Thursday, September 16, 2010

Palin again: rRNA beyond the pale, or the suppressed pun?

In this, my final posting of the summer, I will get political. Hee hee. Yes, in a rare foray into the maelstrom of the popular news, I reach in for a piece of verbal excitement, much as our Uncle Gilbert did - and behold I am rescued by a name and a word from the newspaper!

Yes, I was pondering what I would write about for some time, in fact. There's lots of computing to talk about, and lots of science, and lots and lots of Chesterton to apply - he is, after all, a great bridge-builder, if not quite as the ancient Romans used the word pontifex, or the ancient Hebrews spoke of the order of Melchizedek... and I am not the engineer he was, but I try. I thought about starting a series of "Chesterton-related" books - but could hardly get past The Phantom Tollbooth and The Miracle of the Bells and The Haunted Bookshop... Or, if I had more guts-and-gumption, something on the INTERNET or even on the hilarious 14th century "Tweetbook" phrase gaudent moderni brevitate. The character limit is so silly, it feels Aztec (or is it Mayan) with their 260-day horoscope calendar - but I am far too busy to write such studies just now. Thinking of the INTERNET and the nearly complete collection of GKC's writings now available "for free" (as people say) made me apply a standard method of inversion, one of those rare "problem-solving" techniques which escape the moderns who delight in brevity like those who are employed in education: that is, I could consider some questions which the usual "search tools" cannot solve, even if there really was such a collection available - like, what Latin did GKC use. I explored that some time ago, and had a list somewhere... and something made me wonder what... Ah but I must not anticipate my pun. I wondered about GKC's use of a certain form of word, and was about to ask that question of AMBER (since I am the one who does the work, not my computer) But it seemed too dull as a topic - a verbal firework, indeed, but a fizzle. I had almost decided on starting a little "education" series on heraldry, since I have those five coats-of-arms from my Saga hanging on my laser printer for inspiration, and I had recalled from memory my little cheat-sheet I handed out at the seminar I gave some years ago at the Chesterton Conference. It would be fun, talking about the colors, such curious words: Or, argent, gules, azure, vert, sable - and the Law, and the Ordinaries, the fess, the pale...

(For example, this arms is blazoned: Vert, a pale Or.)

Then I stopped. Pale. Verbal fireworks. Oh my. GKC's use of... Well, what is a "pale"? In heraldry, this is a vertical band or stripe. It comes from the Latin palus = a stake, related to pango = I drive in, fasten. It comes up in the odd, almost antique sounding phrase "beyond the pale" which really means nothing more than "outside the fence". Chesterton uses "paling" (fence) over 30 times; we heard it used recently in his The Ball and the Cross where a staurophobe saw the cross repeated. And then, I noted the prefix in this word "paling" was the same five letters (though not of the same derivation) as the prefix in another famous word - the word which had been on my mind as one worth researching in AMBER: the word palindrome.

We know that drome comes from the Greek "run" - a hippodrome is a place for horse-races. But what is this prefix PALIN?

Ah, you say, and laugh, with smug running down your face. Doc, Doc! This is some political column! BORING.

No it is not. I know who Sarah Palin is, and have my own opinions; they are irrelevant for my purpose today. You will find neither encomium nor obloquy here. (If you don't understand me, you had better go buy a dictionary. You'll need it when you go to read Chesterton; he uses them too.)

But let us consider words. The Greek palin means "again" or "once more". It comes up in several very curious English words:
palimpsest = "scraped again"
palingenesis = "born again"
palindrome = "run again"
palinode = "sung again"
But since you have your dictionary out already you can consider the others as you wish. (To my knowledge GKC only uses one, and that only once; guess which.) For now let's just look at "palindrome" - or rather at palindromes.

You know them. Words like "noon" and "radar". Sentences like "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama." That one is perhaps the best known and most famous. They come up in other languages, too: one need not study very much Latin before one trips over that famous irregular verb esse - or illi or ibi or non or ecce. In a book called Mother Tongue [page 227] I found mention of two from the classical tongues:
Nispon anomimata mi monan opsin

Which the Greeks wrote on fountains: "Wash the sin as well as the face". And the Romans had this witty saying:
In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
If Bilbo and Gollum had been trading Latin riddles, the challenge "We enter the circle after dark and are consumed by fire" would be answered by "moths" (or tinea).

Now, of what earthly good are palindromes? Or are they just a silliness, a toy of the tongue, or prehaps more correctly, of the printed word?

Well... besides being a kind of rarity, and hence interesting, they happen to arise in a very curious place, where they have what I would suggest is a rather startling purpose. When I was doing my doctorate, I got to become familiar with something called prokaryotic rRNA - the ribosomal RNA of bacteria, which was being studied by some of the biologists at that School-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Among other things, I learned a little about the "shape" of rRNA. Remember what I said in previous columns, how letters have two "hands" - a left hand and a right hand - by which they chain together to form a word. In the same way the nucleotide "bases" of rRNA have two hands, a 5-prime hand and a 3-prime hand, by which they chain together to form the molecule of rRNA. These are around 1500 bases long, and have various amazing details which would take far too long to describe... maybe some other time. But one of the additional things about these "bases" are that they have a characteristic like letters - in fact, we use letters to name them: A, C, G, U. These letters, however, are unlike the written letters of language in that they have an additional property. We cannot pile a letter on top of another (Note, in Scrabble, we merely agree to let "up" mean left and "down" mean right.) These "bases" are able to BIND or link in a kind of vertical sense - yes, even while they stay in their places within the word! But they must obey a certain rule. The base called "A" may link with the base called "U". The base called "C" may link with the base called "G". And it is permitted that the base A "sit next to" a "G" base.... Anyway, this binding is called the "Watson-Crick" pairing, and one may even form palindromes according to this pairing, such as ...AAAGGGU.....ACCCUUU...

Doc you are crazy. Why bother with all this?

Yeah, well, that's what some biologists seemed to think too. They fuss about evolution and linked mutations and stuff like that. But you see there's something else going on. As Chesterton liked to say, it's too big to be seen. [See "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown] And perhaps you won't see it. It's not easy to guess unless you've been reading along with us.

Normally, there are lots and lots of things we SEE but we do not OBSERVE. There are many of these, in our spoken language, and even more in our printed language. I have said several times how ancient Latin and Greek did not use something so simple and common - something we use constantly, something which if I left it out you would GO INSANE, even if you weren't reading my writing. Take a look:

It's the very simple character called the SPACE - ASCII 20 hex, if you want the technical term. They strung their letters and words together without spaces - ah, how much more advanced we are. (And now, since "the moderns rejoice in brevity" perhaps our twitbooks will ban that character, hee hee.) But without trying to get technical, the space plays an important part, even if it is no more than making something readable.

So too, perhaps, the Watson-Crick palindrome plays a part. It may be suggested that these things play a role akin to the spaces - or, perhaps to make the argument a bit stronger, akin to the indentations in poetry. Now, I happen to know (since I read Chesterton) that not all indentation implies a rhyme scheme - for example I propose his poem that doesn't rhyme. You may wonder if I have completely lost my marbles, maybe got infected by those prokaryotes in the lab? Chesterton wrote a poem that doesn't rhyme?

Oh yes... It's one of my favorites, too. I wonder if it's been reprinted. Ah well, I'll leave that to you for homework. Hee hee.

But, as odd as it sounds, due to this matter of what the biologists call "linked mutations" - that is, when one base on one side of the palindrome changes, it is almost guaranteed that the corresponding one on the other side will also change, and to the exactly proper matching base. It appears that these palindromes form "helices" which hold the rRNA molecule in its proper shape... so in some sense, it is irrelevant what the bases "spell" as long as there are just enough to keep the two parts aligned and stuck together - and the rest of the thing at its proper shape. In the same way, we don't mind TOO much if there is a little MORE spacing between words, or a little less - this is the trick typographers use to make that elegant right-justified margin which is the trademark of tradition, and so repelling in this age of the "all-powerful" modern computer. Ahem. Yeah, that was being sarcastic: remember they cannot even add correctly! Oh my.

I have just one more little item to add - maybe I should say one word. Hee hee. Perhaps it was lurking in my mind, as it was over a week ago when I saw the article, and I laughed, since no one wanted to mention Dodgson in the context. Maybe it was too striking - or maybe I just happen to read the right books - like Chesterton, who (thank God) read Dodgson, even if he was a math professor. (How many of you lit'ry folk read books by math professors? Or even blogg-postings by computer scientists? Oh, very good. Welcome to our family, sit down and make yourself comfortable, but be sure to fasten your safety harness it gets bumpy.)

What word? you ask.

Apparently there was some discussion centering on something which the newspaper spelled "REFUDIATE" - which it seems was used by someone named Palin. Palin again? Yes, indeed.

And this word - which is not really a word at all, but a sort of verbal glitch - made people laugh. I don't know if it was a slip of the tongue or a typographical error, and it hardly matters. One of Chesterton's most profound scientific statements is based on a typographical error which I expect he encountered many times:
...the printer's tendency to turn the word "cosmic" into the word "comic." It annoyed me at the time. But since then I have come to the conclusion that the printers were right. The democracy is always right. Whatever is cosmic is comic.
[GKC ILN June 9 1906 CW27:206]
It's too bad more astronomers and physicists have not encoutnered this typograpical error - maybe like me they do their own typesetting and proofreading, hee hee. Now this laughter is a good thing, as we know, even if, as GKC speculates in the last sentence of Orthodoxy, that Christ hid His own laughter from us. I could spend a whole column on this - and no doubt will, though I prefer to handle it in my fiction, as you may already know. Ahem.

In that important reference work called The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo defeated the demon called the "Senses Taker" with laughter. Harry Potter tells Frank and George to work on their joke-shop, since: "I could do with a few laughs. We could all deal with a few laughs. I've got a feeling we're going to need them more than usual before long." [JKR Goblet of Fire HP 4:733; see note below] In other words, laughter may be important in the impending battle. And of course we can all recite Chesterton's most famous quote about angels being able to take themselves lightly - which is about the importance of laughter. (No wonder he would think it correct to say "I'm what's wrong with the world"!)

But more than being simply a joke, this word "refudiate" happens to be an example of an important method of word-formation: a method which was practiced by one of the Great Authors of Literature, the mathematician named C. L. Dodgson. Perhaps you do not know Dodgson, or only know him under his logon screen ID or whatever the twitbook thing is called, hee hee. But since Chesterton happened to write about it, I will give you the references. It's grand:
In my pure and ardent youth I had a proposal that the names of husband and wife should be not hyphened but telescoped. They could be made into portmanteau words, as Lewis Carroll made "Slithy" out of "Writhing" and "Slimy." In that case my imaginary married couple would not be called Ponderbury-Ballymulligan; they would be called simply Ponderbulligan or Banderpulgury. This would be more convenient for telegrams, if not for shipwrecks. One can see how swiftly and smoothly it would fit itself to most marriages of society.
[GKC ILN Apr 29 1911 CW29:78]

Now, Lewis Carroll was a very Victorian Victorian. But he did identically the same thing; only he happened to know that it was funny, and therefore he did it for fun. He invented what he called "portmanteau words," with the sense of two words telescoped into one. Thus he explained that "brillig" is a combination of "brilliant" and "grilling"; or that "slithy" is a portmanteau of "lithe" and "slimy." This particular instance happens to illustrate what I mean when I say that I am not a mere partisan. The author of "Alice in Wonderland" is not an ideal being whom I revere, or hold up to be revered. In some respects he was much too Victorian a Victorian. On some matters he really was much too solemn. But he was not solemn about portmanteau words...
[GKC ILN Sept 12 1931 CW35:589-90]

I am almost certain that many moderns suffer from what may be called the disease of the suppressed pun. I mean that, in men who ould disdain to make anything so vulgar as a joke out of a verbal coincidence, there is a subconscious movement of the mind to meet the sound of the word. Thus those who would denounce creeds (a Latin word for anything that anybody believes) are seldom or never, you will notice, moved to describe them by any milder name; they must have a word that sounds like a portmanteau of "crank" and "crabbed" and "greed." They cannot really let themselves go in reviling doctrine. It must be in reviling dogma. They would never sink so low as to make a positive pun about it...
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:347]
Ah, wonderful! Let us all strive to refudiate the grave and the glum by taking ourselves lightly. For homework, try to make up your own portmanteau word. Get it into the media somehow - at least post a comment with its derivation, meaning, and use in a sentence. Special bonus points to anyone who contrives one in Latin or Greek.

P.S. If you dislike my quoting Harry Potter, recall that Aquinas quotes pagans - even St. Paul quotes pagans, Benedict XVI quotes Nietzche, and Chesterton quotes Shaw. We need to continually recall the friendship of GBS and GKC, always recalling that Chesterton could write about his foes in this way:
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic - that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
I may be quite wrong too - but I hope to be honest, and I trust we shall remain friends. We need only look to Uncle Gilbert as a reminder.


  1. It's funny that there's already a portmanteau to describe Chesterton's relationship with Shaw: "frenimies."

    After seeing Chesterton's generous attitude towards his foes, does it seem erronic (or ironeus?)to anyone else for a Chestertonian to say that "progessivism is poison," as someone is quoted below as saying? (Of course, that speaker does get bipartisanship points for also apparently having refudiated some conservatives as "idiots.")

  2. Sarah Palin is a strong anti-abortionist in both faith and practice. I should think it highly unorthodox if any Chestertonian were to assail her while praising such enablers of abortion as the late Ted Kennedy. We need more non-Catholics like Palin and fewer Catholics like Ted Kennedy.

    One's attitude towards abortion defines morality today as slavery did in the 19th century.

  3. It would indeed be unChestertonian to promote immorality over morality, which no one here seems to have done.

    I admire Mrs. Palin for her strong family values.

  4. Except of course, that Palin is not pro-life as much as she is against abortion with certain exceptions and of course, her pro-contraception position. Not very strong family values in my book.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!