The Breath of Life


The complexity and beauty of life are transformative.  Just a moment’s contemplation of your own hand, observing the complex structure and functionality, the blood vessels, the hair, skin, skeletal  structure, joints, the ability to make it respond to your every command, can invoke a sense of the wonder of how it all works.  If you take the time to look closer, with a magnifying glass or microscope, you will see things you might never knew existed: vast fractured landscapes, hills and valleys.  You may see things that make this supposedly familiar part of you seem foreign: strange, moist valleys, dry wastelands, tiny creatures moving about.  In truth, you would have to spend about a month of exploration just getting to know the back of your own hand, and that is only the top layer of the skin, saying of nothing of the wonders that exist beneath the skin.

Certainly, this concept applies to more than just your hand, the same could be said of all life.  In all honesty, a true understanding of how life works requires a much closer view inside the structure of living things, past the tissues, down into the cells, past the living cell structures and past the bustling activity of thousands of different cellular components, down to the smallest elements of the working internal machinery.  It is here where the secret of life resides and where we might find our answers to how all life works.  Most scientific investigation of things on this small of a scale is relatively recent.  When my father was born, simple, basic cell structure was first being investigated.  When I was born, DNA and its function were first being explored.

During my lifetime, knowledge has grown exponentially to the point where we have mapped the whole human genome and now know almost 1% of the internal workings of a cell.  The acquisition of knowledge is a noble and worthy pursuit, embodying the greatest accomplishments of this century.  Discoveries are being made daily.  My children will possibly live in a day where the majority of fundamental cellular microbiological mechanisms will be known and much of the secret of life revealed.

How and where will the secret of life be found?  In my youth I was taught that an atom was the smallest fundamental unit of all matter.  In my young mind, I reasoned that the mysteries of how all things work must be found in the atom.  I was so enamored by this concept that I ended up studying atomic physics in college and later went on to earn my Ph.D. in that field.  The answers to the universe, I thought, must be found in how the atoms work.  After all, there only exist a grand total of less than 100 stable types of atoms.  Out of those there are only 20 or so necessary for life processes and the vast majority of the molecules of life are combinations of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Sulfur, only 6 of them.  In the innocence of youth, I reasoned, it should not be too hard to figure out how everything works, it’s like putting together tinker toys or Legos where only a few different types of Legos exist.  I may have underestimated just a bit how many different things you can build with just this limited set of “Legos”.