16 February 2012

Our elegant selves

A professor performed a card trick for us. He had a student pull a random card from the deck and replace it without showing him the card. After some theatrics, the professor successfully guessed the card and even extracted it after shuffling the deck.

Some classmates and I spent a while afterwards working out how the trick was done. We admired the professor for the substantial amount of hard work required (among other feats, he needed to memorize the order of the entire deck). Yet in our solving the mystery, the magic became diminished.

Not so with the human body. Learning how it works makes it all the more fantastic. Right now I'm reading about the heart. Although it sometimes fails, for most people it beats billions of times with no problem. The heart is brilliant. It generates its own heartbeat, but responds to the body's signals by speeding up or slowing down. It pumps harder when our body demands it and eases off when it can relax. Even the tiny proteins and receptors that drive the heart work together as a kind of virtuoso symphony.

Also striking is how often the molecular machinery in the human body resembles our modern machines (or is it vice versa?). The way our heart muscle contracts closely resembles the way a bicycle pedal transfers its energy to a bicycle chain. The protein that synthesizes ATP, a molecule that stores the body's energy, is a sophisticated motor that rivals those crafted by man. The way our immune system fights off viruses and bacteria is not unlike the way our military fights its wars.

In their perpetual fight to thrive despite insult, aging, and disease, our sophisticated bodies exhibit some of the same dramas that we see in the world around us. It is a delight to have a window into this hidden world within.