Thursday, January 07, 2010

The happiness of the bee

Each December, the journal Nature offers a gallery of some of the most striking scientific images of the preceding year, any one of which invites commentary here. Let me settle on this one, an astonishing picture of the five million atoms in a capsid, the protein coat used by many virus particles to protect their DNA. (Click image to enlarge.) It took three years for Junhua Pan, then at Rice University in Houston, Texas, to create the picture from hundreds of smaller X-ray-diffraction images of the Penicillium stoloniferum virus F, which infects the fungus that makes penicillin. (The colors, of course, are artifacts.)

The rose window at Chartres is not more beautiful.

Five million atoms, in long sequences of amino acids, curled into a cozy wrap. The machinery of life at it very simplest functional level. Everything else, the bacterium, the blue whale, you and me, are variations on the theme.

How big is this object? As big as the period at the end of this sentence? Five million atoms compressed into a dot?

That doesn't begin to tell you what we are looking at.

Take the period at the end of this sentence and blow it up to the size of your computer screen. A period on that new screen is approximately the size of this virus.

More than a hundred million of these rose windows would fit into this letter o. What a cathedral that would be!

And Junhua Pan, with the help of hundreds of X-ray diffraction patterns and a powerful computer lets us enter that cathedral, the occasion, surely, for a whispered prayer in whatever language of praise comes to our lips.

At Jacques Cousteau's funeral, his son Jean Michel quoted his father: "The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know about existence and to marvel at it."