DNA, Evolution, and The Signature of All Things

It seems that my life has become an exercise in synchronicity and random coincidences. I checked a book out of the library, read one that had been sitting on my NOOK for weeks, picked up a book on a sale table at Barnes & Noble, and remembered a video that I used to show my biology classes each winter. Strangely, they all fit together. No matter what I thought the book would be about, it began to talk about DNA and evolution at some point. How bizarre! All three books (The Signature of All Things, The Sociopath Next Door , and Orfeo) echoed things that I remembered from the video series Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth, which was broadcast in November 1999 on PBS. All these connections are just churning around in my head; here’s my thoughts about the video and one of the books, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert..

The episode that I’ve become fixated upon while reading these books is the first one in the Intimate Strangers series, The Tree of Life. If you would like to actually watch this episode (and all the others, of course) they are housed at Microbe World. The  biology classes saw this video when they were learning about taxonomy and the kingdoms of life.  In the video we meet Dr. Carl Woese,  a microbiologist of singular vision and drive. Working alone for years, chasing patterns in the mutations of a small, heavily conserved region of DNA, he pieced together the pattern of relationships between living things on earth. Using this information, Woese was able to determine the sequence of descent, establish common ancestors and eventually created a new “Tree of Life”. His work shook up the taxonomy world as domains were created (a grouping above “kingdom” in the normal sequence of “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species”), and our understanding of evolution was enriched and altered forever. One man, working alone, chasing patterns in the musical score of life that is DNA, was able to change our view of the natural world.

This is what Dr. Woese says on camera in the video:

You have to have your own particular sensitivity to the world, and there has to be parts of it that are beautiful to you, because they’re beautiful to you regardless of what anyone else ever thinks. You see this all the time in an artist, and you see it also in good scientists.

This brings me to The Signature of All Things. In this book we meet Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical robber baron. Raised in a wealthy and enriched environment that encourages learning and allows Alma to meet many eminent people in the scientific world, and possessing the logical mind of her mother, Alma is nonetheless trapped within the small world of her father’s estate. She sets up a lab in the carriage house, explores the land around her, and spends the majority of her life studying the world of mosses and liverworts. Small as her life becomes contained within the estate as she handles her father’s business and the details of life, it allows her to follow her “own particular sensitivity to the world” as she observes the interactions and changes in her moss populations; in truth she sees that mosses living within a timeframe much slower than our own engage in the same behaviors as the animal kingdom around her. It is a life of study in a world that is beautiful to her, and Alma is a good scientist.  Life altering events cause her to leave the estate following her marriage and the death of her father, and she travels to Tahiti and Holland, where the glory and chaos of a larger world help her develop a theory of evolution based on her understanding of mosses. This theory, while never published, propels her into a new life within her mother’s Dutch family and she obtains standing in the scientific community based on her own merits.

This was a good book. I’m a biology geek, so of course I liked it! Is it believable that Alma could have slowly come to a theory of evolution on her own? Sure. This book is a glimpse into the world that gave birth to the original theory. Science can always be pursued by a committed individual of observant and reflective nature. This was the time of Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and Alfred Russel Wallace; Alma would have had access to the same ideas and published works that they had. All three of these men worked alone as gentlemen scientists, observed nature, designed experiments and looked for patterns. They wrote each other and shared their scientific ideas. Darwin and Wallace arrived at the mechanism of natural selection through independent work at about the same time; they published jointly in 1858. Mendel published his work in 1866, which would have been extremely helpful to Wallace and Darwin, but they missed the boat on that one! It will be almost 100 more years before we understood that the molecule of inheritance is DNA, and many more years before Carl Woese read the musical score of DNA to finally see the signature of all things.

Alma never publishes her theory because it can’t explain why all people aren’t sociopaths. Why does altruism exist, she wonders? How can natural selection account for what we see in people around us? Richard Dawkins addresses this very issue in The Selfish Gene. Guess what’s next on my reading list?

 

The Goldfinch

I started reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt a few months ago, and quickly lost interest . The main character, Theo, seemed to be a young man with a shaky moral compass and a dose of affluenza. The mother was distracted and slightly self-absorbed. Imminent death loomed just ahead. The plot was unpacking in a dubious manner since I (the reader) was told by Theo right off the bat that things weren’t going to go well. Ugh. It was tax time, and I couldn’t continue.

Still, the Pulitzer Prize isn’t something to sneer at. Perhaps, I thought, happier now that I had the taxes filed, the refund into the bank, the landscaping in the yard done, and a major quilting project out of the way, I should give it another try…

Well, I had to push through parts of the book, but the moment arrived where I was captured by the text and story.  I found myself consumed and engaged in endless reflection about Theo and the other people in the book. I recalled with great sadness the many children living in crisis that I have known during my teaching years.  I finished the book last week in a marathon session that occupied my waking hours until I reached the last page during an apocalyptic thunderstorm. Itching with nerves, racing to secure my animals and batten down the house in a lightening-fired downpour, I continued to ponder WHAT WAS THE BOOK REALLY ABOUT?

Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it! I have spent the last week thinking and thinking about this book. I have gone online to learn about the painting “The Goldfinch”. I have re-read parts of the book. I have searched for meanings and patterns. As I drove around town this week (avoiding thunderstorms!) I have considered the importance of stable adults in young lives, the failures of adults who we think are the safety net for children in need, the lengths some people will go to maintaining “appearances”, the search for meaning in an impersonal tragedy with crushing lifelong impact, and whether a young man named Boris should be considered a human superstorm. Then there is the goldfinch; forever chained to its little perch in an artistic display with extraordinary detail. The survivor of an explosion, a transitional piece in art history, displayed against an empty wall…

Why do bad things happen to good people? Is it possible that seemingly random events can redirect our lives if we pay attention to what is happening around us and we search for patterns? Theo is tortured by this in the book, and in the passing of pages we begin to suspect that Theo can find the safe path again; a chance encounter at the moment of the greatest tragedy in his life will ultimately bring him home.

This is The Goldfinch. It is a book of lasting impact that will continue to unpack in layers in the days and weeks after you have read it. It makes you think about tragedy, craftsmanship, redemption, and art.

You might even find yourself buying a print of the painting.

Cibola Burn

This is the fourth book in The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey which started with Leviathan Wakes, and then continued on with Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate. I’ve learned to pay attention to the titles of these books, so even though I had some nebulous memory of Conquistadors searching through the wilderness and deserts for the lost (golden) city of Cibola, I did look it up. That’s right. The legend that lured Spanish Conquistador expeditions north into the unexplored southwestern region of the North American continent was one that involved seven fantastic cities of gold. Cibola.

At the end of Abaddon’s Gate gates to many, many new worlds  opened up for exploration, settlement and exploitation through rings left behind by a highly-advanced civilization that vanished before life really got going on Earth. This book picks up the story a couple of years after the events that closed Abaddon’s Gate in a smooth continuation of story line that builds on situations and characters that occurred in the previous books. Predictably, the first mission to conduct a scientific survey of a planet on the other side of a newly opened ring-gate arrives under the auspices of an energy corporation with mineral rights to the planet. Of course there are squatters, refugees from damaged Ganymede, already on the planet looking to defend their new home. Conflict is inevitable as each group strives to establish precedent and policy for all the new worlds to come. The solar system is a big place, and the centers of power are months away from this planet on the other side of a ring. Enter the Rocinante, already in the region of the ring-gates, sent to try to mediate an escalating crisis on the frontier. Of course things won’t go smoothly!

The crew of the Rocinante is back with all the personality, interplay and snappy dialogue that I have come to know and love in the previous books. The story in the book is built in a realistic fashion that reaches a satisfying resolution while still serving as an obvious bridge from past events to future books. I started reading the book during a very busy week, and just resented having to stop to sleep. This book is even more of a page turner that will keep you up all night than the last one! Here are some of my reflections after the event:

  • The science is great and very well presented. One of my bosses once explained to me that science is actually a verb: you do it! This book does science instead of trying to present it to you. The biology especially is very heartwarming.
  • The story continues to be told from different viewpoints. The different points of view are interwoven extremely well , and it is fun to experience the crew of the Rocinante through different eyes.
  • Two of the new major players in the story are people we met in the previous books brought forward to this one in a manner that is entirely consistent with who they were and what they did before. I loved it!
  • The characters in the story were reflective and evolved as time went on. Wow!
  • While we are past the time of protomolecule-technology bioweapons, the fact that the ring-gate to the new world is an artifact from a lost civilization is skillfully embedded into the story. This new (alien) planet was exploited by vanished aliens in ways that can’t even be imagined yet. The ramifications of that may continue on into future books. Oh, joy!
  • This is the most intelligent, action-packed and compelling book that I have read this year. I’m not sure if it is better than Caliban’s War, but it is very, very good.

The Conquistadors discovered in their search for the lost cities of gold that things weren’t exactly what they thought they were. In “The Expanse” series the rush is on; what is on the other side of the rings in all those unexplored worlds remains to be seen.

One thing is sure, the Rocinante will be busy and we are going to need Bobbie again!

 

Books I Love: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I really place a lot of emphasis on the first few lines of a book. I just love it when the author seizes the moment and transports me immediately into the book. In just a few well-chosen sentences I’m in another place, I have a feel for at least one person in the story, and I’m already becoming emotionally invested.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about. Each of these is the first sentence(s) of the book:

  • When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one. (Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove)
  • Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. (Cecelia Holland, Great Maria)
  • Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. (Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend)
  • He will come who treads the dawn, Tramples the sun beneath his feet, And judges the souls of men. He will stride across the rooftops, And he will fire the engines of God. –Uranic Book of Prayer (Quraqua)(Translated by Margaret Tufu) (Jack McDevitt, The Engines of God)

I absolutely love each of these books;  when I read them I was captured within the first few pages. Within minutes I was in Texas, the Middle Ages, California, or on another planet investigating a lost civilization. That first impression carried me into the book and I was gone.

Quite frankly, I do struggle a little with non-fiction writing. I always start the book meaning to stick with it in a quest for self-improvement, but somewhere after a few chapters I drift off and never finish. I keep trying, though, to find those books that will really capture me and teach me about things I never knew or even imagined. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is one of these books.

Here is the first sentence of the book:

Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father.

All right then! I am yours forever, or as long as it takes to read this book.

That is exactly what happened. This book, which is an immersion into the lives of the inhabitants of the slum world of Annawadi, located on open land belonging to the Airports Authority of India, is amazing. The narrative focuses on Abdul and his family, but we meet their neighbors, friends, and family as we travel through the events leading up to the horrific night described in the first sentence of the book and onwards through the incarcerations and trials of Abdul and other members of his family. Along the way we discover the realities of grinding poverty, the continual graft and corruption running through the Annawadi world, the brutal truths of modern life in India, and the glimmers of hope for a better life and future. I am horrified, I am grateful for my life, and I feel compelled to do something to make some difference. I want desperately to get e-mail updates about how Abdul and other people that I met in this book are doing. It should be clear to you that not only was I captured at the first sentence by this book, but I was compelled to read it straight through over a couple of days.

That first sentence was a good predictor. This is a very, very good book.

Abaddon’s Gate

Abaddon: destruction, the place of death

After I had raced through Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War I took a little breather, knitted some socks, and then took up the third book in The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey,  Abaddon’s Gate. I really liked the first two books in this series, and had high, high expectations for this book. I could hardly wait to start it. Not too long after digging in I began to realize that something was wrong.

Bobbie! Where was Bobbie (AKA Gunnery Sargent Roberta Draper of the Martian Marines)?

That’s right. The story has moved along and the characters who joined the crew of the Rocinante in Caliban’s War have moved on with their lives. The Protomolecule on Venus has built and launched a huge Ring that is now located out beyond the settled Belt region of the solar system. It appears to be a gateway to another place. It is not clear what this means, or how it will impact humans, but Mars, Earth, and the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA) all scramble to send ships to observe and study the Ring. It is a power struggle. Each fleet is anxious to protect the interests of their home populations while preventing any other group from achieving an advantage. Additional ships carry advisory boards, film crews, political and religious leaders, and other important/interested parties. Everyone senses that this is a pivotal moment in human history, and there is intense maneuvering to gain importance, insure legacies, secure elections, or become the interpreter of events. Oh yeah, there are also some scientists who plan to study the Ring.

Once again the story is told by characters experiencing events in different locations and circumstances. Holden is back on the Rocinante, and he is getting regular visits from “Miller” (from Leviathan Wakes), who appears to actually be an interface with the technology that controls the Ring. Clarissa Mao, connected to events in the previous books, hates Holden beyond reason and has created an intricate plan designed to disgrace and destroy him. Anna, a religious leader, gentle, resourceful, protective, and reflective, wonders what the Ring means. She struggles with the implications of impending contact with “something else”, and wants to support humanity during the time of adjustment. Bull, a no-nonsense head of security on the OPA ship, heads a mutiny to prevent an attack on the Ring.

This is an action-packed book. The fight to control the OPA ship is so intense that even the crew of the Rocinante wished they could have Bobbie back. And yet, the tone of this book is somehow different from the other two in the series. There is less snappy dialogue on the Rocinante; there is more tragedy and a sense of desperation in this plot. People come unglued. This book is also about revenge, faith, sacrifice and redemption. I liked the book, and found it to be remarkable on several levels. I am really looking forward to the next book in the series, Cibola Burn.

Gosh, maybe Bobbie will be back in that one…

 

 

 

Caliban’s War

Caliban: from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A subhuman offspring who seeks to repopulate his region with others like himself.

This book is the second in the The Expanse series written by James S. A. Covey. I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite books during the current publishing lull, and I read through the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, in about three days. I knew that I should take a couple of days off to catch up on other things but I dived right into the second book of the series, Caliban’s War. I just loved the characters so much I couldn’t wait to spend more time with them.

Well, that was a bad decision in terms of completing important tasks such as getting my income tax filed, house cleaned, and garden started, etc. Time stopped for me as I raced through the book in this, my third reading. Now to write about why this book was so good. I decided to call my sister, the English major, to get some help. “Oh, she says, “I never think about why I like the book. I really like how the book is written.” Oh, dear. I’m not qualified to talk about literary craftsmanship (I once asked a fellow teacher, in all seriousness, what a “thesis statement” was…), so I guess I’ll focus on the elements that compelled me to stay in bed all day reading the book.

This book picks up the story about a year after the events in Leviathan Wakes. It continues the tale of the Rocinante, the ship crewed by the survivors of a horrific attack on an ice mining ship. In the first book the crew saved the Earth from an alien technology (the Protomolecule) that would consume and remake all living matter according to its own design by crashing the asteroid carrying it onto Venus. There, that’s the end of that!

Nope. The game is still afoot: political entities and/or unknown corporations are secretly developing new technology using the Protomolecule with little regard for the welfare of others. Once again, seemingly random events occurring in different regions of the solar system need to be connected to figure out what is happening.

The old crew of the Rocinante remains intact, and during the book new characters join them. The characters grow in the telling of the tale, and I really like all of them. The story is told in Caliban’s War from the perspectives of Holden, Rocinante’s captain, and the new characters;  their understandings and viewpoints create a richness to the story that is really compelling.

One of the themes of Caliban’s War is that of system cascades. In biological and other systems, damage to a portion of the interconnected system can be repaired or compensated for by other units in the system. As the cascade gains momentum, however, everything begins to fall apart. This happens on Ganymede, the site of greenhouses that grow the majority of the food for the outer belt region of the solar system, but it also occurs with the clandestine Protomolecule research, the political status quo of the solar system, and even to some extent to the characters we meet in this book. All three of the new characters become damaged in some way, but each recovers, redirects, overcomes fears, and regains competence. They are not taken down by their individual system cascades. They ask the big questions, collect information, make correlations, and shrug off misdirection.

Here they are:

  • Bobbie:  Martian marine, and the sole survivor of the Protomolecule technology monster attack that triggers a shooting war between Mars and Earth. She ends up on Earth as part of the investigation into the events on Ganymede where the attack happened, and joins the staff of an Earth government official. Suffering from PTSD, in a place and job that is not her own, we don’t understand at first how very, very competent she is. Oh, did I mention that she has mechanized armor with kick-ass weapons attached?
  • Prax: Ganymede botanist and single father of Mei, a child with an immune system disorder who is abducted just prior to Bobbie’s monster’s attack on Ganymede. Starving, distraught, and desperate, he seeks Holden’s assistance to get his daughter back. His focus, drive, and insights, due to his personality and scientific training, are essential components in  the story  as seemingly unconnected events come together.
  • Avasarala: Earth government official and diplomat, she is shockingly foul-mouthed and direct. She adds Bobbie to her staff when she realizes Bobbie is the only witness to a Protomolecule weapon attack. Anchored by a remarkable and loving marriage, she relentlessly pursues the answer to Bobbie’s question: “Why isn’t anyone talking about the monster?” In a solar system whose planetary power politics and economic concerns drive actions and policy, she maneuvers to discover the truth behind Protomolecule weapons development while keeping a nervous eye on Venus where the Protomolecule from Leviathan Wakes is actively growing and building something.

See, great characters. As the events in the story proceed they all arrive on the Rocinante to join Holden and the crew. As the Rocinante’s crew interacts with the newcomers they grow and we learn more about them. What’s even better about this is that these rich characters and interactions occur within the context of SPACE OPERA! There are space battles, monster attacks, zombies, guns, explosions, you name it. The science is believable (even the zombies), the story well-constructed, and never a dull moment for the reader. There were a couple of points where I would have been biting my nails if I wasn’t flipping pages so quickly.

And that’s why I just read the book for the third time.