July 23, 2009

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The Machinery of Life, Second Edition, by David S. Goodsell, 2009, Springer, 166 pages.
Holy nucleotides, this book is amazing.

Actually it’s the reality that’s amazing, but the book does an amazing job describing it, in a way I don’t think you can get elsewhere outside a $160 college text.

The reality in question is that of the human cell. Which, if you ask me, is another one of those fascinatingly unfathomable things in the world like outer space and quantum physics. This one might be a little more fathomable, especially with the latest techniques and this book. But they’re all of a piece if you’re going to be wondering “Who are we and what are we doing here?”

I took high school biology and did pretty well but it left me with the lasting impression that a human cell is a big  circle with a solid dot in the middle and a few squiggles inside. I learned to name the parts and say what they did, but it was kind of meaningless and certainly flat, in both senses of the word.

What I want is super-bionic X-ray vision that will let me stare at my hand and see the cells. (It turns out they’re three-dimensional, and crammed full with constantly moving parts!)

And finally I have a next-best thing. Since I can’t afford a degree in cell biology and wouldn’t be helped by a straight-up textbook sans lectures and labs and discussion, The Machinery of Life is my answer.

It was first published in 1993; this second edition is a major update. And what it conveys is the sheer unbelievable intricacy — and realness — of every cell in your body.

David Goodsell, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, accomplishes this via amazing full-color illustrations, paintings based on computer animations created from microscope images. Specifically, “watercolor paintings which magnify a small portion of a living cell by one million times, showing the arrangement of molecules inside” and “computer generated pictures, which show the atomic details of individual molecules.”

Google “David Goodsell” and look at the images. (I could’ve printed some here but in black and white you lose a great deal of the impact. The color helps you see patterns in the structures, as each kind of molecule is represented in a particular color.)

Goodsell offers clear, understandable accompanying text to explain the images. I’m not going to remember every protein’s name or which one does what with which, but that’s not what matters. What I got from this book is a somewhat stunned appreciation for the complexity and activity of every single cell, for how cell mechanics work — proteins floating around, bumping into each other, trading parts, folding and bending and unfolding each other, letting other molecules in or blocking them, all in a lush dance going on at a tiny tiny tiny scale millions of times over. Cells have motors, for pete’s sake. It sounds weird, but that’s what they are — “ATP synthase is a molecule-sized generator … composed of two rotary motors connected together by an asymmetric axle. Flow of hydrogen ions … turns the large cylindrical rotor.”

In seventh or tenth grade I was told “and then Tab A goes in Slot B and C hooks to D” and I didn’t get to wonder for long about what pushed A into B or why/how C and D came together.

It wasn’t totally the teachers’ fault; a lot of this is new knowledge uncovered by new techniques. In any case, I’m just psyched that now I can wonder and get answers. For $20, off a local bookstore shelf.

As I read facts like “Random, diffusive motion is fast enough to perform most of the tasks in the cell. Each molecule simply bumps around until it finds the right place,” the question “How do you know this?” occurs to me frequently, but Goodsell, unlike my seventh-grade textbook, makes me feel like there are real answers and that I’m getting a taste of them — and that there’s hope for learning more.

There’s a nine-page spread in Chapter 5 (“A Human Cell”) that you could pore over for days and use as a launch pad.

In all, over nine chapters, Goodsell covers human muscle cells, nerve cells and blood cells, the building blocks of cells, how cells are arranged and supported in the body (by connective molecules), how cells are constructed and destroyed; he uses E. coli as an example of a bacterial cell, describes a few viruses and vaccines, and discusses vitamins.

But it’s all just 166 pages. With lots of pictures.

This is that very rare beast, a book that offers advanced scientific knowledge in understandable, digestible terms. It’s slim, readable and engaging, a nonfiction book that calls to you from the nightstand table.

If you are even a little curious about how cells work, get your hands on The Machinery of Life. A+Lisa Parsons