Atoms, Bytes, Genes

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Genetic Drift feature: Tony Stewart 2004


Featured image: Detail from Genetic Drift 1, Tony Stewart, July 2004

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  3 February 2017

Atoms, Bytes & Genes: Science in the 21st century


I made a political statement about science in a recent article 1984 The Way We Were.

We also needed someone in the 1990s and in the twenty-first century to remind us that science and technology drove the development of affluence in the twentieth century. The current ‘age of ignorance’ and of antagonism towards science, will eventually stultify innovation.

However, despite the depressing times, I’ve become more optimistic. Science and technology power on regardless.

The three dangerous ideas of twentieth century science

On the first day of 2017 I read a quote in Siddhartha Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Bodley Head 2016, which I received for Christmas from Denise’s sister Julie who thoughtfully reads reviews.

In his Prologue, Mukherjee mentions the three streams of science and technology that dominated the twentieth century and whose convergence will dominate the twenty-first. He says:

Three profoundly [dangerous] destabilizing ideas richochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene. Each is foreshadowed by an earlier century, but dazzles into full prominence in the twentieth. Each begins life as a rather abstract scientific concept, but grows to invade multiple human discourses — thereby transforming culture, society, politics, and language. But the most crucial parallel between the three ideas, by far, is conceptual: each represents the irreducible unit — the building block, the basic organizational unit — of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte (or “bit”), of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.

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J.B.S. Haldane The Origin of Life, 1929

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JBS Haldane My Friend Mr Leakey 1937 (Puffin Paperback 1944 Edition)
Detail from the cover of My Friend Mr Leakey

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 18 December 2015


J.B.S Haldane The Origin of Life, 1929


The fact about science, is that everyone who has made a serious contribution to it is aware, or very strongly suspects, that the world is not only queerer than anyone has imagined, but queerer than anyone can imagine. This is a most disturbing thought, and one flees from it by stating the exact opposite… J.B.S. Haldane in a letter to Robert Graves, cited by Clark.

In my article What is history 1 I mentioned the early papers on the Origin of Life by JBS Haldane and Alexander Oparin. Subsequent research on the Net showed that these papers are not easily available and that perhaps people have forgotten how important they were to our understanding of life on Earth. Also JBS Haldane is a larger than life English and subsequently Indian scientist who should not be forgotten.

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