If you’re in structural biology, you’ve probably heard of the terms real space and reciprocal space. Some people even spend time thinking about these terms. This is a daunting exercise on its own. But have you ever thought about space, like actual space space? You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.
This is one of the many underlying themes of the late Douglas’ Adams sci-fi classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s Guide follows the story of Arthur Dent who, forced to leave Earth after its destruction, endures a variety of adventures and pitfalls in a seemingly never-ending quest around the galaxy. During his quest, Arthur suffers a host of strange travel companions, makes some ever weirder acquaintances, and learns a variety of lessons about life, the universe, and everything. For instance, he learns:
1) The Earth is regarded as Mostly Harmless, despite the violence its denizens inflict on one another;
2) A towel is the most important thing a hitchhiker can carry; and
3) Don’t panic.
At this point, you’re probably thinking this theme seems like a stretch for a symposium on protein science, but the Hitchhiker’s Guide also employs evolutionary concepts and scientific principles that are totally relevant to this event. There is a long tangent about the validity of mice models, as well as an excellent digression about a concept called, “Somebody Else’s Problem”. (Those of you who have shared a lab with many others will instantly know what that is.)
Another of my favorite tangents from the book is totally relate-able to all scientists, and definitely biologists. While we are all struggling to understand how life and the universe work, here’s the book’s take on this endeavor. “If ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” Yea.
Evolution itself is constantly discussed in the series. As Arthur meets dozens of alien civilizations in various stages of development, evolution forms the lens through which every civilization understands one another. In his books, Douglas Adams imagines a universe where evolution is a widely-accepted concept. OK, so maybe this is science fiction.
Political commentary aside, Arthur’s journey is not unlike the quest of a structural biologist, navigating through a universe of fascinating (and occasionally weird) proteins and other macromolecules. We often use evolution (i.e. homology) as a lens to understand the behavior of proteins. There are certainly pitfalls along the way, and at times the quest can seem never-ending. But, no matter the difficulties you encounter, don’t panic! And keep your towel handy.
-posted by Satchal Erramilli