Friday, January 19, 2007

The gap -- Part 1

Some years ago, the influential journal Nature used on its cover the well-known detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes: the almost touching fingertips of God and Adam. The cover story was the sequencing of the first human chromosome -- a complete transcription of the chemical units (nucleotides) making up the chromosomal DNA.

In a subsequent letter to the editor of Nature, two biologists took issue with the choice of illustration. "Does the elucidation of the human nucleotide sequence provide us with insights into the work of the Christian God at the creation event?" they asked. What do Christian religious symbols have to do with science?

The editor responded that the journal's staff had debated the use of the Michelangelo detail, but decided that the image "combined iconic symbolism with the science without implying that the Bible is true or that evolution is not the key to making sense of biology."

I mentioned this in a Globe column at the time, and expressed the opinion that the journal's use of Michelangelo's art was appropriate. Readers of Nature are not likely to take Michelangelo's iconic image literally, nor imagine that the editors are endorsing Genesis.

The image of Adam stretching out his arm to receive from God the spark of soul is one of the most recognizable and powerfully moving images from all of art. It would be a shame if we were to abandon our cultural heritage because parts of that heritage have been rendered un-literal by progress in science.

The image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel does not belong only to Christian theists; it belongs to all of us, and it retains its significance even in the 21st century. The art director at my publisher used the image on the jacket of Skeptics and True Believers. Except for the fact that the image is a cliche, I had no objection.

And besides, it is not Adam or God that is the attraction of Michelangelo's painting. It is the gap between their fingers. Michelangelo could have had God touching Adam's finger. He did not. And all these centuries later, it is the gap that draws us to the painting again and again, and compels our fascination. Although both Adam and his gray-bearded Creator have lost their literal significance, the gap between their fingers -- between the human mind and the unnamable, unknown agency that creates and sustains the universe -- remains as real and as important as ever, even to the most unmystical and atheistic scientist.

Tomorrow: Chargaff and the gap.