Sunday, October 28, 2012

The science and art of David Goodsell

Portion of an E. coli cell. Image courtesy of David Goodsell.
At the University of Lausanne, when I was a biology student, our great professor Jacques Dubochet tried to instil in us some sense of the physics at play in the biological world. He would ask us questions such as: “So, how thick is the plasmic membrane?” or “How fast will a protein diffuse in the cell?”.  And we would be like: “Huhhh….” So I’m convinced my former professor must be a great fan of the work of David S. Goodsell.

David Goodsell is associate professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He is an expert in the structure of biomolecules, and he uses computer simulations to illustrate molecular organizations and interactions.  But what makes his work truly unique is the use of classic watercolor painting to represent cells and their compartments: anything from a bacterium to the Golgi apparatus of a eukaryotic cell, nerve synapses or even viral particles. At odds with the oversimplistic representations of cellular organization that many biologists enjoy, David Goodsell’s drawings offer a real sense of what the biophysical world is. And did I mention they were beautiful too? His websiteMolecular Art/Molecular Scienceis a great resource to learn more about his work.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Has popular science writing become too wordy?

It’s probably a bit unfair to ask that question, but I can’t help it. These days, I feel like most of the recent science books I read dilute interesting information into too many pages. Well, it could be that the majority of readers prefer long books. It may be true, but it’s definitely not my case. [To be precise, what I mean by “recent” is what has been published in the past ten to fifteen years.] 

Thinking of what I read in the not-so-distant past, I find for instance: “The elegant universe” by Brian Greene (1999), 448 pages; “The stuff of thought” by Steven Pinker (2007), 499 pages; “A guinea pig’s history of biology” by Jim Endersby (2007), 499 pages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning here the quality of the books. Greene’s book is an informative introduction to string theory, Pinker’s is a clever journey into linguistics, and Endersby’s is a highly original work on the history of model organisms. I really enjoyed reading Endersby and Pinker; I didn’t enjoy Greene that much, but it might be the topic. But quality notwithstanding, could they have been shorter without losing of their substance? 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The tree of life versus the rhizome of life

Tree by Haeckel (1866). Source wikimedia commons

The metaphor of the tree of lifewhich illustrates the common descent of all life on Earthwas popularized by Darwin in its Origin of species and later by his contemporary Haeckel, but apparently its roots can be traced back as early as the 18th century in the writings of various authors (Archibald,2009). On a different line, it also of course echoes the biblical tree of life mentioned in the Genesis.

However, about a decade ago, authors such as W. FordDoolittle (1999) have cast doubt on the tree as a valid representation of the history of living organisms. Since then, articles that question the tree of life have flourished1. And the debate is far from being settled.

A tree or a rhizome?

Based on the recent development of comparative genomics, the microbiologist Didier Raoult suggested in the journal the Lancet that Darwin’s tree of life should be replaced by a rhizome of life (Raoult, 2010). Raoult sees the rhizome – a complex net of interconnected roots – as a more faithful representation of the history of living organisms.