Friday, April 29, 2016

A World from Dust Argues Against Gould's Book, Not Gould

Sometimes the most helpful comments are the asides. One of these happened a year ago with the second reader to finish the full draft of A World from Dust (to whom I am eminently grateful, by the way). He finished his email with "BTW, you really don't like Gould!" plus an emoticon. That took me back -- it prompted me to make it more clear in the draft that I was arguing against Gould's specific book and his "Tape of Life" theory, not the man himself. I'm not sure if I went far enough, because there seems to be a default assumption that debating a person's ideas involves debating the person himself.

Now that I've published an entire book structured around that argument, I suppose if I could go back and do it again (second edition?) I'd make a simple edit: search-and-replace all the references to "Gould" to make them say "Wonderful Life." I'm not arguing with the man so much as I'm arguing with his book. In terms of most of Gould's thinking, and most especially in his writing style, I came to praise Gould, not bury him. I only want to bury the "tape of life" (like the Atari ET game cartridges in the New Mexico desert?). Gould's innovative and, to use a word that's on its way out, disruptive thinking about evolutionary paths and mechanisms made the field what it is today.

The fact of the matter is that Gould wrote a lot about evolution and contingency, and it's clear that his views were much more nuanced than were contained in Wonderful Life. For example, his masterwork The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is much more detailed and less polemic than Wonderful Life. In Chapter 5 of A World from Dust, I wrote that finding a chemical origin of life reaction would show that the tape of life could be replayed. There's evidence Gould thought so too, and that he thought the tape of life could be replayed to that point.

But, and here's the rub, whatever Gould's views in the rest of his writing, it's Wonderful Life that everyone remembers. He was too good of a writer in that book. His sweeping, magisterial conclusions and quotes were so effective and unnerving that they drown out the nuance of his other works. It's Wonderful Life that people go out of their way to refer to when they talk about this, it's Wonderful Life that the papers in the beginning of my Chapter 12 cite, and it's Wonderful Life that has so undergirded the discourse that its "tape of life" quotes have become an unspoken default.

That's what A World from Dust argues against. Chapter 12 is all about how there should be an open conversation on this topic rather than a conversation-ending default. As that chapter discusses, genetic drift and random flow have their place on the local, species level, but on the planetary level, things become a lot more predictable. I'm not seeking a Kuhnian paradigm shift so much as a Hegelian dialectic -- not a revolution but a conversation.

So I hope it's clear, I do really "like" Gould. But he was just a man, and in his own way a product of his time. He was right on a lot of things and wrong on some other things. And, by writing Wonderful Life, he moved this important conversation forward. That's why it's worth talking about.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

This book is itself shaped like a river delta. Alexander von Humboldt is its source, and his voyage to South America the catalyst that led to a life of pouring out words. Three-quarters of the book describes his life and explains why he is a lost hero of science. Then the book introduces major thinkers who were influenced by Humboldt: Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Marsh, and Muir. Each of these stories involves travel (if you only consider Thoreau's Walden Pond experience to be a sort of inward parallel to the outward voyages of the other four). Wulf especially excels at summing up the impact of Humboldt on these five thinkers with economy and vivid description.

I wish there had been more about where Humboldt's ideas came from. The book focuses on the generation before Humboldt, and it's implied that the advances in travel technology led to the advances in thought (though it would have been interesting to explore this angle a little more, come to think of it). I want to go farther back, to the Greeks, because Humboldt's conception of nature seems awfully Stoic in its composition, and I wonder how much of his ideas had been around since the ancients and how they were carried through to him. Where did Humboldt get his style, and especially this vision of interconnectedness? I want to go deeper, and I could have traded some of the early detail about Humboldt's outer life for more on his inner life.

Also, now that I'm finished with the book I'm left with an interest in reading more of Humboldt, but I don't have a specific "in" to his writing. Part of his forgottenness is that he doesn't have the singular masterpiece that is Origin of Species or the vivid, short articles like Muir wrote. And why is that? Are we just too far removed from Humboldt's time, or is it because he wrote in German? Well, we still remember Goethe more than him. I'd like to think about why.

But these questions arise precisely because this is a good story about a little-appreciated chapter of history. Like the river delta, it opens up into an ocean.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

This graphic novel would make a great opera. The characters include The Lost Artist Boy, The Carefree but Struggling Girl, and, of course, Death Himself. The plot involves a deal the Boy makes with Death so that he gets the power to reshape matter with his bare hands, in exchange for knowing he will die in exactly 200 days. Even that great power isn't enough to result in good art, not without further struggle, and then there's the issue of falling in love with someone when you know you're going to die before the year does. McCloud's characters are excellent and multifaceted. Even Death has his internal motivations. My only quibble is with the setting, or more precisely, the author's exploration of the setting. In other stories like this, NYC becomes a character in itself, but I felt all along like it was just background. (Possibly the author spent less time in NYC than Helprin or Gilliam?) This isn't really about the setting, but it's about the triad of main characters and the power of art and death. In those areas it makes for a unique, affecting story, perfectly paced in the graphic medium.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book Review: Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

A graphic novel that's a searing, detailed account of what it was like for the author to lose his daughter suddenly, before her second birthday. Hart wends his way through the sorrows of loss, the joys of childhood, and the legalistic frustrations of adulthood as he finds a journey through his grief. As I read (through tears) I realized that I had no idea how you should end a book like this, a book that begins with Rosalie dying. But Hart ends it on the perfect note, an open chord in ink and an image of growth and hope. This story is every parent's worst fear, but also a meditation on meaning and symbolism. There's so much familiar in the story that it feels like I've lived through it with Hart for an hour. This book has the same effect as a sad movie or a storm -- it blows through, upends everything, and cleans you out.

Friday, April 8, 2016

12 Colorful Rules that Shaped Our World now online



Here's the 12 lectures I put together a few months ago. Each one has a rule and corresponds to a chapter in A World from Dust, and has a DIY chemistry experiment:

DIY: Simulate Mono Lake in a bucket
DIY: Dye fabrics using sticky metals

DIY: Make colored birthday candles – and predict a plugged-in pickle’s color.
DIY: Making white lead pigment.

DIY: Making a glowing green flowing pattern from fluorescein (from highlighters).

DIY: Making a striped Winogradsky column (and finding explosive methane at the lower levels).

DIY: Purifying different pigments from different red plants in your kitchen.
DIY: Making indigo dye (with the help of oxygen) and removing stains.

DIY: Making edible spheres from calcium chemistry through “spherification.”
DIY: Two Rothkos for the price of one.

DIY: Make your own colored nanoparticles like found in stained glass.
DIY: Look at life from a new angle.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): How Calcium May Turn DNA Into an Antimicrobial Net

One of the ways immune cells catch germs is with a net made of DNA. The immune cells are called neutrophils, and the nets are called Neutrophil Extracellular Traps, or NETs for short. The nets work because of a clever use of calcium that underlines one of the central balances of life as shown in the figure above.

Note how calcium is ejected from the cell in the lower southwest portion of the figure. This is why Chapter 10 of A World from Dust talks about calcium signals that are instigated by opening up calcium doors in the membrane and letting the calcium flow in. A NET begins with such a calcium influx, like many other signals. Calcium floods the cell and uses its unusual charge to aggregate and reshape proteins, reconfiguring the cell in myriad ways, resulting in the formation of the NET.

But then something remarkable happens: calcium's chemistry builds a NET. The cell just turns itself inside out, and a NET forms. The reason why this works is because the NET is made from DNA, and when DNA is ejected into the high calcium concentrations outside the cell, the sticky calcium binds phosphate in DNA, crosslinking it into a dense net that engulfs and immobilizes the germs. I'm reminded of Spiderman on the Electric Company (see 2:21):


So because of the imbalance of calcium outside the cell, all it takes to catch a germ is for one cell to play Spiderman, turn itself inside out, and spill its DNA. Calcium automatically solidifies DNA and the immune system uses a fundamental aspect of biochemistry to make an automatic net. Long ago, calcium was ejected to avoid cross-linking DNA. Now, DNA ejected into the calcium-rich exterior of a cell automatically makes a net.

I'd expect a system like this to evolve wherever water-based life uses a periodic table like ours.

Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

This is my favorite Neal Stephenson book. That's not to say it's without flaws, but his obsessive technical skill in plotting and engineering a story (as well as his high page count) finally fits the broad scope of his subject. Basically, this book is "Stephenson reboots the world." As you'd expect, there's everything here from problem-solving on the level of The Martian times a thousand, to philosophical and psychological ruminations on being the only ones left after the surface of the Earth is sterilized. I only wish that the emphasis was different -- a major shift that happens two-thirds of the way through the book should have taken place one-third of the way through the book, in my opinion. It feels a bit like Stephenson is cutting off the second half of his story early because even he can't figure out how to make some of his surprises work in detail given the huge nature of the narrative shift. Stephenson is no utopian, and parts of the story get very dark and desperate, but if you stick it out to the end things open up to glimmers "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." First contact is here but it's inverted and subverted and, to me, felt fresh. I'd say more, but part of the point of Stephenson is the surprises that happen in the last third, where this novel really shines. File this one under "gets better as it goes along," and it starts out pretty good, at that.