Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Perverse, Ugly, Terrible Beauty

Neurophilosophy writes about amyloid plaques and Alzheimer's, showcasing this really interesting 3D rendering of the plaque's constituent protein fibrils -- larger picture with the original article at Discover. The article and the post are really informative and you should go read them because I'm not going to address their content. (Gasp!)

My first reaction on seeing the image was, "How strangely beautiful". Even though this is a picture of a prime suspect in an absolutely horrific disease. Even though it's got a rather menacing fire-and-brimstone color scheme. Even though I shudder at the idea of these nasty little fibrils snaking their way through my brain, withering neurons like the Goo of Death from Princess Mononoke.

It's well established that good, hardworking, well-oiled biology is a joy to behold (if you have the right mindset). Listen to PZ Myers rhapsodize about the time he got a close-up look inside his hand. Read Dr. Sidney Schwab's eulogies to the body unmarred, and to the regal liver and warm, welcoming intestine. You've all seen The Inner Life of the Cell; watch it again and marvel.

It's also pretty well established that diseased, shattered, out-of-control biology is ugly, ugly, ugly. Hear Dr. Schwab, again, on how injuries and cancer ravage and ruin the anatomy that was so lovely. And who hasn't shuddered (inwardly) at the sight of scabs and puckered scars?

But somehow, I find there's a genuine (albeit perverse, ugly, terrible) beauty to diseases and such evil things. In the same way that it's interesting to watch flames blacken and consume a sheet of paper, it's interesting to imagine a cancer burning its way through a tissue. There's an elegance to the way viruses hijack and pervert cells to their own nefarious ends. And so on. I'm not saying that I think diseases are a good thing, or anything that causes pain/death is "nice" or "pretty"; far from it. But can't you see the grace, the sweeping lines, the eye-drawing colors, of those evil amyloid fibrils?

(Having thus far skirted the edge of hell, with these paragraphs I commit my soul to the inferno.)

I'm quite the Douglas Hofstadter fan, and I'm right in the middle of rereading his book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. In the introduction, Hofstadter dedicates the book to his wife, Carol, who was "hit from out of left field by a strange and eerie malady with the disgusting name of glioblastoma multiforme... vanishing from our midst almost as suddenly as if she had in fact been hit by a bus, with so much of life still left in her... all cut short by some cell gone wrong." Le Ton beau de Marot is in large part a commitment of their shared soul to paper. The book is stimulating, beautiful, and moving; I cried when I read of her death and his grief. I don't mean to minimize any of that. But I have to disagree with Hofstadter on one point. I don't think the name glioblastoma multiforme is "disgusting". "Strange and eerie", yes, and awful and dreadful (in the sense of inspiring awe and dread). But not disgusting. There's even some euphony, some beauty in the sound of the term.

Of course, I say this as someone who has never lost a close and treasured friend or family member to cancer (and I'm very grateful for that!); I certainly don't blame Hofstadter for describing as "disgusting" a name associated with so much pain and grief. His reaction is completely natural; in fact there would probably be something wrong with him if he didn't react that way. You could as well say that I am incapable of tasting all the bitterness as that Hofstadter is incapable of seeing any of the beauty. Nothing wrong with that.

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