The Creative Power of Destruction


Franklin College of Arts and Sciences ambassadors (left to right: Abiola Fakile, Omar Martinez-Uribe, Blake Edwards, and myself) with Lydia Babcock-Adams (left) and Dean Alan Dorsey at a groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Georgia Science Learning Center on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 in Athens, Ga.

Today, I ran into a beloved biochemistry professor of mine at the groundbreaking ceremony for UGA’s new Science Learning Center. I told him about a book I’m reading called Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself by Jamie Davies and about how Chapter 17 began with a quote off a car bumper sticker: “Support bacteria–they’re the only culture some people have.” This professor had himself proposed his own idea for a car bumper sticker in the introductory biochemistry class he teaches: “HONC if you love biochemistry” (HONC referring to the general rules by which hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon form one, two, three, and four covalent bonds, respectively, in stable organic molecules).

A Double-Edged Sword
I asked him if he had heard about the researchers from Johns Hopkins who have been using modified flesh-eating bacteria as anti-cancer agents. The researchers removed the gene responsible for the production of alpha-toxin (responsible for the breakdown of cytoskeletal structures in living cells) from Clostridium novyi, which thrives in hypoxic conditions, and proceeded to test the attenuated strain in various organisms by injecting spores directly into the tumor site. In each case, the modified bacteria consumed tumor cells while leaving healthy tissue intact. Reading about this research got me thinking about the healing power of destruction at large. Similar to the way in which the Johns Hopkins researchers saw the curing potential of flesh-eating bacteria, so did Marie Curie see the potential for panacea with radium. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue. And thus the idea of radiation therapy was born (today, safer radioactive substances such as cobalt and cesium are used). Oftentimes, destruction seems catastrophic, devastating, and ultimately tragic. But destruction also holds the power to treat disease, create novel forms of life, and ultimately pave the way for new beginnings.

Life will always find a way.
In the natural world, severe disturbances to terrestrial communities, whether the result of natural disasters or human activity, often lead to a process called ecological succession in which a disturbed area is colonized by a variety of species, which are gradually replaced by other species, which are in turn replaced by still other species in a seemingly interminable circle-of-life cycle. Initially, severe environmental disturbances reduce species diversity, but life eventually reemerges. When this process begins in a practically lifeless area where soil has not yet formed, it is called primary succession. The only organisms initially present are usually prokaryotes and protists, and lichens and mosses are commonly the first macroscopic photosynthesizers on the scene. Soil eventually develops as rocks weather and organic matter from the decomposed remains of the first colonizers begins to accumulate. Once soil is present, lichens and mosses are usually overgrown by grasses, shrubs, and trees that sprout from seeds blown in from nearby areas or carried into the area by animals. Secondary succession occurs when an existing community has been cleared by some disturbance that leaves the soil intact, as in Yellowstone following the 1988 fires. Communities subject to these kinds of disturbances recover more quickly than those in which a disturbance has wiped out most of the native, resident life. Nevertheless, life always resurges.

Fossil evidence indicates that diversity of life has increased after each of the five big mass extinctions, due to adaptive radiations, periods of evolutionary change in which groups of organisms diversify into many new species whose adaptations facilitate the creation and development of new niches in their communities. Several of these radiations gave rise to adaptations that facilitated life on land. The radiation of land plants, for example, is associated with key adaptations, such as vascular systems to support against gravity and waxy cuticles to protect leaves from water loss. Even after events as devastating as mass extinctions, life, resilient as it is, picks up the pieces and begins to rebuild like the phoenix rising from the ashes.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that destruction and creation go hand in hand.
Using a computer simulation, Cardiff University astronomer Scott Balfour and his colleagues have recently reproduced the iconic and aptly named Pillars of Creation, a trio of gas columns located inside the Milky Way’s Eagle Nebula. The pillars themselves are the product of a massive nearby O-type star, but the formation of these star-creating factories has been unclear until now. O-stars are the universe’s largest, hottest stars, which lead very short lives and wreak havoc upon death. Balfour’s simulation shows that O-stars not only initiate the creation of stars in their nearby vicinity but also destroy star-forming clouds by compressing surrounding gas to initiate the birth of stars prematurely.

We are all star dust.
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the creative power of destruction is the fact that our very existence is predicated upon the occurrence of a very destructive event: the death of a star, which sometimes results in a supernova. In the beginning was hydrogen, the simplest atom that exists. Only a star is capable of synthesizing heavier elements under extreme temperatures and pressures. Near the end of their lives, heavy-mass stars collapse and explode, scattering carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other heavy elements across the galaxy. As Carl Sagan famously said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, and the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.” We are literally star stuff. NASA Astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller eloquently explains the beautifully violent act by which we come into being:

Through the Looking Glass of Science

IMG_4942 IMG_4935
“The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.”
―George Sand

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
―William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you.”
―Neil deGrasse Tyson

1) Science is a tool which indiscriminately allows us to obtain a greater understanding of the laws dictating the phenomena in our world and the universe at large.

The goal of science is to illuminate fundamental truths concerning the workings of the universe. As NPR blogger Adam Frank puts it, “Science — under all its theories, equations, experiments and data — is really trying to teach us to see the sacred in the mundane and the profound in the prosaic.” More than a subject, a discipline, or a field of study, science is a lens through which we can perceive our surroundings. As British biologist Lewis Wolpert expounded, “I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is.”

2) Closely attached to the practice of science is the cultivation of skepticism and the need for empirical evidence.

“The skeptic does not mean he who doubts, but he who investigates or researches, as opposed to he who asserts and thinks that he has found.”
―Miguel de Unamuno

“A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable.”
―Carl Sagan

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Richard Feynman

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”
Stuart Firestein

Much of the beauty of science lies in its objectivity. Science advances on a foundation rooted in empirical observation, painstaking data collection, accuracy, and reproducibility. Commitment to the scientific method is not a matter of faith. That being said…

3) Science is nourished not only by reason and observation but also by imagination. Science makes use of that wonderful blend of curiosity, skepticism, and imagination to create and innovate.

I believe in intuition and inspiration…Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorismsp. 97 (1931)

“It is, I admit, mere imagination; but how often is imagination the mother of truth?”
Sherlock HolmesThe Valley of Fear

“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it…No! Don’t laugh―it’s really true!”
Richard Feynman

“It is important, at the present time, to bear in mind that the human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.”
―Victor Hugo, “William Shakespeare”

Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in the department of physiology at Oxford University, writes about the complementarity between knowledge and imagination: “At both group and individual levels, knowledge facilitates community and continuity, while imagination facilitates change. Knowledge binds us to a sometimes-oppressive existence; imagination helps us escape it. However, imagination evolved as a tool for facilitating survival. Imagining, we take a step beyond what we know into the future or into another world. We see alternatives and possibilities; we work out what we need to reach our goals.”

Imagination and creativity often fuel the fires of scientific innovation. In the process, ideas previously considered impossible often become reality.

4) Science only adds to the mystery, wonder, and excitement; it cannot subtract. Sometimes, not having all the answers is part of the fun.

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
―Richard Feynman

“The possession of knowledge does not kill
the sense of wonder and mystery.
There is always more mystery.”
―Anaïs Nin

“Music and physics are nourished by the same sort of longing.”
―Einstein’s character, Einstein and Eddington

 When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

 When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
 When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
 When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
       measure them;
 When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
       applause in the lecture-room,
 How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
 Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
 In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
 Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

–Walt Whitman

The poem that Joan Feynman references is actually written by Walt Whitman. Nevertheless, I couldn’t disagree more with its fundamental claim: that science somehow robs nature of all its wonder and beauty. On the contrary, I feel that the science and math behind the laws of nature have a certain elegance of their own. The scientific beautifully complements the aesthetic, and for this reason, I will never be a proponent for the perpetuation of the “two worlds” ideology; science and the arts are two sides of the same coin. Rather than reduce the universe to a bunch of facts and figures, science frees the mind to experience the universe in all its glorious fullness, as it really is.