Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 17: "Cells"
Places you have lived:
Brown single-level three-bedroom home in Woodbridge,Virginia.
White two-level three-bedroom home with basement in Woodbridge, Virginia.
White two-level four-bedroom home with basement in Fairfax, Virginia.
Dorm room in Mason Hall, first floor, at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Dorm room in Westmoreland Hall, third floor, at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
White one-and-a-half-level three-bedroom home with basement in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
One-bedroom cabin-shack in Orwell, Vermont.
Brown one-and-a-half-level two-to-three-bedroom home with basement in Missoula, Montana.
One-bedroom apartment in Missoula, Montana.
Attic of a white one-bedroom home with basement in Salem, Virginia.
Second-floor two-bedroom apartment of a white two-level four-bedroom home with basement in Roanoke, Virginia.
Brown two-level three-bedroom home in Camden, Maine.
Two-bedroom apartment in Richmond, Virginia.
Red two-level one-bedroom home with back patio in Richmond, Virginia.
One-bedroom apartment in Richmond, Virginia.
Yellow single-level two-bedroom home in Austin, Texas.
Second-floor one-bedroom apartment in Austin, Texas.
Some merely for months, some for several years. Like most aging young people, you aren’t finished. Austin, Texas is your home, and clearly is not. You feel it. By the time the world sees these sentences, you may be in Boston, Minneapolis, either Portland, D.C., Ireland. All new homes in the conversation.
What does it feel like to settle down? To make a home, or what feels like it, for good? The science guy peeks through the window of a dollhouse half his size. He is describing cells by describing rooms: the walls are membranes, the table is the nucleus, the fireplace the mitochondria. He extends the metaphor, says your body is a house, each room a different type of cell. Bone cells, muscle cells, brain cells, skin cells. Bathroom, living room, dining room, basement. If the metaphor is apt, you could live anywhere. You are living everywhere, simply by living in the first place.
Bodies you have lived in:
Tiny unspeaking body with wrinkled hands and broken ears.
Midsize body in constant motion with nervous tics and thumbsucking.
Gangly too-tall body with long hair, poorly bleached.
Wide-shouldered grown-up body, collapsed lung, broken stomach, back pain.
Some merely for months, some for several years.
Kate Whitlock watches caterpillars. Watches as they mutate from larva to chrysalis to cocoon to new thing. She has them all in boxes, in a lab, in each stage. Samples of the larva, the chrysalis, the cocoon, the new thing. Moth or butterfly. She explains to children how beautiful each step is, how stunning the process. They are grossed out, though intrigued. She explains how when caterpillars are cocooning they’re in there rearranging their cells, changing from one thing to another entirely. They do this on their own, without impetus, just because. It’s natural. It’s science.
Pretty exciting, huh? Kate Whitlock asks. And in what ways has she cocooned? Rearranged her cells, her life, her plans, to land, somehow, improbably, where she is now, at this job, talking to these children? We are nothing if not in constant states of flux, great globs of mutating biology that break and reform in unpredictable, unseeable patterns. Even when we make plans specifically for change, plans change. They have to. They must. It’s natural.
Lepidopterans—butterflies and moths—live their complete metamorphoses in lengths of time dependent on climate. The warmer the climate, the quicker the cycle—more than a year, as long as a decade for some, only days for others. They cannot know the difference. How could they? Their environment is their context for everything, their well of knowledge beginning and ending right there, in those leaves, on those branches. It saddens you only because you are not a lepidopteran. You are a human. You want everything to live long human lives. But what difference does it make if it makes no difference?
Mmm, the science guy says in satisfaction. He is eating a Twinkie at a picnic table in the middle of an empty park. He swallows his bite and, holding up the Twinkie, says, Golden sponge cake. Creamy filling. This is made with some living things and some non-living things.
But does that mean it’s alive or not? he asks. What do you think?
It’s a very good question with no right answer.
Later, the science guy is walking through a hospital’s nursery. Babies sleep swaddled in hospital-issued blankets in waist-high plastic troughs. The science guy moves through the newborns, looking around in wonder. There is no one else there. Look at all these cells, he says. Trillions and trillions of them.
It’s truly amazing: we start with one cell, and we end up like this. He jerks a thumb backward at the room of snoozing babies.
He does not ask if these particular cells are living or not. That would be a very dumb question with a definite right answer.
But would it? Are we only cells, after all, or are we more? The science guy can’t help but see the world in both the micro and the macro at the same time, like a minor god, or a helicopter pilot, peeking down below from above, understanding that this world he sees is the same one he knows others see, but not. It’s completely different. It’s just a bunch of cells, rooms that makes up homes that make up people. Bodies for housing science. Some living things and some non-living: the make-up all the same.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.