Tom Jonard's Life
remains one of the fundamental challenges to our understanding.
Others may still refer to the "mystery of life" but it seems clear that
there is much about this subject which is far from mysterious.
Mysteries are things we cannot know and will never be able to
understand. Life on the
other hand seems knowable just not yet known -- a challenge to the
human mind that is gradually growing in our understanding even as we
watch. When I was young this great adventure was just beginning
and it was still possible to speak of the "mystery of life" without
being simply poetic or
nostalgic. Then a child could choose biology as a career with a
future of guaranteed exploration and discovery.
have been lucky enough to live during what may only turn out to be the
beginning of a revolution in our understanding of how chemistry powers
I have seen the birth of the field of molecular biology itself; and the
discovery of the basic molecules that power us and make us who
we; and again most recently their decoding. To invoke the
"mystery of life" now risks either demonstrating an ignorance of this
progress or a willful and ignorant desire desire to ignore it. It
is not mystery that powers us
on but the wonder and the excitement of continued exploration and
The universe of life is the universe of the small. Yet it rivals
the larger universe of which it is but a part. The human body
contains billions of cells. The human brain contains billions of
neurons. The human genetic code contains billions of
proteins. The only other field in which we encounter numbers of
this magnitude is in the study of the universe as a whole -- in the
stars and galaxies. In this sense is it most appropriate to speak
of the universe of life -- a microcosm within each of us as elaborate
and bountiful as any outside of us. The allure of each of these vaste cosmos is the same -- to know the unknown.
Yet there is a striking difference between the cosmos over our heads
and the one within our skins. In the latter case that cosomos is
both ours and us. We each both possess and are such vaste
complexes of matter and energy. It is a fact both awe inspiring
and alarming. What we discover about our internal cosmos can have
immediate and direct impact on our lives and how we live them.
There are also implications for how and what we think about ourselves
and others. Exploration of the cosmos overhead mostly lacks such
immediacy and intimacy.
We are discovering both hidden disease and the means to rid
the same diseases. But to know one is possibly destined to die of
disease as a parent is not the same as knowing that in the same
diagnosis lies the hidden cure. The first casts a shadow over
what might be. The second casts not just hope but also the
possibility of hope frustrated by dependence on science and industry to
bring forth the promised cure. We are becoming dependent on
others in new and possibly unsettling ways.
Decoding the human and other genomes we have discovered that there is
precious little difference between us and other animals and even
less among ourselves. There are no races just the human race. We have also found that all organisms on earth use the
same genetic coding and the same genetic material. All organisms even share many
genes. We are all -- all living things -- fundamentally related and
descended. Life was created only once on earth and we are all
children of that creation.
We are only at the beginning of a great adventure of exploration
and discovery. As in other areas of science we have expanded our
horizons only to discover a larger territory beyond any new boarder we
can stake out -- a
greater unknown. It is remarkable that in so limited a confines
organisms this could be true. The more we discover
the more it is clear that we do not know nor did we even suspect when we first
Of all the questions and issues we could explore here perhaps the first should be,
What is life?
to Tom Jonard's Science page
Created April 30, 2004,
© 2004, Thomas A. Jonard