Blogging David Goodsell’s “The Machinery of Life” (The Preface)

David Goodsell is a molecular biologist at The Scripps Research Institute in California, and he has written a hippie-beautiful introductory text to molecular biology, The Machinery of Life (2nd edition, Springer 2010), which Scientific American calls “an impressive and original book.” 

I call it “hippie-beautiful” because the watercolors that illustrate life’s molecular machines were painted by the author and have the faint echo of 1960s poster art. 

And I’m a hippie-sympathetic California English teacher.

So, let’s blog this book, shall we?

———-

The Preface

Here’s the opening paragraph of the text proper (vii):

Imagine that we had some way to look directly at the molecules in a living organism. An x-ray microscope would do the trick, or since we’re dreaming, perhaps an Asimov-style nanosubmarine (unfortunately, neither is currently feasible). Think of the wonders we could witness firsthand: antibodies attacking a virus, electrical signals racing down nerve fibers, proteins building new strands of DNA. Many of the questions puzzling the current cadre of scientists would be answered at a glance. But the nanoscale world of molecules is separated from our everyday world of experience by a daunting million-fold difference in size, so the world of molecules is completely invisible.

So, here’s the first thing I didn’t know: scientists can’t actually directly see what’s going on at the molecular level. The molecular world is, largely, colorless precisely because, according to Goodsell (3-4), 

Molecules are so small that they are smaller than the wavelength of light, so there is no way to ‘see’ them directly with a light microscope.

And so this is where he gets his poetic license in his watercolors of them: he can highlight interactions and functions with groovy colors even as we keep in mind that, in fact, most molecular structures are basically like organisms in the deep-sea, completely functioning beneath the radar of light waves, and thus in darkness (viii):

The colors, of course, are completely arbitrary since most of these molecules are colorless. I have chosen them to highlight the functional features of the molecules and cellular environments.

And so, I surmise, a nanosubmarine could not have color either.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Blogging David Goodsell’s “The Machinery of Life” (The Preface)

  1. Longtooth says:

    “Molecules are so small that they are smaller than the wavelength of light, so there is no way to ’see’ them directly with a light microscope”

    That is small. We’ve got to thank good providence for electron microscopes.

    “most molecular structures are basically like organisms in the deep-sea, completely functioning beneath the radar of light waves, and thus in darkness”

    I think not necessarily always exactly in darkness unless they live in an environment where light cannot possibly penetrate. The experience of color in seeable objects is the result of some wavelengths of incident light not being absorbed by the object and thus reflecting back to our eyes. Evidently, since these individual molecules are smaller than the smallest visible wavelength, nothing usable by our eyes reflects, even when light is present. I’m nevertheless assuming that these molecules are susceptible in some degree to the effects of electromagnetic radiation as in heat absorption? And, what happens if enough of these molecules were clumped together to constitute a seeable volume?

    Intriguing bits. I hope you find time to share some more. I’m currently on the cheap with this biology stuff, reading articles available at the Talk Origins website.

  2. Completely off topic, but Santi, could you take 3 minutes to read this? http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/your-opinion-my-blog-and-privacy/
    As an academic who blogs I’d value your opinion. Thanks 🙂

  3. Pingback: Blogging David Goodsell’s “The Machinery of Life” (Chapter 1) | Prometheus Unbound

  4. Pingback: Blogging David Goodsell’s “The Machinery of Life” (Evolution, Scale, and the Counter-Intuitive Nano-Realm) | Prometheus Unbound

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