“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” John Muir
As a biochemist, I can vouch for the sentiment in this quote. I spend my scientific career trying to break things down to their smallest components, isolating them from their larger biological context. This is useful when trying to figure out how specific parts function at the molecular level. It is much easier to understand what is going on when you’re only looking at a single component because trying to consider everything at once at that level can be confusing. That’s what’s great about biochemistry- breaking everything down into smaller more digestible components. When you can get an enzyme or group of enzymes to perform their reactions apart from their normal biological context, then you can focus in on the details of just how they work. However, it is important to remember this is only one tool for research and not an excuse for ignoring the larger context of the system. Inevitably, the functional details you ascertain by this method must be placed in their biological context- an organelle, a cell, a tissue, an organism, an ecosystem. The details learned in isolation are still relevant, but they may change depending on context and can’t be taken as absolute truth. As layers of complexity are added back, you can see how the function you were studying is regulated, adaptable and in some way connected to distant phenomena.
I hope you may have already noticed that the topics covered so far on this blog follow this trend. The larger societal problems addressed by science connect diverse groups with different perspectives. From my post on hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s why technologies to improve plant nutrient usage have implications for the marine ecosystem. From my post on Hyperion, it’s why maximum tree height has something to do with carbon dioxide uptake for photosynthesis and the physical limits of adhering to the ideal gas law. It’s why gila monsters have something to do with diabetes medication. It’s why crop yields today have everything to do with life on earth in the year2050. That’s why there are so few ‘magic bullet’ solutions, even though they would make life easier. That’s why it may seem like so little ‘real progress’ is being made. It takes all kinds of scientists to successfully resolve these issues, some people to focus on the molecular, some people to focus on the organism, and still others to focus on the system; all of us communicating with one another about how our domains create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The world is not a random, disconnected place. If you follow the dots, they can take you just about anywhere within the system. If you start erasing any of the dots, you start to significantly weaken the system. If you find new dots, you can strengthen the system by making new connections. Science is about trying to connect the dots, discover new ones, keeping existing ones from disappearing and finding better ways to navigate the connections within our physical world. Even if you do not embark on this voyage for yourself, please appreciate the map created by those that do.