Tom Jonard's Life Page

    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.

    I 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 life.  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 discovery. 

    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 humanity of the same diseases.  But to know one is possibly destined to die of the same 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 undoubtedly commonly 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 as living 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 set out.

    Of all the questions and issues we could explore here perhaps the first should be, What is life?

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Created April 30, 2004, 
© 2004, Thomas A. Jonard