MondayPoem: Upon Nothing

By Robert Pinsky for Slate:

The quality of wit, like the Hindu god Shiva, both creates and destroys—sometimes, both at once: The flash of understanding negates a trite or complacent way of thinking, and that stroke of obliteration at the same time creates a new form of insight and a laugh of recognition.

Also like Shiva, wit dances. Leaping gracefully, balancing speed and poise, it can re-embody and refresh old material. Negation itself, for example—verbal play with words like nothing and nobody: In one of the oldest jokes in literature, when the menacing Polyphemus asks Odysseus for his name, Odysseus tricks the monster by giving his name as the Greek equivalent of Nobody.

Another, immensely moving version of that Homeric joke (it may have been old even when Homer used it) is central to the best-known song of the great American comic Bert Williams (1874-1922). You can hear Williams’ funny, heart-rending, subtle rendition of the song (music by Williams, lyrics by Alex Rogers) at the University of California’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization site.

The lyricist Rogers, I suspect, was aided by Williams’ improvisations as well as his virtuoso delivery. The song’s language is sharp and plain. The plainness, an almost throw-away surface, allows Williams to weave the refrain-word “Nobody” into an intricate fabric of jaunty pathos, savage lament, sly endurance—all in three syllables, with the dialect bent and stretched and released:

When life seems full of clouds and rain,
And I am full of nothing and pain,
Who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain?
Nobody.

When winter comes with snow and sleet,
And me with hunger, and cold feet—
Who says, “Here’s twenty-five cents
Go ahead and get yourself somethin’ to eat”?
Nobody.

I ain’t never done nothin’ to Nobody.
I ain’t never got nothin’ from Nobody, no time.
And, until I get somethin’ from somebody sometime,
I’ll never do nothin’ for Nobody, no time.

In his poem “Upon Nothing,” John Wilmot (1647-80), also known as the earl of Rochester, deploys wit as a flashing blade of skepticism, slashing away not only at a variety of human behaviors and beliefs, not only at false authorities and hollow reverences, not only at language, but at knowledge—at thought itself:

“Upon Nothing”

………………………1
Nothing, thou elder brother ev’n to Shade
Thou hadst a being ere the world was made,
And, well fixed, art alone of ending not afraid.

………………………2
Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot,
Then all proceeded from the great united What.

………………………3
Something, the general attribute of all,
Severed from thee, its sole original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguished fall.

………………………4
Yet Something did thy mighty power command,
And from thy fruitful emptiness’s hand
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, water, air, and land.

………………………5
Matter, the wicked’st offspring of thy race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy embrace
And rebel Light obscured thy reverend dusky face.

………………………6
With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join,
Body, thy foe, with these did leagues combine
To spoil thy peaceful realm and ruin all thy line.

………………………7
But turncoat Time assists the foe in vain,
And bribed by thee destroys their short-lived reign,
And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again.

………………………8
Though mysteries are barred from laic eyes,
And the divine alone with warrant pries
Into thy bosom, where thy truth in private lies;

………………………9
Yet this of thee the wise may truly say:
Thou from the virtuous nothing doest delay,
And to be part of thee the wicked wisely pray.

………………………10
Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Enquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their blind philosophies.

………………………11
Is or Is Not, the two great ends of Fate,
And true or false, the subject of debate,
That perfect or destroy the vast designs of state;

………………………12
When they have racked the politician’s breast,
Within thy bosom most securely rest,
And when reduced to thee are least unsafe, and best.

………………………13
But, Nothing, why does Something still permit
That sacred monarchs should at council sit
With persons highly thought, at best, for nothing fit;

………………………14
Whilst weighty something modestly abstains
From princes’ coffers, and from Statesmen’s brains,
And nothing there, like stately Nothing reigns?

………………………15
Nothing, who dwell’st with fools in grave disguise,
For whom they reverend shapes and forms devise,
Lawn-sleeves, and furs, and gowns, when they like thee look wise.

………………………16
French truth, Dutch prowess, British policy,
Hibernian learning, Scotch civility,
Spaniards’ dispatch, Danes’ wit, are mainly seen in thee.

………………………17
The great man’s gratitude to his best friend,
Kings’ promises, whores’ vows, towards thee they bend,
Flow swiftly into thee, and in thee ever end.

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Immaculate creation: birth of the first synthetic cell

From the New Scientist:

For the first time, scientists have created life from scratch – well, sort of. Craig Venter‘s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California, has made a bacterial genome from smaller DNA subunits and then transplanted the whole thing into another cell. So what exactly is the science behind the first synthetic cell, and what is its broader significance?

What did Venter’s team do?

The cell was created by stitching together the genome of a goat pathogen called Mycoplasma mycoides from smaller stretches of DNA synthesised in the lab, and inserting the genome into the empty cytoplasm of a related bacterium. The transplanted genome booted up in its host cell, and then divided over and over to make billions of M. mycoides cells.

Venter and his team have previously accomplished both feats – creating a synthetic genome and transplanting a genome from one bacterium into another – but this time they have combined the two.

“It’s the first self-replicating cell on the planet that’s parent is a computer,” says Venter, referring to the fact that his team converted a cell’s genome that existed as data on a computer into a living organism.

How can they be sure that the new bacteria are what they intended?

Venter and his team introduced several distinctive markers into their synthesised genome. All of them were found in the synthetic cell when it was sequenced.

These markers do not make any proteins, but they contain the names of 46 scientists on the project and several quotations written out in a secret code. The markers also contain the key to the code.

Crack the code and you can read the messages, but as a hint, Venter revealed the quotations: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; “See things not as they are but as they might be,” which comes from American Prometheus, a biography of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer; and Richard Feynman’s famous words: “What I cannot build I cannot understand.”

Does this mean they created life?

It depends on how you define “created” and “life”. Venter’s team made the new genome out of DNA sequences that had initially been made by a machine, but bacteria and yeast cells were used to stitch together and duplicate the million base pairs that it contains. The cell into which the synthetic genome was then transplanted contained its own proteins, lipids and other molecules.

Venter himself maintains that he has not created life . “We’ve created the first synthetic cell,” he says. “We definitely have not created life from scratch because we used a recipient cell to boot up the synthetic chromosome.”

Whether you agree or not is a philosophical question, not a scientific one as there is no biological difference between synthetic bacteria and the real thing, says Andy Ellington, a synthetic biologist at the University of Texas in Austin. “The bacteria didn’t have a soul, and there wasn’t some animistic property of the bacteria that changed,” he says.

What can you do with a synthetic cell?

Venter’s work was a proof of principle, but future synthetic cells could be used to create drugs, biofuels and other useful products. He is collaborating with Exxon Mobil to produce biofuels from algae and with Novartis to create vaccines.

“As soon as next year, the flu vaccine you get could be made synthetically,” Venter says.

Ellington also sees synthetic bacteria as having potential as a scientific tool. It would be interesting, he says, to create bacteria that produce a new amino acid – the chemical units that make up proteins – and see how these bacteria evolve, compared with bacteria that produce the usual suite of amino acids. “We can ask these questions about cyborg cells in ways we never could before.”

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