Thursday, September 02, 2010

2b or not 2b

Wow. I just spotted an amazing comment made on one of my earlier postings, to wit, the one on positive and negative triangles. Here it is:
Sheila writes: Ooh, I actually knew about the "handed" isomers of amino acids -- Dr. Marshner brought them up in our apologetics class! Only one isomer (I forget if it is the left- or right-handed version) works in the human body -- making the chances of proteins forming randomly in the primordial sludge even LESS statistically likely.
posted August 31 2010
What a triumph - there is a theology professor SOMEWHERE who KNOWS about isomers of amino acids!

Here, for example, is a rendition of the amino acid called alanine. Again, remember, there are two versions - here is one and here is its mirror...

This is excellent... and quite exciting. It may mean there are some philosophers who will have a clue about life and the real world. It is all very well to make odd and unattributed claims (as curiously humorous as they are) about papal encyclicals - but the truth of amino acids will stand no matter how many "philosophers" write journal articles against them or against their study. Perhaps, in this decadent time, there are some who do not believe in such things, as there are some who do not believe in the motions of the earth, or in the multiplicity of the chemical elements. I have no time for such silliness; I have real work to do. And real poetry to write. Indeed! I was able to hear Dr. Marshner at the recent conference, and I can readily imagine how he brought this important chemical fact to bear upon the moral and philosophical topics at hand. Such grand work gives us an excellent and most hopeful vision of greater things to come. And the mystery is far deeper, as we shall consider today.

Since carbon has four bonds, oriented along the vertices of a tetrahedron, there peers out from this common chemical the Sign of the Cross - yes, to the despair of iconoclasts and - er - a certain tribe of staurophobes.

Since this geometric truth is a bit difficult to describe, I will give you some pictures. But - er - since they are two dimensional, you will still have to exert your intellects, though not quite so much as if I only used words.

In the first, we see a tetrahedron - that is, a four-sided thing, sort of like a pyramid, except in pyramids the bottoms are square, and here the bottom is triangular.

All four sides are triangles. You can make one yourself, it's fun. Just cut out four equilateral triangles - that is, where all the edges are the same length - and then tape their edges together. Even easier, just print this picture and then cut it out - DON'T cut into the diagram, just around the outside - then FOLD on the lines, and tape it up, and you will have yourself a nice little tetrahedron.

Now for the intellectual part. Imagine a little ball floating in its middle - you got it?

Good. Let's make it blue, just because I like blue. (Actually, in the usual color scheme it ought to be black, but you already saw that in the diagram of alanine.)

Next, imagine four lines reaching out from the ball to the four CORNERS of the tetrahedron. (Or look at the picture.)

All right. Now for the tricky part. Instead of looking at it from the SIDE of the tetrahedron, try looking at it from the EDGE:


Those four lines represent the four single bonds of carbon. If you make several and then label them with letters, and try rotating them, you will see that there are TWO kinds, which work just like the left hand and the right hand - that is what is called "chiral" or "handed".

Organic chemistry, then, contains its own very special hint - a kind of subtle reminder - of the Passion. It is eminently fitting; all the sciences and all the technical disciplines carry the burden, just as history and civics and literature and music... it's suggested in that very curious and disturbing comment about Christ's lament over Jerusalem:
Therefore the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom. It is a story that begins in the paradise of Galilee, a pastoral and peaceful land having really some hint of Eden, and gradually climbs the rising country into the mountains that are nearer to the storm-clouds and the stars, as to a Mountain of Purgatory. He may be met as if straying in strange places, or stopped on the way for discussion or dispute; but his face is set towards the mountain city. That is the meaning of that great culmination when he crested the ridge and stood at the turning of the road and suddenly cried aloud, lamenting over Jerusalem. Some light touch of that lament is in every patriotic poem; or if it is absent, the patriotism stinks with vulgarity.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:339-340]
If Chesterton can tie patriotism and poetry into the Great Story of the Crucifixion, I shall by no means refrain from tying in chemistry and three-dimensional graphics and all sorts of other matters. It may seem to be an inversion of St. Paul's restriction, "while I was among you I was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified" [see 1Cor2:2] It is rather a more extensive application of that clause from the Nicene Creed, "per quem omnia facta sunt" = "Through Him all things were made". If there were no rocks there could be no Calvary; if no plants, there could be no cross; if no iron, there could be no nails; if no moon, there could be no Passover to signal the proper date; if no sun, there would be nothing to announce the dire extremity of the death of God... if no humans, there would be no reason for Him to have suffered.

Is it annoying to think of the cross always?

Is it annoying to think of your mother and father, your spouse, your children?

Is it annoying to think of One who loves you? Or the token of His love?

However - we know the cross is annoying to some. You may recall that very interesting introductory chapter to The Ball and the Cross, the great debate between Father Michael and Professor Lucifer...
"I once knew a man like you, Lucifer," he said, with a maddening monotony and slowness of articulation. "He took this..."
"There is no man like me," cried Lucifer, with a violence that shook the ship.
"As I was observing," continued Michael, "this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife's neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, [vertical stakes; a picket fence] when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river."
Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.
"Is that story really true?" he asked.
"Oh, no," said Michael, airily. "It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross]
And so, we now see that this hated symbol stares out from the very essence of life... I once heard how a "certain country" banned a certain kind of army boot because it left tread-marks with a plus-sign... I don't know if they have also banned computer keyboards, along with ASCII code 2b, which produces that "+" character yet; I wonder if they will forbid coal, charcoal, oil, and diamonds - and end up forbidding all organic compounds - compounds containing carbon - including their own bodies. They too follow that man Father Michael describes; they too may be found in the river. It is a pity.

Enough. Let us think more positive thoughts, then.

You didn't catch the Hamlet pun, did you? Or did you?

You should recall this famous line:
If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, "To be or not to be - that is the question," then the massive medieval doctor [Aquinas] does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, "To be - that is the answer."
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:489]
It has fallen to computer science and the ASCII character set to link this great truth of ontology with the very Sign of the Cross. It is the sign that is opposed - but it is also the sign of reality. (The squares of imaginary numbers are negative; the squares of reals are marked with the cross, I mean a plus sign.) This universe, the only real universe, is the one which has sun and moon, rocks and trees, iron and all the rest - it has Man, and thus it has the Cross.

P.S. I am aware that the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross comes later this month, on the 14th to be exact; but somehow this seemed to be a most fitting derivative of Sheila's comment, and I hope you will consult it again, either on the 14th, or during a future Holy Week. All things, after all, science and engineering as much as literature and history, must glorify God. And they do.

P.S.#2: I forgot I had posted (quite some time ago) this poem about this curious character.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, glad you liked the comment! I knew Dr. Marshner was your sort of theologian.

    You know the human body is shaped like a cross on the exterior, right? (In fact this is why Christ was killed on a cross -- it was shaped like his body.)

    "We tattered rhymers of the trade
    Work with weak symbols for great power:
    We paint a rose and call it Love,
    But Love is more than any flower.

    "The first the circle -- endlessness,
    God's compass traced in tree and flower;
    The next the cross -- the eternal twain --
    Cross-purposes that make a power."

    And, of course, of the two of them, the cross goes on top. :)


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