Sunday, November 16, 2008

refractions of the thousand theatres

I’ve been reading the late Lily Kay’s The Molecular View of Life, which she began by riding hell-for-leather on the thesis that Caltech – and indeed American biochem and mol bio -- came out of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The thesis rests on the idea that the funding came from business types interested in eugenics, notably the Rockefeller Foundation trustees, and she spends a good long time nailing down the origins of the business class’s interest in eugenics.

Though Kay was careful to show that most of the scientists involved played the eugenics interest assiduously, I don’t know that in the end the motive for giving money was all that important. I suspect that the money bent those scientists’ work about as much as Templeton money bends its recipients’ labwork today. It’s true their talk in the service of the Templeton money may influence where other money goes, and how the labwork is interpreted; but the story Kay told suggests even Templeton is pissing into the wind, and that the bent of future research will be controlled neither by scientists nor by moneymen with grand social ideas. What put an end to the (frequently diffuse and incoherent) eugenics talk in funding, and made the funders recollect themselves and start talking human welfare, wasn’t some bunch of opposing moneybags. It was Hitler and Hiroshima. The first made eugenics shameful; the second made humble lifesaving opportune. And so postwar, by Kay’s story, we embarked on 60 years of lifesaving-driven science, and wrote new copy for science done in the name of “the biological improvement of the race”. The scientists throughout seemed obsessed primarily with the question of how things work.

By the middle of the book she’d left the funding ideology behind and was busy telling science stories from Caltech. I was stopped by the tension between structural chemistry and molecular biology -- a minor one in the book, but interesting to me. I may be misunderstanding what the two fields are, or were, but it strikes me that the tension comes from structural chemistry’s static view – coming as it did from x-ray crystallography -- and molecular biology’s insistance on dynamics, time, sequence, mass action. This is not a tension that’s unique to science; it’s a major tension in art. There is tremendous energy and presence in the static thing, as any good painting shows, and yet we know it is a lie; things move, things join, the world is flux.

How can we know a thing by watching it move, though? Every impulse of mine is to catch a thing and hold it still, examine it and know its qualities. Fixed things have enough motion of their own. Let them go, and too much happens; there are too many frames going by too fast, to understand the life of a crowd or a town except in broadest description, which is unsatisfying – to me, anyway. I imagine that to some a cell is also too busy and in too much motion. Mass action instead of the particular.

Here is Hart Crane on New York, all motion:

Performances, assortments, resumes –
Up Times Square to Columbus Circle lights
Channel the congresses, nightly sessions,
Refractions of the thousand theatres, faces –
Mysterious kitchens….You shall search them all.
Someday by heart you’ll learn each famous sight
And watch the curtain lift in hell’s despite;
You’ll find the garden in the third act dead,
Finger your knees – and wish yourself in bed
With tabloid crime-sheets perched in easy sight.

and on the Brooklyn Bridge, a thing:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings, --
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel –
Transparent meshes – fleckless the gleaming staves –
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings….

It hardly moves less. How strange that we should want to understand things in ways we seem not to be made for. To understand life and flux as ferociously and deeply as a butterfly on a pin, or crystallized hemoglobin, or a red chair, or a bridge, or a face, or any other thing we can hold still and stare at. Why should we understand the mass as rapturously as we know the particular?


John Freakin Hessler said...

Art. Science. Love. Joy. All one thing really. Post more, woman! This is good stuff.

J.S. said...

I love Joseph Stella's work. Phenomenal.