Sight, Hot Blood, Consciousness, and Death."  In each chapter, Lane introduces the reader to the deepest level of precise laboratory science, and the associated theoretical interpretation of the experimental results, often synthesizing results from widely separated fields in a truly original and creative fashion.  [His books are no mere pastiches of reportage!]
To give you some feel for this work, I am going to quote a lengthy passage that stunned me, from a chapter entitled "Movement."   It is going to take me a while to type this into my computer, so I will withhold comment until I get the entire long passage on the page:
"Muscle contraction depends on the properties of two molecules, actin and myosin.  Both are composed of repeating protein units to form long filaments (polymers).  The thick filaments are composed of myosin, already named by the Victorians;  the thin filaments, of actin.  These two filaments, thick and thin, lie in bundles side-by-side, linked by tiny perpendicular cross-bridges (first visualised by Huxley in the 1950s using electron microscopy).  These bridges are not rigid and motionless, but swing, and with each swing they propel the actin filaments along a little, as if the crew of a longboat sweeping their craft through the water.  And indeed there is more than an element of the Viking longboat about it, for the oar strokes are unruly, unwilling to conform to a single command.  Electron microscopy shows that, of the many thousands of cross-bridges, fewer than half ever pull in unison;  the majority are always caught with their oars in disarray.  Yet calculations prove that these tiny shifts, even working in disharmony, are together strong enough to account for the overall force of muscular contraction.
"All these swinging cross-bridges protrude from the thick filament -- they are part of the myosin subunits.  On a molecular scale, myosin is huge, eight times larger than the average protein like haemoglobin.  In overall shape, a myosin unit is sperm-like;  two sperm, in fact, with their heads knocking together and their tails entwined in a frozen embrace.  The tails interleave with the tails of adjacent myosin molecules in a staggered array, together making up the heavy filament like the threads of a rope.  The heads protrude from this rope in succession, and it is these that form the winging cross-bridges that interact with the actin filament.
"Here's how the swinging bridges work.  The swing-bridge first binds to the actin filament, and once attached, then binds ATP.  [adenosine triphosphate.  ed.]  The ATP provides the energy needed to power the whole process.  As soon as ATP binds, the swing-bridge detaches from the thin filament.  The liberated bridge swings through an angle of about 70 degrees (via a flexible 'neck' region) before binding to the actin filament again.  As it does so, the used fragments of ATP are released, and the cross-bridge springs back to its initial conformation, levering the whole thin filament along in its wake.  The cycle -- release, swing, bind, drag -- is equivalent to a rowing stroke, each time moving the thin filament along by a few millionths of a millimetre.  ATP is critical.  Without it, the head can't release from actin, and can't swing;  the result is rigor, as in rigor mortis, when muscles stiffen after death for lack of ATP."
If you have allowed your eye to slide over this passage, waiting for my commentary to recommence, I want you to stop, go back, and read the passage carefully.  The entire point of this blog post is contained in that passage.  Lane is here describing, at the molecular, level, what happens when a muscle contracts.  Each cycle, as he describes it, contracts the muscle another few millionths of a millimeter!  So, in order for a muscle to contract by one inch [let us say, the amount required by a pianist to lift a finger off as key, preparing to strike another key], this process must be repeated roughly ten million times!
I want you to reflect, as I have, on the uncounted thousands of hours of laboratory research by hundreds of scientists that were required in order for Nick Lane to write that three paragraph long passage.  I put it to you:  there is simply nothing in the fantasies of religion or the angry protestations of ideology that can compare with the sheer wonder of this insight into the most elementary human physical process, the contraction of a muscle.
And this is but one passage, in one chapter, from one of the books Lane has written.  I will feel that the effort of writing this post was merited, if even a handful of you actually hunt up one of Lane's books and devote some hours to reading it.


Geoff said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I just bought the book - it looks wonderful.

imcdpe said...

And here is the amazon link:

(No, I am not Nick Lane)

Debbylee said...

Already had Power, Sex and Suicide from the library after your recommendation on that one, looking forward to this. Just came across a website called Better World Books which has many used copies. Thanks for keeping all parts of the brain stimulated!

High Arka said...

Professor, you're not as old as you think you are--there's still time to go to medical school. You might find the brain components of advanced neurology even more interesting than your current muscle fetish.

It's a sad philosopher, however, that finds mechanics, even itty-bitty ones, not just more satisfying than the nature of existence, but so much more satisfying that existence is less important than the tools by which it comes to be. Your studies seem to have failed to deliver any meaning.

If all you were ever looking for was rationalizations for the social contract, though, then perhaps you were in the right place.