STRUCTURE OF LIFE

Call it late summer foraging beyond the parched fields of architecture, but I have recently been caught up again in a story about creativity in science. My fascinations with Relativity theory and Einstein, as well as Radical Constructivism and von Foerster, are well displayed on this blog and elsewhere, along with my attempts to tie them back to architecture. Prompted, I suppose, by my recent teaching experience and Lars Kordetzky’s research published here, I have reopened the pages of The Double Helix, a book about the discovery of the structure of DNA.

It’s not only that the very term has become part of our present everyday culture, in newspaper accounts of prisoners being freed after decades of incarceration for crimes they didn’t commit, now proven by DNA evidence, but also that genetics has become such an important part of our perceptions of ourselves and of others. When I was a boy, we were taught (in a conservative Midwestern high school) that our human destiny was determined by a combination of ‘heredity’ and ‘environment,’ greater emphasis on the latter. Our race, class, gender, and even country of birth—our genetic input—were far less important than our social circumstances—family, community and especially education. But all that is changed today. It turns out (so we are told) that there is a gene for everything from being fat, smart, creative; for getting cancer and Alzheimers; for, I suppose, being loyal citizens, criminals, or geniuses—our die is cast at birth. Thanks to the human genome project, which (so we are told) definitively decoded the genetic structure of human heredity, it will only be a matter of time before genetic testing will divide us and our progeny into differing human camps, to be dealt with by society’s institutions accordingly. We can only imagine where future genetic engineering, beyond that of tomatoes and the cloning of sheep, will take us. And it all started with the discovery of the precise structure of DNA.

The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA—the complex molecule that carries, literally, the genetic code of living organisms from generation to generation—brings together so many strands appearing recently on this blog. The experimental. The creativity of science at its highest, conceptual levels. The evolution of humankind taken into its own hands. The potential advent of a scientific dictatorship that will ‘perfect’ the human race. Even the use of hand-made physical models to work out new concepts of universal phenomena. The book written by James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, along with Francis Crick, reads like an adventure story of risky exploration guided as much by intuition and chance as by rigorous scientific method, and it all happened in the pre-computer age, using analogue tools, such as, well, the human brain. It is a story with intrigues and a dark side at the outset, in the way the research of Rosalind Franklin was stolen from her and given to Watson and Crick at a crucial moment in their speculations, and for which she was credited only after she had died. Science on this level is human drama at its fullest. A good (or so they say) ‘summer read.’

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(above and below)) Metal working model used by James Watson and Francis Crick to determine the double-helical structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.

(below) 1953 X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA molecule (end-on) by researcher Rosalind Franklin, which directly informed the Watson-Crick model:

(below) a segment of the very long DNA molecule—the double helix:

(below) A caduceus—the staff carried by Hermes, “the messenger of the gods.” Is its double-helical structure an ancient Greek premonition of the most vital ‘message of the gods,’ or simply a coincidence?

LW


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