Friday, July 27, 2012

What Does It Mean to be Alive?

I attended a Creativity in Nature session at the Cancer Support Center.  The leader handed out rocks to each of the participants.  One rock was rounded and blobby, yet had the texture of sedimentary stone.  “Is this coral?” asked the woman who was holding it.  She paused. “Is coral a rock?”

This is a group of modern women.  One got out her smart phone and did a quick web search.

According to NOAA, “The branch or mound that we often call “a coral” is actually made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps. A coral polyp is an invertebrate that can be no bigger than a pinhead to up to a foot in diameter. Each polyp has a saclike body and a mouth that is encircled by stinging tentacles. The polyp uses calcium carbonate (limestone) from seawater to build a hard, cup-shaped skeleton. This skeleton protects the soft, delicate body of the polyp.”

Normally, a sedimentary rock is laid down over time and formed by pressure, all by physical means.  Coral is a name given to both the animal and the house it builds for itself from dissolved limestone.  In short, the coral animal takes the limestone out of sea water solution, builds itself a house that outlasts its lifespan.  This woman was holding a piece of empty limestone house.

From here, the conversation veered into “what is life?” Not a philosophical question, but rather a practical YES/NO question.  Is soil alive?  One woman insisted – yes, it’s full of bacteria.  Another woman mentioned that she bought sterile soil at the hardware store.
The leader asked, “Can anything grow in sterile soil?”  I volunteered that I start my seedlings in sterile soil every spring.  The leader asked how life could grow in something that has no life.

I felt as if I had walked back into the 1700's.  Scientists used to believe in a theory called Vitalism, which meant that chemicals found in organisms could never be made in the lab. It was well known that the chemical called urea was found in urine, and was therefore organic.  In 1773, Wohler accidentally synthesized urea crystals in his lab.  He recognized them instantly, and was not happy about it.  He wrote a friend that his discovery was, “The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

These women seemed perplexed by the fact that living organisms can make coral, or kidney stones, or pearls.  That farmers add rocks to their soil to feed their plants. 

It is life that can metabolize rocks, and life that can form inert substances that have the same chemical formulae as rocks.

And it is living beings who ask these questions and design experiments to find answers. It is living beings who can teach each other these concepts and discoveries, so that each generation does not have to figure it out anew.

In my view – to be alive is not only to metabolize, but also to share knowledge and wisdom. These are women who need more than YES/NO answers because cancer is a disease of living cells and cancer can kill.

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