Posted March 16, 2013 by Dr. Henri Montandon in art

The inner life of the cell

A cell vesicle moved along a tubule.

In Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, he tells the story of how one Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist bibliophile, in 1471 discovered in Fulda Abbey in central Germany an object which had been allowed to lay in an out of the way  chamber for several centuries. The doctrine of atomism propounded by the author of the scroll, Titus Lucrtius Carus, would seem crazy to today’s readers, if it were not for the fact it has turned out to be true.

Lucretius’ grand poem De rerum natura (On the nature of the universe) has among many astonishing intuitions, an account of Brownian movement, from which the poet/philosopher inductively concludes that atoms exist:

Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves [i.e., spontaneously]. Then those small compound bodies that are least removed from the impetus of the atoms are set in motion by the impact of their invisible blows and in turn cannon against slightly larger bodies. So the movement mounts up from the atoms and gradually emerges to the level of our senses, so that those bodies are in motion that we see in sunbeams, moved by blows that remain invisible.

 The observation that tiny particles in a liquid or gaseous medium move randomly as if interacting with ghosts has fascinated humans for a long time. But for centuries it did not convince most natural philosophers that atoms exist. For example,. The nineteenth century Austrian physicist Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach, a major influence on logical positivism, waged unceasing war on those who would argue inductively for the existence of atomic particles.. Basing his research in physics, psychophysics, physiology and psychology on a phenomonalistic philosophy of science, he famously declaimed after an 1897 lecture by Ludwig Boltzmann at the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna: “I don’t believe that atoms exist!”[

But neither  conventional wisdom nor lack of empirical evidence kept Albert Einstein (1905) and Marian Smoluchowski (1906) from discovering /inventing a mathematical theory for Brownian movement implying the existence of atoms and molecules. Jean Baptiste Perrin’s experimental work provided the necessary empirical proof in 1908.

More recently, nanoscaletechnologies increasingly allow for the actual manipulation of atoms and molecules. In 1990 the first proof of concept was engineered at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, when IBM scientists assembled the initials I – B –M one atom at a time using a scanning tunneling microscope.

Nanoscale has certainly not escaped the notice of neuroscientists, including consciousness scientists. Nor, surprisingly, has it escaped the imagination of animators. The Connecticut firm XVIVO is a scientific animation company specializing in nanoscale animations of cell physiology. At the start of the current millennium, they collaborated with Harvard University to produce a series of short animations “to create an educational piece that is scientifically accurate as well as visually engaging for” undergraduate cell and molecular biology students. The award winning series, “The Life of the Cell” is available at http://www.xvivo.net/animation/, http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/ and on YouTube. There are currently 26 animations in the series. The original shows leukocyte extraversion as if a nanosize version of yourself were watching and filming with your iphone. Other topics are viral fusion with a cell, how mitochondria power the cell, how neuropeptides work (it don’t do a thing if it ain’t got that swing).




Dr. Henri Montandon