The Protein and Marilyn

A little more than a hundred years ago, Henry Adams visited the Universal International Exposition in Paris. After weeks of gawking at the tech and science exhibits -- particularly a hall of huge dynamos -- Adams found himself utterly at a loss to explain what was going to become of the world in the 20th century.

The dynamo, a relatively simple machine for generating direct current, seemed to Adams as symbolically important to our culture as the Virgin was in the middle ages. He recalled how the Virgin, a religious symbol, had exerted a powerful but invisible force on human endeavor; in the same way, he noted, electricity was an invisible force that was about to change the way humans approached everything in their world.

In typical ironic fashion, Adams ended his meditation on "the dynamo and the Virgin" by noting that nothing in his 19th-century education had prepared him to understand the future of humanity. He barely understood how the Virgin had influenced Western art; how could he possibly fathom the way the dynamo would transform everyday life?

I've been thinking about Henry Adams a lot lately. I happened to be e-mailing with Jim Kent -- one of the brainiacs behind UC Santa Cruz's human genome browser -- who offhandedly recommended that anyone fooling around with the browser read an "introductory" college biology book. Without admitting that I was precisely the sort of person who needed this kind of education, I asked which book he'd recommend. He named a couple (Campbell's Biology and Purves's Life), then added that it would be a good idea to have a grasp of chemistry before delving into them.

I felt a familiar sting of shame as I recalled my abysmal high school and college education. Although I have a Ph.D. in English, I never took chemistry or physics or calculus. I had a year of biology in ninth grade and a BASIC programming course in college. I learned all the physics I know from my astronomy teacher when I was 17. What the fuck was I thinking back then? Why didn't anyone ever tell me to take more science courses? Hell, I always loved science. Was I discouraged from learning about gasses and compounds and the periodic table because I was a girl? What cruel, unfair social forces had left me in my current state, where I've had to become a science autodidact, surfing "introduction to chemistry" Web sites and skulking into the used medical textbook store near UC San Francisco to buy books I should have read 10 years ago?

Unfortunately, the social forces at work were hardly as persuasive as my own former self. When I was a student, I never questioned the idea that basic science education was for other people, the ones who were destined to be engineers or lab geeks. I was confident that science didn't matter, that all I needed to know in order to understand the world was art, history, and social science.

As a result, I can wax eloquent for hours on the way Marilyn Monroe -- surely the 20th century's version of the Virgin -- changed the course of American popular culture and art. But then, contemplating the powerful symbolism of finding a protein structure, I'm convinced that the future does not belong to Marilyn. The pathos of her white underwear, briefly revealed in a blast of hot air, is nothing compared with knowing how her body was assembled cell by cell out of thousands of specialized proteins.

Not for the first time, I know how Henry Adams felt. Having spent his life studying art, politics, and history, he found himself confronted with scientific innovation and doubted the importance of everything he'd learned. His education had failed him.

Of course, there was hope for Adams, just as there is hope for me and every other self-taught techno-science geek. Adams brought his physicist friend along to the exhibition and received an impromptu lecture on "forces" and "rays." Over the past several years I've had to do similar things. I got some tips from Jim Kent on which books to read and have received countless lectures on genomics from the brilliant biologist Ann Loraine.

But I still wish I'd taken a chemistry class in high school. Then again, if I'd done that, maybe I wouldn't understand the meaning of Marilyn Monroe.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who is studying molecular biology in her spare time. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.


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