A Matter of Wonder

My notes from book A Matter of Wonder: What Biology Reveals About Us, Our World, and Our Dreams written by Gottfried Schatz

  • p2 Brain cells respire faster than all other body cells and, relative to their weight, produce ten thousand times more energy per second then sun.
  • p3 Poisonous waste, though, always stimulates the inventiveness of evolution - and so it did not take long for cells to find a way to use oxygen gas to burn the organic remains of other cells and to live on the energy of that combustion. Cell respiration entered the scene.
  • p7 Should I be lucky - or unlucky - enough to live to be ninety, every single one of my muscle cells will have to get by with up to ten times less energy than in my youth. But it is mu brain and its outward extensions - the retinas of my eyes - that face the worst prospects. Their mitochondrial fires burn especially fast, so they feel the full force of any imperfections in my mitochondria and age more quickly than other tissues in my body.
  • p8 When mitochondria are so badly damaged that they can no longer meet the cells energy needs, they emit chemical signals that order the cell to kill itself. The cell then digests itself, packs its remains into little membrane sacks and leaves these as prey for roving scavenger cells. This cellular hara-kiri produces neither messy waste nor inflammation of the surrounding tissue - the cell orchestrates its suicide as carefully as it did its growth and division. What could provide more vivid proof that life and death are inseparable parts of a greater whole?
  • p11 We humans have not one but two hereditary systems - one chemical and one cultural. The chemical system is based on strands of DNA molecules and other components of our cells; it determines what we can be. The cultural system consists of the dialogue between generations; it determines what we then become. Our chemical system barely sets us apart from animals, but our cultural system has no equal in nature.
  • p15 But Toxoplasma might still alter our minds in subtle ways: preliminary and still unconfirmed studies suggest that infected women tend to be more intelligent, dynamic, and independent, while infected men are more jealous, conservative, and group conscious. In both sexes, the parasite makes us more likely to feel guilty, which many psychologists consider a negative emotional disposition.
  • p17 Yet who will protect us from immaterial parasites that take over our thoughts and emotions? They are numerous - racism, religious fanaticism, national hysteria, spiritualism, and superstition.
  • p24 But what about the torments of psychological pain? Our society is usually only willing to recognize and fight it when someone is obviously mentally ill.
  • p30 Leprosy may not have learned how to resist our drugs yet, but it can still hide behind poverty and ignorance.
  • p32 Whoever wants to develop a strong character must be willing not only to learn new things, but also to put familiar things aside. This is not just true for us humans. According to the musician Pierre Boulez, the willingness to disregard tradition is a measure of a culture's strength. And the alteration or destruction of inherited genes is part of the development of all novel organisms.
  • p40 For genes, saying nothing is just as vital as saying the right thing. Even they know the virtue of silence.
  • p53 Am I alone? Can I share with others the world I see and perceive? Or am I a prisoner of my senses and the poverty of my language?
  • p53 And in fact, biology does teach me that I am firmly embedded within the rich web of life that covers our planet. But it also tells me that every human being tastes, smells, sees, and feels the world differently - which also offers me the conforming knowledge that my senses make me unique.
  • p61 In contrast, some women even have a fourth color sensor and can distinguish up to a hundred million colors.
  • p64 I am a late scion within this aristocratic lineage of highly organized matter. This lineage is over 3.5 billion years old - plenty of reason to be proud of it.
  • p68 Much about us and our world is mysterious and dark, and the darkness of our prejudices is more threatening than that of our oceans.
  • p69 What would the world look like if we could see ultraviolet or infrared light, hear ultrasound, and feel electric fields or the earth's magnetic field?
  • p115 One of the fascinating aspects of life is that we still know so little about it.
  • p126 Today, I consist of about ten trillion human cells and about ten to twenty times as many bacterial cells. Are these bacteria part of me - or only parasites? Where does my self end?
  • p131 Whoever takes his own self too seriously and timidly seals off its boundaries will distort his own perspective on the world's diversity and fall prey to primitive tribalism. This is as true for individuals as it is for peoples, nations, and cultures.
  • p139 In the past two decades, we have decoded many of the chemical signals that cells and tissues use to steer growth and healing. Most of this communication takes place between the cells' surfaces, which constantly emit protein molecules that attach themselves to other cells and give them orders: 'Stop growing immediately; I'm here now', or 'Grow as fast as you can toward me so we can form a tissue together', or even 'Kill yourself; you're in my way'.
  • p148 Bacteria read their genomes; we interpret ours. We are like musicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who could make any given basso continuo sound quite different by approaching it in a different way.
  • p148 Further, our brain cells seem to chemically change some of their proteins in response to environmental stimuli, so the variations of our cell proteins are practically boundless.
  • p149 Perhaps we have to come up with completely new kinds of thinking to understand systems of such complexity.
  • p150 That is, the environment talks to and can change our genes. Is this interplay precisely steered - or is it a game of chance? And if even the environment can play games with our genome, perhaps we do, too, without knowing it.
  • p152 In its quest for diversity, life clearly does everything it can to fight the tyranny of genes.
  • p156 Louis Pasteur, the chemist, became one of the greatest doctors of all time. The foundation of his genius was his insight that an illness can only really be cured when its causes are known.
  • p160 Today, biomedical research is the engine of the mighty pharmaceutical industry, devouring ever greater sums. In many fields, research itself has become big business. When a taxpayer sees imposing research institutions popping up everywhere and learns from the media that such institutions have budgets of millions and millions, sooner o later he will wonder what they have achieved.
  • p161 Impatience, I would add, is one of science's archenemies, and good scientific research is as patient as true love.
  • p165 Today, when I lie awake at night and follow the trail of my memories, I miss that silence, for the voices of the night start troubling me with their questions.
  • p166 I wanted to become a scientist in order to learn what the world around me is made of. But I soon realized that scientific truth can very quickly prove to be false.
  • p166 Science does not reveal definitive truths but a way to approach truth. It is not about collecting and organizing facts but about believing that we can understand the world through observation, experiments, and reflection.

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