A Matter of Scale

But as Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.  So Bob brings us down from discussions of astral weather forecasts to common sense and the immediate moment.  If wind direction is of some interest to you, for whatever reason, just go stick your nose out the door and you can find out without recourse to some distant authority, which knows nothing of your immediate needs or desires.

But while you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, this view of things brings us back exactly to that future that is truly unpredictable.  You may stick your nose out the door to find out which way the wind blows and get struck by lightening.  In which case checking with the weather man might have been a good idea.

This all has something to do with the notion of scale.  When I taught a research paper writing course linked to biology, I sat through the first course in the introduction to biology class maybe six times.  Each time I found myself thinking about the issue of scale.

The lectures tended to start with the Marco-universe, the world of your larger organisms.  These are things that one can mostly see with the naked eye.  Then they would move onto the Micro-universe.  This was the realm of bacteria and viruses.  I found this a pretty fascinating universe; I was especially interested in the way the two universes micro-and macro overlapped.  Seems that over time, human beings (and other animals too of course) and the creatures of the microbial world have evolutionarily intertwined and become dependent on each other.  Were it not for bacteria we would not be able to digest many things, particularly minerals.  And I am sure the bacteria are happy to have us as a habitat.

But at the center of both the macro and the micro (call it the synthesis) lies the cell.  Bacteria have cells or are singled celled; and of course the macro-creatures have many, many cells.  All cells have a nucleus with DNA in it.  Viruses are not cells, but strands of naked DNA.

The cell though marks another shift in scale—from the animate to the inanimate.  Cells have photon pumps; I don’t know what these are exactly.  But they are in the cell membrane; they pump things in and out.  I don’t know which, but this pumping is made possible or is rather the result of a simple chemical “reaction” of some sort.  These reactions could take place anywhere.  They do not have to be in a cell to take place.  Rather the cell—somehow or other–has integrated these chemical “reactions” or mechanisms into the fabric of its ability to be animate.

The shift here in scale is enormous.  Incomprehensible, perhaps.  These chemical “mechanisms,” the very foundations of life, have nothing to do with life, and would go on happening whether life happened or not.

Below this—or maybe all around it—is physics somewhere.  Though we did not get to this in the first course in the Introduction to biology sequence.  Each step in this sequence takes us further and further away from that place where it is possible to know which way the wind blows by sticking your nose out the window.  And without each step in this sequence it would not be possible to stick your nose out the window at all.

One Reply to “A Matter of Scale”

  1. Your Aunt Doris, the former biology teacher, would be very proud of you. I have decided that you could teach practically anything. You are talented in many areas. Sometimes, your philosophical writings are way over my head but I can identify with bio, probably because of Mom.

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