Art is amazing. Virgil’s The Aeneid? Divine! Caravaggio’s St. Jerome Writing? Astounding! Joy Division’s Closer? Unbelievable! Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night? Glorious! Truly great pieces of art evoke the deepest passions that hide in the darkest corners of our being. Volunteers from Marseille marched through Paris launching vocal thunder from their mouths as they sang Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin which ultimately became known as La Marseillaise thanks to them. The revolutionary spirit of the song further fueled the embers inside the hearts of the patriotic French and resounded the call to protect La Patrie, becoming the rallying call for the revolution.
Aux armes, citoyen!
There is another dimension to art that is as powerful as what is suggested above but is less explored. Thinkers and philosophers tend to divide human experience into two: heart and mind. Since art is popularly thought of to only trespass the emotional realm of experience, it is often mistakenly viewed as nothing but a means to evoke emotions. In this view, art is seen as the transmission of emotional experience from one human being to another. Perhaps this idea was best expressed by the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in his 1897 work What is Art? when he said:
“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena.”
Not only is Gentileschi’s work emotionally stirring (the anger and rage of Judith and her accomplice strongly depict the plight women endure on a daily basis in this largely male world), but the artwork is also an excellent study in anatomy as well. The road less trampled in art is the path leading to the mind (assuming the mind-heart binary to be true) – that is, art as a vehicle for knowledge transmission, necessary nutritional nectar for the intellect. But others have made the journey already. The Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro was the first to postulate a germ theory of disease when he wrote about tiny transmittable agents that cause syphilis – this through a poem! Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell explores the future of human evolution in the face of rapid cyber-technological revolution. It might be a sharp detour away from the emotional realm that art usually leads to, but how can we truly know if the grass is greener on the other side if we don’t explore its lawns? This is an arena in representative intellect that should be exploited more to fully understand and utilize the power of art.
Modernity has a lot of catching up to do. That is why leaders in this technological world have used art to their advantage while others are still slow to do so. Think back to 1998 and remember what was then quite a novelty. If you don’t have any idea what I am talking about, your first instinct would be to google it. Well, if you did, then you already made the correct first step. In August 1998 Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, made the first ever Google doodle to commemorate the annual American arson (and largely symbolic) celebration The Burning Man Festival. From then on, Google continued to make doodles to honor and recognize various art, pop, and science personalities and events. One of their most iconic doodles was their Freddy Mercury tribute which played a song if clicked. Once Freddy starts to sing, there’s no way of stopping him – and he’ll even tell you not to.
They also did one today. Which leads me to the concern at hand.
Har Gobind Khorana, an Indian American biochemist, was born on January 9, 1922. In 1968, Khorana along with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis. Today would have been his 96th birthday had he not died in 2011 of natural causes.
In celebration of his birthday, Google put up this doodle:
Biochemists and geneticists will instantly spot the error in this doodle. If you’re having a hard time, then, again, google is your friend. But if you’re not in a hurry, please indulge me as I explain.
Khorana worked on ribonucleic acids (RNA) to decode the “language” of genetics. He found out that RNA nucleotide sequences – made up of the nucleobases A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and U (uracil) – are read in groups of three called codons, which are then translated into specific amino acids. For example, the codon UAC codes for the amino acid tyrosine. The most interesting thing about this finding is that codons are order specific, or in maths, permutations sensitive. Although the codons UAC and AUC have the same nucleobases, they will code for different amino acids because of the order of their bases: UAC codes for tyrosine while AUC codes for isoleucine.
Looking at the doodle above, we find six codons from the sequence stretching left to right: ACC (threonine), AAA (lysine), CCG (proline), AGU (serine), ACC (threonine), and AAA (lysine). But underneath that sequence is another sequence. What this implies is that the RNA sequence pictured in the doodle is double-stranded. This is wrong.
RNA is single-stranded.
As we see in the illustration above, RNA is only a single strand of sugar-phosphates while deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is formed with two strands making up its famous double-helix structure. One strand of the DNA contains nucleotide bases that are partnered with their corresponding nucleotide equivalents, or base pairs, on the other strand. The pairs are also remarkably easy to remember: A pairs with T and C partners with G. Take note that the nucleotide U (uracil) is only found in RNA, and it is replaced by T (thymine) in DNA. That makes up the nucleotide line-up of A, C, T, and G for the DNA. Now if one segment of one strand of DNA has an A base, its pair, the nucleotide on the same segment of its opposite strand, is a T. So, the base pair of the nucleotide sequence TAGCATCATGGC is ATCGTAGTACCG. You don’t even need Google to get it correctly if you commit the pair relations to memory. But there’s no harm in double-checking, right?
Which is what the illustrator should have done. Double-check. I mean, there are viruses that have double-stranded RNA, but Khorana’s work was on single-stranded RNA. Because if the doodle was meant as a tribute, then getting everything right about Khorana’s life and work is extremely important.
Art is powerful. Its power resides not in the correctness that it presents, but in the pathos that is borne by it. This is its dark and dangerous side, as power is indeed dangerous when incorrectly wielded. Just remember how evolutionary biology suffered and is still suffering from the iconography of monkey-to-man thanks to the iconic March of Progress illustration. Things can get nasty when wrong ideas are given a platform to go wildly viral. Therefore, demanding for correctness and the criticism of wrong things are two activities that can help keep our society healthy and obviously smarter. Even if that thing can be as minor as a wrong interpretation of RNA, or the failure to distinguish venom from poison. Mistakes big or small cost lives! And think about it: a healthy polity that revels in scientific correctness and is not afraid to pursue the truth? Now that’s something truly artistic. How to go about it, though? Maybe one doodle at a time? I’m not sure, but maybe the French are on to something.
Aux armes, citoyens!