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(We are taking a brief break from our Industry 4.0 series, and we’ll return to it in the upcoming weeks.) Our University has just returned from Easter break. Around the world the relentless pace of news has continued incessant. We have been left to reflect upon the concept of life and its meaning to ourselves, our work, and our societies. Not merely through and because of tragedies, violence, wars, and disease, but also through life, joy, faith, and hope. Scientific study is one of the facets of tackling this reflection, though by no means the only one. 

First, we can consider the study of our universe. The human being has a very poor intuitive, emotional, and even intellectual understanding of the world of numbers. Numbers do not make sense to us and we do not have a good relationship with them. It is one reason that a price can be advertised as $ 14,990, and works better than the original price of $ 15,000, because we see the number and immediately think "fourteen thousand and something" ... while the second number we relate as "fifteen thousand and something" ... a big difference in emotional effect though not in an absolute economic sense. Someone can discount you ten pesos and emotionally you feel that it was a much more significant discount. Likewise, we have problems of understanding scale. It is difficult for the human being to understand, at an intuitive or emotional level, the numbers of large scales. Hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands we understand them very well - we can compare them with the salary, or the expense, or some number with which we have a simple and daily emotional relationship. But many millions, hundreds or thousands of millions, let alone bigger numbers - we do not have an intuitive and immediately emotional scale to understand those numbers. Some human beings move very comfortably in those circles, but most of us do not.

Sometimes, this lack of understanding hides or occludes unimaginable beauty. One aspect of this beauty that depends on visualizing the big numbers is the universe in which we live and the life that we are given to live and experience in it. The Universe has many mysteries of structure and function. The difference in scale between two of the four fundamental forces of the universe (gravitational and electromagnetic) is approximately1040. [1]

Written, the number looks like this: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The number of stars in the universe is estimated at merely: 700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. (7x1022)   These numbers are emotionally incomprehensible, we have no relationship or connection with them. Examples of scale can help us understand. A sub-atomic particle (quark) compared to a single hydrogen atom is the size of a child compared to the whole earth. The difference in size of an atom with the child is like that of the child with the distance between the earth and the sun. And yet...the balance between two fundamental forces of the four that make up our modern model of physics is the scale of differences in size between a quark and the entire universe! To understand a little more about these scales, a great visualization can be found on this website.

What does this mean? That we live in a universe that would be impossible as we currently understand it if two fundamental forces were not calibrated to the fineness at the scale of a single subatomic particle within a whole universe. This is the exquisite perfection in balance of our universe, and within that perfection its beauty. This is the wonder of the universe. Without this precise relationship - the stars would not shine, the universe would not interact and move as it does, and life would be impossible in any way we currently visualize or model. 

Another example of our ongoing limited understanding is the "Universal Constant" that derives from Einstein's equations. This constant is useful and can be experimentally confirmed at a macro-scale and yet we still cannot match it with observations in the world of quantum mechanics. The difference between the observed values the predictions at the quantum level are of the order of 1040, just a large a number as the gulf between the magnitudes of the two fundamental forces already described. [2] 

The universe is a much more finely calibrated machine than any human instrument ever conceived. It is a perfection of balance and state that we cannot conceive. Even in the chaos of the formation of stars and galaxies, that chaos can exist in its current state only because of the beautiful fine-tuned nature of our entire universe’s fundamental laws, and yet we have much more to learn, study, and understand.

We can scale down this beauty in the universe from the entire universe to a single life itself. One of the fundamental problems in explaining the structure of life is in chirality. In a normal chemical reaction, molecules with the same chemical behaviors will be generated, but with two structures that are mirror images of each other - a distinct "chirality". An example can be seen in  Figure 1.

We still do not have a unified, universally-accepted explanation of chirality, although an increasing number of theories are being taken seriously. [3] The amino acids, those individual components that make up all the proteins that our bodies generate, have left-handed chirality while sugars have right-handed chirality.

This homogeneity within individual components has no apparent explanation and does not occur in chemical reactions without some control or inhibitor. In chemical reactions without controls or inhibitors, the two chiral presentations are generated in almost equal proportions. However, this homogeneity different from what is expected allows us to have a functional biology, because most life processes depend on these fixed orientations and preferred chirality to function properly. A sugar with different chirality is not functional for life, just as amino acids of different chirality could not be combined properly to form a protein.

A fundamental structure for life that integrates the elements of amino acids and sugars of such specific chiral preferences is DNA. It consists of different sugars in specific combinations to generate an alphabet of four “letters”, A, C, G and T. This description is adequate - it is a language of life, composed of specific instructions for life written with four “letters”. This system is incredibly powerful, considering that our world of computers is based on a fundamental language of only 2 “letters”: 1 and 0.

Each of the 100,000,000,000,000 cells in our bodies contains about 1 meter of DNA wrapped in its core, but so thin that 25,000 of these filaments could fit side by side across the width of a human hair. How much information could this be? Each cell contains 3,000,000,000 of these letters, which would fill 200 complete Puebla phonebooks. Writing at a speed of a professional typist, approximately 200 characters per minute, a person typing this information out by hand would take almost 29 years to complete writing the information in one of these beautiful information carriers known as DNA. [4]

The machinery to replicate this information in every cell that divides is impressive. A cell that divides will copy all this information in approximately 8 hours! And, in general, it will do so with only 1 or 2 “letters” errors for each copy. Think about that - a biological mechanism that can copy, revise and correct errors, and on average do all of this with no more than 1-2 errors per set of information that if written out would fill 29 complete Puebla phonebooks! The accumulation of too many of these errors is what leads us to diseases, cancer, death, etc. And although not all the cells are divided, every day similar mechanisms read genes to create the proteins that keep us alive. This process happens TRILLIONS of times a day. [5]

However, it is not as impressive to see this as seeing this machinery of life in real time. For an excellent set of visualizations, I recommend: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, and Video 4. These resources and so many others help us to understand a LITTLE about the wonderfulness of our universe, and the machinery that maintains and replicates life. 

Now, while I greatly enjoy the truth shown by the comic Abstruse Goose with regards to how scientists view the world, I believe that we fall short of our true potential when we fail to see the beauty, perfection, balance, and intricacy of a universe in which we are given but a brief time to experience, study, and attempt to understand, and make an impact. In this time of remembering the importance of life, let us marvel at the very beauty of the universe that surrounds us, and with renewed vigor dive joyously into the rich work of studying this beautiful universe in which we are infinitely blessed to live. It is this awe and wonder that should reside near or at the heart of our science and exploration, and it is an inalienable responsibility and devoir to pass them on to those who have entrusted their training and education to us.

 

References

 

[1]

The Physics of the Universe. (2018, Apr.) The Universe by Numbers. [Online]. https://www.physicsoftheuniverse.com/numbers.html

[2]

Svend Erik Rugh and Henrik Zinkernagel, "The Quantum Vacuum and the Cosmological Constant Problem," arXiv, Dec. 2000. [Online]. https://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0012253

[3]

Donna G. Blackmond, "The Origin of Biological Homochirality," Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol, vol. 2, no. 5, May 2010. [Online]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2857173/

[4]

University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center. (2018, Apr.) Learn.Genetics. [Online]. http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/

[5]

Bruce Alberts et al., "Chapter Six: DNA Replication, Repair, and Recombination," in Essential Cell Biology, Fourth Edition., 2016. [Online]. http://www.garlandscience.com/res/pdf/ecb4_ch6_draft.pdf

[6]

NASA. (2008, Mar.) Wikimedia Commons. [Online]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chirality_with_hands.jpg


Dr. Juan Manuel López Oglesby, Director, Graduate Biomedical Engineering Sciences UPAEP

 

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