Tuesday, July 7, 2009

ChemCiv 101

A half-hour wait today at a dermatologist’s examination room, nothing to read, drew me to the posters on the wall. Of these the most fascinating was a rich, labeled artist’s rendering of a highly-enlarged cross section of skin, certainly the least threatening of such charts in physicians’ offices—despite the presence on this poster of insets showing dangerous melanoma.

Charts of this type draw me like magnets; their study suspends the slow motion of time in such situations. The quote from Hamlet invariably rises: What a piece of work is man. This chart had special virtues. Elements on it were also shown in successively greater detail so that, for instance, you could discover the multilayered complexity of a single hair, showing in fractal succession how complexity hides within complexity, and the end seems unattainable.

We know enough today to expect complexity in the body, but its presence in the skin is particularly impressive. Some images on the web are listed here, here, and here. The first offers the broader view; the next two reveal the multiple functions of the structures active beneath the innocent surface.

Many years ago—Brigitte was then studying at George Mason University in Virginia—I fell into her biology text and became completely fascinated. By then I’d had a rather wide exposure to human technology ranging from mechanical, chemical, to electromagnetic. I loved that book. The vast immensity of strategies used by life! It seemed to me that I had stumbled upon what soon I would call chemical civilization, the mind-boggling complexity already present in the simplest prokaryotic cell, the massive increase in complexity at the eukaryotic level, and everything else built of these structures any one of which is as vast as Chicago.

Something’s just skin deep? The human mind is very good at picking the focus of its attention and belittling what doesn’t interest it at the moment—but reality ignores this. The universe is hidden in a grain of sand. And the whole Cosmos may merely be a drop in an ocean.

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