Thursday, November 05, 2009

Euclid alone has looked on...

Ponder for a moment this exquisite glass sculpture by the glassblower/artist Luke Jerram. About the size of a melon. A shell of sorts made up of glistening clustered spheres. Inside, a twisting snake of translucent glass.

Guess what? It's a sculptural representation of the swine flu virus. A protein shell. Inside, eight segments of single-strand RNA. Here, at the smallest dimension of life -- if you can call a virus living -- at a scale too small to be observed even with the best optical microscope, nature has contrived structures of stunning elegance.

The beauty of a virus is a matter of necessity. A virus has only enough genes to encode for a few proteins -- eleven for H1N1. To build its shell, the virus uses the same proteins over and over, like the repetitive pattern of patches on a soccer ball. They can only reproduce and build their protein shells by hijacking the chemical machinery of a living host cell. Your cells and my cells. And what they leave behind is a mess.

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