Words bring life to life

Drew Berry is one of the great movie-makers of the molecular world. He makes gorgeous computer visualizations of DNA, proteins, and the various goings-on inside the cell. Last night I spent a little time watching a new TEDx talk of his just posted online. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I get to see these movies when I was learning about biology as a kid? Life is unfair.” Compared to the flat cartoons of textbooks, or even the crude animations in documentaries of yore, Berry’s work seems to come from some advanced alien civilization.

In case you haven’t seen Berry’s work before, I’ve embedded his lecture here. (You may have heard about him when he got a recent Macarthur “genius” grant.) If you have seen his stuff before, I’d suggest you watch this anyway. And this time, don’t just watch. Listen.

When I first saw Berry’s work a while back, I was immediately gob-smacked. But as I watched his synchronized swimming of molecules a while longer, I realized after a while that I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. I didn’t know the names of the molecules I was looking at, and, more importantly, I couldn’t tell what a lot of them were doing. The only sense I could make of it all derived from what I already knew.

Berry’s TEDx talk is more satisfying because it’s a talk. You look at the mesmerizing images, and Berry explains what you’re seeing. What’s really interesting is how he–no doubt unconsciously–uses words that switch on the mental eye. When he zooms in on a chromosome, he points out structures passing through it that look “like whiskers,” which act as the “scaffolding” for the cell (the microtubules). He then zooms into the place where the chromosome and microtubule meet, the kinetochore. What you see looks like a supercomputer’s acid trip. But you can make sense of what you see because Berry uses metaphors. He calls it a “signal broadcasting system.” Now all the molecules jittering around aren’t totally random. We can see how molecules come together to make life possible.

There’s no question that people like Berry are going to be making the movies that fill our heads in our future when we think about what’s going on in our bodies. But those movies will need good soundtracks.