Sunday, March 11, 2007

Introduction to Nanotheology, Part 2

"He who made kittens put snakes in the grass" -- Jethro Tull.

One of the responses to my original "Introduction to Nanotheology" post consisted of just that quote. It made me think, and not just, "Hey, Jethro was in the Bible, wasn't he?" Actually, it made me think about why I love to teach biochemistry. It's not just the intricacies of the energetics of digestion or whatever, or the questions about matter and mind, or the artistic profusion of protein structures colored any way the author of the paper likes. I like to teach biochemistry because it's real stuff, "stuff" in the sense of matter but also in the sense of the euphemism for something cruder. When we talk about amino metabolism, we talk about the mountains of bird guano near the Falklands, how that's basically a mound of nitrogen, and why. Why buying a sack of cow manure could get you on a Fed watch list. We're made of the stuff of earth, and I can't talk about life-science without talking about death-science.

I will assign a book to my biochemists next quarter called The Ghost Map that's about a cholera epidemic in London, but also about cities, people, science, God, and death. I suppose just because I spent time on the fact that life is intricate and wonderful, I may have neglected to mention that it's also absurdly weird, and wrenchingly sad. How a tiny rearrangement of atoms can punch a hole in the life of an entire family. How there's a young woman at my college whose joints are slowly fusing into bone because of a single amino acid change in her DNA. How she's the daughter of a theology professor. They know about snakes in the grass. In this case, all I know is atoms, and that's cold comfort in the face of evil.

If you're going to talk about the wonders of cell growth you're going to talk about cell growth gone wrong, which is cancer. (By the way, this should also be part of the debate about stem cells, but it's curiously absent because of our own ignorance. Think about it -- stem cells grow, and so does cancer. Could some cancer be caused by errant stem cells?)

If you're going to talk about getting energy from rearranging molecules, you're going to talk about the way a two-atom poison (cyanide) can screw everything up. Even oxygen, the very lynchpin of respiration, is destructive if it gets out of place, hence anti-"oxidants". If you don't get enough oxygen, you die, but that very oxygen will mutilate your DNA if it can.

If you're going to provide someone the tools to take apart a virus and disable it, you'll also implicitly provide the tools to make your own virus. Teach a man to fish and he'll never go hungry, right? Well, teach a man to immunize and he'll also know how to terrorize.

Some theology dwells on the question of human or institutional, powers-and-principalities-type of evil. Rather, these posts of mine, as I project them, will deal with natural evil, the evil of the tsunami or the hurricane, not the evil of those who exploit or ineptly respond. This is not to diminish the latter evil but just to acknowledge my own limitations in responding. Both natural and institutional evil are evil nonetheless, companions of death.

Yet (and here's 1 Corinthians again), contrary to our instincts and our origins, death does not have the last say. It will be swept away and the world made right. For today I'll work at restoring life and staving off death with the tools given for the day, praying for the snake-bitten and pointing at the strange, absurd bronze serpent hoisted above, and resting when I've done my piece.

Or, speaking of rest, I should say, for tomorrow, or whenever I get past this introduction stage. Soon ...

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