Books I Read: "The Machinery of Life" by David Goodsell

Remember this image the next time someone tries to tell you that E. coli is a "simple" organism.

I am on a bit of a molecular kick right now. This is mostly due to this year's protein folding team, who are "competing" in the local competition today with their Ras model. Protein modeling has been a relatively constant theme in my courses for almost as long as I've been teaching them, and I find that it provides a really nice intersection of science, art, and technology that resonates with a particularly interesting group of students.

When you get in to protein modeling, you get in to the Protein Data Bank, and when you get in to the Protein Data Bank, you start to notice their rather impressive collection of "Molecule of the Month" features. From there, it's a quick jump to the work of David Goodsell, a PhD scientist, and molecular artist. Dr. Goodsell creates the beautiful watercolored models of the proteins featured in the PDB, a body of work that can't help but pique your interest if you are even remotely interested in the biological realm.

I've known for a while that Dr. Goodsell makes some larger efforts available outside of the work he does for the PDB and other organizations. At NSTA last year, I treated myself to the "panorama" version of his "Tour of a Human Cell" cross-section poster, which is one of two pieces of non-student-created work that adorns the walls of my classroom this year (the piece in question is so large at 2 feet x 11 feet, that it stands in for at least a half-dozen smaller items that I may have used in past years). I also knew that Dr. Goodsell has a book or two available for purchase. But it wasn't until this most recent protein structure jag, that I actually realized that the most popular book, "The Machinery of Life", is available at Amazon for a very low price. So I bought myself a copy.

The first thing I noticed about the book is that it is a lot smaller, physically, than I thought it would be. For whatever reason, I thought the book would approximate the dimensions of some of the other art books that are on my shelves, but I was wrong. The book is the size of a small hardcover novel. Still, don't be fooled by the size. While it may be small, the work is a marvel. My only regret is that I didn't buy it sooner.

Anyone who has spent time training as a biologist has an academic understanding of how cells are organized. The smallest systems of life are astoundingly complex, and fantastically baroque. Still, it's one thing to hold such concepts in the mind. To see them rendered in physical space is an entirely different affair. Dr. Goodsell's book is replete with illustrations that move the viewer from the atomic level, through the molecular, and into the cellular. The images that are provided are some of the finest examples of biological illustration that I have seen. The panoramas on display in this work are renderings of a world far removed from the one that we inhabit, but they present a vision that is so striking, and so exact, that the viewer comes away with a deeper, more cohesive understanding of processes and structures that could not even have been analyzed 50 years ago, much less presented as an integrated, functioning, whole. It was not uncommon while reading the book that I found myself thinking things like "Wow, look at how much hemoglobin is in that erythrocyte!". I can't imagine that anyone who is interested in these things can look at the images presented in "The Machinery of Life", and not feel richer for having done so. Even casual fans of aesthetics will enjoy the lovingly illustrated tension between chaos and order that is an integral aspect of the molecular world. My personal favorite series in the book is a nested series of illustrations that successively magnify a region of an E. coli bacterium, culminating with an illustration of a several-hundred-nanometer intercellular square, shown both with and without water and other biological molecules filling the interstices between larger proteins, ribosomes, and a region of the tangled chromosome. It is easily the best representation of the economy of space in cellular systems that I have had the good fortune to be able to view.

One after the next, the breathtaking illustrations in this work are presented to the viewer, and one after the next they serve Dr. Goodsell's emergent narrative, and meditation on the smallest units of living systems and their relationships to the larger systems they are both a part of, and allow for. Once through, the reader will want to return to the beginning, and start all over again. This is what makes "The Machinery of Life" such a great book. In a world of large, comprehensive, tomes on all aspects of the Biological world, this tiny, beautiful book demonstrates the truism that a picture will often succeed where language can not. I give it a firm recommendation to anyone who is interested in a bit of wonder in their lives.

Mycoplasma mycoides

Note: Major thanks to Dr. Goodsell for allowing so much of his work to be used by the public (including the images shown in this post). I look forward to seeing what the larger AP Bio Community might think about doing with his work.