Truth, beauty and science

March 2011

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The Charter signed by King Charles II in 1662 for the formation of The Royal Society of London was granted in order that the whole world of letters may always recognize the United Kingdom as the universal lover and patron of every kind of truth.

Henri Poincare (1854-1912), a top French mathematician-physicist in his day, defined science in terms of beauty:
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living”.
What Poincare was taking about was
“the ultimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.”

Science of the 21st Century seems to have become defined in more practical terms. The modern scientist's most likely expertise is in designing artificial DNA constructs and using them to corrupt living cells.

The DNA-design part has been largely taken over by dial-a-gene companies which have developed computer programmes to work out the best sequence for the purpose intended. A DNA production lines then rolls out whatever the scientist wants.

As far as inserting the artificial DNA into the cell is concerned, scientists now have an arsenal of methods at their disposal.

The earliest and most widely used method of genetic transformation is biolistic bombardment. DNA constructs are stuck to the surface of tungsten or gold microspheres and blasted using an explosive, shot-gun fashion, into cells in culture. To get an idea of what happens next, imagine blasting a room full of people with a shotgun: some of the pellets will miss everyone, some will be fatal, some will maim, one in 10,000 of the pellets will pass right through a body and the body will recover. If the genetic engineer is lucky, his artificial DNA will rub off that 1/10,000th missile inside a genome and become pasted into the cell's own DNA. All the healthy and maimed bystanders are then subject to mass execution. This isn't a very efficient technique and results in a lot of collateral damage to the genome transformed.

The second most used method of creating GM plants, is Agrobacterium technology. Agrobacterium is a plant pathogen which has its own, natural, genome-invasion mechanism. In the wild, this pathogen inserts its own DNA in plant cells to transform them into a tumour (plant gall) in which the Agrobacterium can live happily ever after in a sea of food from the tumorous tissue. By genetically transforming Agrobacterium so that it has man-made DNA instead of its own DNA to insert, the pathogen can be harnessed to create GM plants cells from which GM crops can be generated. Because Agrobacterium is a first-class pathogen, it has a natural talent for infecting plant cells without otherwise doing much harm.

Several vectorless DNA insertion techniques have been developed. For an operator with exceptional manipulative skills and lots of time, DNA constructs can be injected directly into a cell nucleus through a hollow micro-needle. However, DNA can be coaxed into cells without going to this extreme. If a cell is bathed in the DNA constructs to be inserted, and holes punched in the host cells with electricity (microporation) or needles (micropricking), the engineered DNA will tend to be taken up by the cell just because it's there.

An extension of these methods is to impale the plant cells on 'whiskers' of, for example, silicon carbide. The transforming DNA can either be surface-bound to the whisker (as in biolistic bombardment) or added to the medium to be taken up by any cell ruptured by a whisker (as in microporation and micropricking).

Recent research is developing DNA sequences which will insert in predetermined locations in the genome in place of the random attacks which host cells have been subject to so far. However, the DNA insertion itself is an invasion of living matter which can't ever be without disruption to the wider genome and cell, and its side-effects can never be assume benign.


To go back to the original concepts of 'science' above. How much truth, beauty or grasp of the harmonious order of the parts of the cell is demonstrated by the use of missiles, pathogenic microbes, electrocution, spears and arrows to breach the living cell and install a man-made chemical tyrant in the heart of the cell's living intelligence?

The quest for truth with which to impress the world seems to have been genetically transformed into a quest for $ and £. The beauty of nature as a motivation for science seems to have been replaced by a twisted satisfaction in the bending of life to human will, and in the wanton destruction of life's inconvenient natural harmony.

For a bigger picture, check out the Institute of Science in Society - articles on Beauty and Truth in Science and Art.

  • Joseph F. Petolino, Whiskers-Mediated Maize Transformation, Methods in Molecular Biology, 526, 26.12.08
  • EipMark Kit, Patent 7259016 issued 21.08.07,
  • Mae-Wan Ho, Beauty and Truth in Science and Art, Institute of Science in Society Report 2.02.11
  • Translation of the First Charter, granted to the President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London, by King Charles the Second, A.D. 1662,

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