Friday, April 11, 2008

Grace is everywhere

Breathtaking! The cover of the April 3 issue of Nature has a striking computer-generated illustration of a ribosome translating messenger RNA into a protein. Inside the journal, a report by an international team of scientists describes remarkable experiments which followed the translation process one codon at a time. A codon is a sequence of three RNA (or DNA) nucleotides that code for a specific amino acid. A protein is an elaborately folded chain of thousands of amino acids.

I can't reproduce the Nature cover, but here is a similar computer-generated image of a ribosome, which is generally described as an evolutionarily ancient "molecular machine" for translating genetic information into proteins in the "factory" of a cell. What you see looks like a tangle, but every nook and cranny is a part of the way the thing works.

Many of these machines are at work in every cell of our bodies, ceaselessly constructing the stuff of life. "The power of the visible is the invisible," wrote the poet Marianne Moore. Here, on the cover of Nature, and in the work described therein, the invisible is made partly visible.

Are our cells really just "factories" and our ribosomes "machines"? These are metaphors, of course. All understanding is metaphorical -- in science, in poetry, even in theology. The mechanical metaphor for what happens inside living cells does not so much reduce the marvelous to the mundane, as it elevates the mundane to the marvelous. The more we understand the staggeringly complex -- and breathtakingly beautiful -- molecular machinery of life, the more truly marvelous the world becomes.