Life’s Determinants

“It’s Summer! It’s Summer!” Olaf and Anna were singing and prancing downstairs. I mock-scowled at the duo having summer fun while I dialed into my meetings dutifully. But I was happy to see them finally get some down time after school and grateful that some of their summer euphoria could rub off on me.

I peered outside wearing my owlish glasses and was treated to a beautiful painted lady spreading joy. Flitting here and flitting there.

Painted Lady

A mild breeze rippled through the tree, and I decided enough was enough. A walk would be what the doctor ordered. So, I hollered to the Olaf in the house to come with me on a little stroll. I reached for my sunglasses and instantly, the sun dappled streets of our little suburb took on a magical hue.

Off we went: me trying to look at flitting butterflies and rippling trees; Olaf – fighting imaginary wars and swishing every now and then. 

After a while, I asked him whether he had stopped to think of the stripes on the striped lady butterfly and he gave me a quizzical look – “What? I am fighting some intergalactic wars Amma! Don’t have time to look at butterflies!”

Every now and then, he stopped to explain the action sequence in his head (you know to make me feel included!) So my walk was now accompanied by the strangest commentary:

“I am now imagining the fight but how the electrons would be affected in the atoms inside the fight. The energy transfer and everything else.” and so on.

He went back to his musings and I to mine. If his musings were at the atomic level, mine were at the cellular scale of life. I remember reading about Alan Turing’s work on the mathematical models used to determine patterns in living creatures such as spots on leopards, stripes on butterflies and the like in the book, What is Life – by Paul Nurse

So, that is what we spoke about as we swished our way back home. I asked him if he knew Alan Turing. He mentioned a video in which he had been mentioned. So, there were talking of Alan Turing and his inspired work in the fields of Math and Computing.

Life as Information – What is Life – By Paul Nurse

“This was a set of problems that Alan Turing – he of Enigma code-cracking fame and one of the founders of modern computing- turned to during the early 1950s. He came up with an alternative, and imaginative, suggestion for how embryos generate spatial information from within.  He devised a set of mathematical equations that predicted the behavior of chemical substances interacting with each other, and so undergoing specific chemical reactions as they diffuse through a structure. Unexpectedly, his equations, which he called reaction-diffusion models, could arrange chemical substances into elaborate and often rather beautiful spatial patterns,.By tweaking the parameters of his equations, the two substances could organize themselves into evenly spaced spots, stripes or blotches, for example. …Turing died before his theoretical ideas could be tested in real embryos, but developmental biologists now believe that this could be the mechanism that puts spots on cheetahs backs and stripes on many fish; distributes the hair follicles on your head; and even divides each of the developing human baby hands into 5 distinct fingers.”

What is Life, By Paul Nurse

By the time we flitted back into the house, we had a proper awe of stripes and patterns that hitherto would have been less than wondrous but beautiful all the same.

I was reminded of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Flower, and the renewed wonder in knowing the intricacies of nature. Every dot and stripe will now be a source of wonder and awe at the brain that sought to model and predict it.

Ode to a Flower – By Richard Feynman. This brain pickings article links to the beautiful animated video made by Fraser Davidson based on his ode to a flower.

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