Tuesday, July 25, 2006

If I would walk inside a living cell

When I was an undergraduate here, I always loved to walk into Stoeckel Hall after I had been in the Kline Biology Tower for a lab, because through the doors of the practice rooms you can hear everything--movements of thousands of years of music written by human beings who have lived and died, and any of this music, at any moment, is being played or sung by music students of varying aptitude. I would wander in the halls and listen, and there would always be someone playing with joy, or with fury, or hesitantly and awkwardly, and some students always play every note on the page, while others always improvise, they can't help themselves. Those days, those are Willie Ruff's students--they get in trouble if they don't improvise. I would always listen for that too, the really inventive improvising you can hear through a door. And it often made me think that if I would walk inside a living cell, then I might hear something just like that, the amino-acid sequences being played out one by one, a note for each, and the cell would be performed according to the genetic score, so sometimes it would be played with absolute precision, but other times there would be mistakes, or variations. And some of those changes would be good ideas, maybe great ideas, and some would be bad ideas, or really catastrophic, destructive mistakes.

--Katharine Weber, Triangle


  1. Sylvia, one of the main characters composes music based on DNA profiles, fractal forms, Sierpinski triangles. I don't know enough science or music theory to know how on the money Weber is with all this, but her writing is blowing me away.

    I think you and John would both enjoy this one.

  2. The reason it has taken me so long to comment (relatively speaking :) is that I was trying to find a picture of the big GlaxoSmithKline (formerly Burroughs Wellcome) research building here in Research Triangle Park. It was designed to look like a molecule (which I know is difficult to imagine), but the line about wandering in the halls reminded me of that.

    It also made me think of my favorite Richard Powers novel, The Goldbug Variations, which successfully combines genetics and music and all kinds of other stuff you wouldn't think would go together in a novel.

  3. What a wonderful quote! Has anyone ever really composed music based on DNA, etc? And if so who are they? I love to give it listen!

  4. I'm going to have to get around to Richard Powers sooner rather than later, aren't I?

    Stefanie, according to the novel ;), "countless other musicians" have composed music based on DNA, but it's "the formless, tuneless, relentless music you will not be surprised to hear piped in just before your plane crashes."

  5. Anonymous5:15 AM

    I like that idea: that biology has its own cadences and modulations. Admittedly, when I think of cells I imagine a kind of squishing sound, like inserting a finger into a pomegranate. I suppose this is one of the differences between those people who have a passion for science and, well, me who hasn't a scientific bone in my body. :-)

  6. Well, hopefully I can hear some of the music in a more relaxed situation other than when I am about to die in a horrible crash :)


A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...