Saturday, June 5, 2010

Books: The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome, by Denis Noble

When writing non-fiction, the author must make assumptions about his audience, so that he conveys the right depth and detail of information. Denis Noble, though, seems not to have asked himself whether he was writing for a scientific or lay audience. Sometimes, he gives maddeningly obvious information, reminding us, for example, that the four bases comprising the DNA molecule are known in shorthand as A, T, G, and C, and that DNA is shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid. This I learned in school when I was sixteen. He tells us that a millisecond is one-thousandth of a second. Then, perhaps forgetting that we readers are too uneducated to understand simple power prefixes without his assistance, he launches into a description of how the heart's pacemaker function works by a feedback system of electrical charges, showing us graphs of cell voltage in milivolts against potassium, mixed ion, and calcium channels in nanoamps, which are nearly illegible to a layperson.

I think that Noble's trouble is that he's not writing science for the layperson or the scientist; he is a scientist with strong humanist tendencies, railing against his less-humanist colleagues, at anyone who will listen. Noble wants badly to present his philosophical ideas in a way that seems scientific, so he uses one of literature's staple techniques: the extended metaphor, which allows one to build two parallel columns of data that correspond one-to-one, preserving the clean, linear aesthetic of science. Life, he tells us, is like music.

But things get messy, because Noble neglected to draw a schema for his one-to-one correspondences before he began. He presents DNA as information that gives rise to a human in the same way that a compact disk contains information that gives rise to music—but only when inserted into the correct stereo system. Thus, as a CD is silent without its player, DNA creates no life without a womb and its chemical inputs.

This is fine, but things fall apart when he tries to build the correspondence from the bottom up. DNA codes for life in the same way that a score codes for music; a score exists, but without the musical instrument and musician, the score is silent. In my lay understanding of biology, the correlate for the instrument would be pre-existing tissues, the cells that surround the DNA, and the musician would be the chemical signals that flush these cells and drive DNA to do its work of dividing and coding and protein-building. But I haven't taken biology for more than ten years now.

Noble tells us no: "If there is a score for the music of life, it is not the genome," [italics mine] because "DNA never acts outside the context of the cell." And yet, as I've worked it out above, neither does a score "work" outside the context of the instrument. So, what is the problem? Likely, there is none, for Noble then flips back to the original construct, describing how "protein and cell machinery works to stimulate and control transcription. . . this is what 'plays' the genes." So DNA is again the score. But then, in the chapter on the Conductor (how does a Conductor fit in?! Certainly, music can be played without one. . .), Noble reminds us that "we have also developed the metaphor of the genome as a [pipe] organ, which needs someone to play it." So, wait. Now, the genome is the instrument? What is the score? Noble attempts to clarify: "We should think rather of a 'virtual conductor'—the system behaves 'as if' it has a conductor. The genes behave 'as though' they are being 'played' by this conductor—rather like some orchestras that play without a separate conductor." But Noble had told us that "the organ is not a program that writes. . . the Bach fugues. Bach did that." So corrodes our tidy one-to-one correspondence.

Clearly, what Noble means by the sentence quoted at the beginning of the preceding paragraph is that "the genome itself is not the music of life." It is in his penultimate chapter that he clarifies this, realizing his true goal: to demonstrate that "the self"* can not be located in one isolated part of our being, be it DNA, a section of the brain, or any other proposed lone location. "The self," he tells us, is "an integrative process that can be deconstructed;" not a mere "neurological object." This is his reason for insisting on an integrated "systems" biology, which doesn't assume bottom-up or top-down causation, but, in a much more Zen way, understands life as a feedback loop of being. The messy music metaphors, it turns out, were completely unnecessary in the making of this point.

*philosophically speaking

Dance: Christopher Wheeldon's Estancia at the New York City Ballet (with Danses Concertantes and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet)

Tuesday, June 1st was the second showing of Estancia, one of seven new ballets commissioned this season by the New York City Ballet under the "Architecture of Dance" rubric, for which Santiago Calatrava has created the sets. I expected something modern, kinetic, and minimal. I've seen Wheeldon's work before, and while he is too much of a traditionalist for my tastes, for the antiquarian NYCB, he's a young Turk, more interested in static shapes than traveling jumps. Estancia is the first time I've seen him revert to one of ballet's most cloying traditions: plot. Though it can't be much longer than 20 minutes, this ballet proposes a love story in the Argentine Pampas, between a city boy and a country girl, the latter rejecting the advances of the former until he proves his manhood by conquering one of the region's wild horses.

Strictly choreographically, Estancia offers a few stunning passages. The five dancers in the roles of wild horses embody that particular equine breath, the trembling chest, pawing feet, and tossed head of the wild creature that first refuses to be conquered, until its spirit is broken, and its feet fall into a measured trot once the bridle is fitted. In partnering horse-dancers with people-dancers, Wheeldon creates exceptionally fresh and captivating pas-de-deux, impressionistic sequences of shapes describing not only the physical interaction of the human and equine body, but the exchange of power between the two. This break from the standard pas-de-deux, in which the male dancer supports the female as she turns innumerable circles around herself, is very welcome.

That said, the piece is not so modern as we might have hoped. I would have happily watched 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour of plotless human-equine interactions, but this wouldn't satisfy the typical NYCB audience. But, because this is a piece set in the country, the jeweled and feathered pomp native to the theater would not suffice either. Wheeldon takes recourse, oddly, to the free-wheeling sun-and-dust palette of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Estancia has the feeling of a ballet sequence in a Broadway show staged in the 1950s, Carousel or Oklahoma!; Estancia! would in fact be a title more fitting in tone.

As for Calatrava, what is his contribution? Not the kinetic, architectural sculpture I had expected, but a watercolor-esque painted backdrop of swaying grasses and a few stark palms. The show is beautifully lit, and as the action occurs over a 24 hour period, the backdrop does glow beautifully with the first pink light of dawn, when the city boy and country girl wake up to find themselves lovers, and discovered.

I can forgive Estancia for not meeting my expectations, for it interested me nevertheless, but cannot forgive NYCB for sandwiching the piece between two antiquated Balanchine pieces, the first a parade of harlequin-like trios who present us with their "charming" escapades as if we were royals and they our court entertainers, and the last an example of that airless jeweled and feathered nonsense, an interminable series of emotionless drawing room postures better suited to a fancy-dress photo shoot than the stage of art or entertainment. What is the point of commissioning new works, bringing together contemporary artists, if you are going to then subject your audience to offensively outmoded selections both before and after, poisoning both any anticipation and any lingering sweetness from the piece that is new? Fie.