Friday, February 03, 2006

Bird flu -- Part 2

"Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. Euclid was a geometrician. The beauty of a virus is geometrical.

Here, at the smallest dimension of life, at a scale too small to be observed even with the best optical microscope, nature has contrived structures of stunning elegance. And not accidentally.

The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to encode for a few proteins. To build its shell, it must use the same few proteins over and over, like the repetitive pattern of patches on a soccer ball. For many viruses, the result is a icosahedral structure, with 20 identical triangular faces, one of the five regular polyhedrons admired by the Greeks as the epitome of beauty.

Buckminster Fuller didn't invent the geodesic dome. Nature has been wrapping viral genes in geodesic domes since the dawn of time. And inside each dome -- a single or double strand of chemical instructions saying "Make more."

A virus is a shoestring operation, a paragon of frugality. Making do with the bare minimum, it comes up with beauty bare. There may be a lesson there.