Meditation can take many forms, and concentrating on concepts we know to be a little beyond our understanding is as invigorating to the mind as a good workout is for the body. It brings a feeling of humility about how little we really know, but also enthusiasm about surprises in store one day.
How pleasant it is then to find someone already a great distance off, but willing and capable of showing us what they found up ahead, to lift our sagging morale. The Machinery of Life by David S Goodsell is just such a find, making us all adventurers in the strange and compelling micro universe within our own selves.
Like cells during the first nine months, most people become specialised in one or another function by adulthood so that they always look at life from one direction, as a laywer, accountant, or physicist. Talk to them of anything else and their eyes glaze over. To an accountant, art is the price of the frame and the cost of shipping, and whether it can be sold on at a profit; to a musician, a mortgage just a bothersome pile of unread letters from the bank. But some people seem to resemble stem cells in that they retain the flexibility to turn in one direction or another depending on their needs or those of their environment, and Goodsell must be partly of this nature. To create a visible and coherent molecular world on this scale requires focus, knowledge, and an understanding of graphics; finding these in one person seems a tall order.
Goodsell is known for the distinctive style of his popular Molecule of the Month illustrations, but The Machinery of Life is a triumph beyond art, capturing the mind-boggling complexity of complete cellular systems: the tools used, the assembly lines, robotic processes, sentinels, recyclable fuels, the precautions, solutions, messages, postal and sorting systems, dangers, remedies, constructions, motors, fuel, weird delivery creatures, guarded entrances, photon detectors, gated switches, cascading processes, fantastic enzymes and all the other astounding ingenuity of biology we dismiss as a trivial matter beneath our concern: make of this world what you will.
None of it would ordinarily be visible, being smaller than the wavelength of light, so it all must first pass through a human mind and emerge via different understandings working together, not the least of which is imagination. His illustrations are generally a standard one million magnification, with forays into five million x, to highlight particular aspects.
Goodsell is also an HIV researcher, so the book includes much about bacteria, and their tools for breaking and entering, their various disguises and mechanisms etc. The author understands the mechanics well enough to explain them simply, and illustrates not with dreary airbrushed ball-and-stick cartoons, but in such a way that the mechanics of our own body seem both awesome and quite beautiful. If they’d had these books when I was in school, I think I would have wanted to become a molecular biologist; as it was, greenand red splodges and dull schematics made the whole field of biology seem tedious and contrived, even ugly. How things change!
(Fig 5.2, P73) The image above is a small part of a blood plasma cell, with a cross section highlighted for analysis. The full process of the cell’s production and secretion of antibodies stretches over 8 pages of detailed images and explanations; I have scanned in the images and assembled them in order, somewhat crudely, below.
Keep in mind that each and every coloured, outlined object is a specific, useful component or machine made to a precise specification out of hundreds of amino acids and thousands of atoms, its structure and order of assembly set out within a specific region of the DNA. The tiny ATP synthase motors in the nucleus of the cell – barely 6mm square here, are colossal atomic engines of 500,000 daltons (one dalton is approximately a single proton or neutron, so that 12 daltons equates to a single carbon atom).
Each component has been perfectly made by the manufacturing equipment inside the cell: your body has around 100 trillion such cells, each a bustling city fulfilling an allotted role, with its components frantically working, building machines, erecting scaffolding, dismantling it again, checking codes, fixing, repairing, disassembling, passing and receiving messages, sensing the environment, building and firing up motors, making fuel, or running hither and yon at a speed which defies the imagination.
To give you an idea how mind-boggling this one single process is, read the text for the 5th and 6th images (p78 and p79):
Fig 5.5 Golgi Apparatus: The transport vesicles carry the new proteins to the Golgi, a set of membrane-bound sacs stacked like plates. Huge tethering proteins like guantin (A) and GM130 (B) guide the vesicles to the right place. The Golgi is the processing and sorting plant of the cell. Sugars and lipids are attached to proteins that need them.
For instance, the sugare chains that stabilise the base of the Y-shaped antibody are trimmed and perfected in the Golgi. When the proteins are properly modified and sorted, they are delivered throughout the cell in small transport vesicles.
The protein clathrin (C) provides the molecular leverage needed to pinch off some of these vesicles by forming a geodesic coat on the outside of the membrane. After the vesicle separates from the Golgi, the clathrin coat falls off and the vesicle is guided to its ultimate destination. (Magnification: 1,000,000 x )
Note the illustration of the protein clathrin, highlighted in light blue both here and in the larger illustration above: this was the Molecule of the Month in April 2007, written and illustrated by Graham T. Johnson and David Goodsell.
Clathrin illustrates well the purposeful, component-based nature of biology. It is a versatile part made in several variously specialised forms, one type of which is assembed (above) into one of the smallest possible geodesic domes. To give an idea of scale, Goodsell shows a hemoglobin molecule (541 amino acid components) which is a marvelous machine in its own right, and one I am still trying to get a company to build a working model of.
The staggering complexity of biology and the intelligence required to duplicate its function might be better appreciated if I tell you that a team of molecular modellers advised me that creating a single model of a hemoglobin molecule able to snap between its oxidised and non-oxidised states over the course of this entire year would be too difficult to attempt. If each hemoglobin in your body was the size of a grain of rice, they would easily blanket the entire planet, two metres deep. And I only want them to build me one, just one, and they can take all year, and use whatever materials they want!
So in summary, before you pay the rent or heating bill or fill up your jerry cans with petrol, buy this book: but be prepared to read it two or three times to have any chance of full comprehension!