Simply Smashing

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the leading thinkers at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Bacon recommended forcing nature to give up its secrets; the Latin term he used was natura vexata (nature vexed).

This technique is immensely useful, of course. But it’s not always the right approach. If you want to know what’s going on in the chemistry of a living cell, for instance, you can squish or burst the cell, thereby killing it, and isolate the various chemical compounds that you find. Having done this, you have a pretty good idea what the cell is made of. What you won’t know is how those compounds operate within the cell while it’s alive.

The interior of a cell is an immensely complicated place. Millions of chemical interactions are taking place every second. While any given molecular interaction may be random — either those two molecules bump into one another, or they don’t — the process as a whole is regulated in an ongoing manner that is both subtle and multifaceted. The process, and its regulation, is what we call life.

Most of what we know about subatomic physics is as a result of applying the techniques of natura vexata. We fire particles at one another at incredibly high speeds, causing them to smash into one another. We’ve learned a lot about subatomic particles in this way. But here’s today’s random thought: Might we be entirely missing how these particles behave in more ordinary circumstances?

The conventional scientific view is, more or less, “Well, they’re inert. They’re just dumb particles. They have no complex features.” But at one time the interior of a living cell was thought of in pretty much that same way, wasn’t it? Microscopes that could inspect the detailed inner structure of cells hadn’t yet been developed. As far as scientists could determine, the cell was just full of goo.

It’s a bit hard to see how the ordinary, unvexed behavior of subatomic particles could be investigated. They’re just too small. When I read about cell biology, though, I find it hard to escape the feeling that something is going on in this broth of molecular activity that we don’t yet understand.

At one time protein molecules were thought of as being rigid structures, a bit like Tinkertoy models assembled out of sticks and little spheres. Atoms were thought of as rather like little tiny billiard balls, bouncing off of one another according to strict mathematical rules. Today we know that’s not a good description of protein molecules. Protein molecules are wiggly. They’re constantly changing shape.

Of course, those shape changes must be entirely random, right? Molecules are just collections of tiny billiard balls, after all, tugging on and bouncing off of one another according to rigid mathematical laws. The idea that the molecules themselves might have an awareness of their surroundings, that they might respond in variable ways as a result of factors that we haven’t yet discovered … that would be just spiritualist nonsense.

I’m not a fan of spiritualist nonsense. I’m not trying to reintroduce the elan vital. But it does seem to me, as a layman, that the level of complexity within a living cell might be due not only to a few billion years of evolution but also to complexities in the behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons that we haven’t yet discovered, or even imagined.

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