Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Words made flesh

We have been talking about words - and stories - a lot recently. I thought it might be fun to look at a different story, written in a different alphabet, by a different Author.

You may have already read some stories by this Author, or heard them read to you. They are good, as one comes to expect from this particular Author.

I am not going to tell you these new stories. They are too long, and they are not that kind of story. But I will tell you about them. You see, the stories I am going to tell you about are just as good as the ones you have heard - but they are not the kind of stories one will usually read. They are, uh, different. The stories are kind of like cooking recipes, which can nevertheless be fun to read. They are also sort of like computer programs, which can be interesting, even if they are not fun. But in order to talk at all about these stories, I have to tell you about the language they are written in. And before I talk about the language, I have to tell you about the alphabet.

Now somewhere I was telling you about George Boole, and his famous equation
which has the two roots of computing: zero and one. And you will recall that Chesterton pointed out that Pope Pius X had what he called a "peasant prejudice":
He had a prejudice to the effect that the mystical word "Yes" should be distinguished from the equally unfathomable expression "No."
[GKC, ILN Aug 29, 1914 CW30:153]
And as you may already know, all of everything which happens on a computer is made up of nothing more than yes and no, or zero and one - and yet look at all the amazing things we can do with a computer!

Now, the alphabet I am going to tell you about is nearly that small - actually, it has four letters. But just like the zero and one on computers, the Author Who writes with that alphabet can make all kinds of wonderful things from just those four!

Do you know what alphabet I mean? Those of us who work with it usually write them as A, C, G, and T.

These are the codes for the four "nucleotides" which are the building blocks of DNA - and as you know, DNA is the "memory" for the "blueprints" which direct the formation of all living things on earth!

Just like in the computer, where the zero and one actually stand for two different voltages in certain circuits, these four DNA letters, which we also call bases, actually stand for one of four different chemical compounds. Here are their real names:

A means Adenine
C means Cytosine
G means Guanine
T means Thymine

Your own DNA, for example, is a gigantic string made out of these four letters - about three billion of them! That is 3,000,000,000. To use the correct metric name, we would say three giga-bases - just like your disk drive with such-and-such gigabytes, which is just the metric code for "billion characters".

Just in case you are wondering, the famous bacterium called E. coli has about 3 million, or one thousandth as much as we do. But then it doesn't have a heart or stomach, nor bones, muscles, hair, hands, etc. Strange to tell, there are some plants which have thirty times as much as we do. Why? At present, only the Author knows; we haven't read that far yet.

Another day I will tell you about how the four letters are "stuck together" to make "words" and some other things, like how to read them. After all, remember: I have only told you the alphabet. Next time I will tell you about the language. Also, I told you that these stories are instructions - the DNA tells how to build hearts and skin and all the other things that happen in life. For now, you can laugh about this little joke: they are stuck together with sugar...


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