Science in Society Archive

What Barrier?

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

I-SIS Contribution to Workshop on Bridging the Barriers between Man and Nature, The Living Rainforest, Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire, UK, 7 November 2002

I was on a lecture tour in South America two years ago. During a short break in Ecuador, we took a boat up the Amazon to visit a family of Cofan Indians farming sustainably in the forest. It was hard to communicate across the gulf of three languages, but beyond that, I sensed the enormous divide between the modernist and indigenous cultures that was impossible to bridge within the single day that was all we had.

Slide 1. My 'Jane Goodall' Experience in the Amazon rainforest. (Photo by Julian Haffegee, September 2000)

Somewhat distracted, I looked around, and something caught my eye in a tree next to the wooden family house built on stilts to lift it above the ground. A dark reddish brown spider monkey was looking quizzically towards us while brachiating restlessly up and down the canopy, as though impatient for us to come to him. I went over and held my hand up to him as high as I could manage. That immediately brought him almost to the end of the lowest branch, which sagged perilously under his weight. Then, hanging upside-down by his tail, he reached as far down as he could with outstretched arms and legs.

When we finally made contact, he was steadying himself with one hand grabbing onto the branch of the neighbouring tree.

A thrill went through me as I felt his small nimble hand in mine.

He seemed to want more. He was straining to inch my hand up and himself down just a bit further with his one free hand and both feet now wrapped around my forearm. For a brief moment, I wondered if he was going to bite, as did everyone else. Instead, ever so gently, he brought the back of my hand to his lips, and planted the softest kiss.

Throughout the act, he was fixing me with a look that was innocent and wise, young and immensely old, so sad, and so full of love. We were seeing into each other's soul as though we had but one soul.

He, his species, has been here for tens of millions of years, waiting, and dreaming our species into being; never suspecting that we would be capable of such violence and destruction.

This monkey was not a family pet. On the contrary, he seems to have adopted the family, and has been visiting them regularly over the past 15 years, not for food, but simply for love and companionship. That was my first intimate contact with a non-human primate, it was my 'Jane Goodall' experience.

I believe he was telling me this. Don't destroy the home that shelters and sustains us both. Let me roam freely and come to you as a free agent.

It took more than 35 years of sciencing to prepare me for that. So, I'll start at the beginning.

My first 'love' was really butterflies.

Butterflies fluttering in the sunlight never fails to fill me with delight. And I never resist the urge to reach over, to pinch the folded wings between my thumb and forefinger, and instantly to become transformed into a child again. (The only difference between this virtual child now and the real one then, is that I now always free the captive, and watch it fly back into the blue.)

Nothing could have been further from my thoughts than becoming a scientist, or anything, as I roamed the fields in search of butterflies and dragonflies. And when I tired of that, to scramble up the tallest banyan tree, to cool my burning face in the summer breeze as I surveyed my earthly paradise.

That was Hong Kong, my birthplace, before it was concreted over, and skyscrapers suddenly sprouted everywhere to blot out the sky and extinguish all traces of my old haunts and their unseen powers that drew me unerringly to them.

I joined the science stream in the Italian convent school my parents sent me to, because it was the thing to do for 'bright girls'. But the science was dull. It was years later before my soul was set alight again as an undergraduate. It was a remark made by Hungarian-born Nobel laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, "Life is interposed between two energy levels of an electron". To me, that was both a riddle on the secret of life and sheer poetry.

It launched me on a 30-year odyssey in search for 'the meaning of life'. I fell in love with ideas, with people, and oftentimes the two coincided. My career consists, above all, in following the tangled, unpredictable paths of love. And it isn't over yet.

As a gypsy-scientist, I was to wander in and out of many fields, invariably at odds with the establishment. It took me years to realise that all the disciplines actually belong together in one knowledge system, they spring from the same roots and continue to mutually reinforce one another.

I imbibed the great books in philosophy, literature and anthropology, much of which became so much part of me that I forget I had read them, and the rest I simply forgot. And, I gave myself up to art and poetry.

I longed for knowledge I could live by, that did not fragment my soul. I wanted to weave science and art intimately and seamlessly into my life. I wanted a science I could love, and love by.

A science of the organic whole

Slide 2 Acknowledgement of thanks

When I found it - a science of the organic whole - it was to transform the very meaning and texture of my life. For that, I have to thank the long string of distinguished scientists who shared their dreams with me, from whom I have learned what they never meant to teach, and that, perhaps is the greatest gift of teachers. Many also laboured with me in the project, often at great financial sacrifice, but always with enthusiasm and ingenuity.

But most of all, I have to thank the fruitfly. In the course of more than 20 years, it suffered at my hands and died again and again, in order to teach me the most profound lessons in the science of life.

When I finally learned to communicate with it without violence and destruction, this was what I saw.

Slide 3. Fruitfly larva, just after emerging

The tiny fruitfly larva revealed itself as a stunning symphony of pure colours that never repeat, as life never repeats. It was beyond anything that I could have imagined. Nature always has surprises in store, which is why I love science so much.

The fruitly larva is not unique. The brine shrimp, daphnia, and a host of other microscopic organisms we have looked at, are all like that; and there is no reason to suppose we ourselves are different.

Life is literally all the colours in the rainbow. These colours are so special and pure that artists will die for them. You won't ever get them in pigments.

The beauty of the rainbow worm does not end there. It goes on, in our trying to fathom the meaning of the colours.

Slide 5. Daphnia

The colours appear under the polarised light microscope that earth scientists use to identify rock crystals. We have to alter the settings somewhat, but the principles are the same. Crystals like quartz, show up in brilliant colours because they have an orderly arrangement of atoms and molecules.

But how can a living, squirming worm look like a crystal, when the trillions (1 followed by 12 zeros) of 'molecular machines' in its body must all be turning over, transforming energy? These molecular machines include troops of enzymes working to break down the food eaten into building blocks for the organism's own body, and to supply energy to the hordes of molecular motors in its muscles that must cycle together to keep the worm on the move.

The answer, which came after a series of investigations, is both simple and revealing, The macromolecules, associated with lots of water, are in a liquid crystalline state, where all the molecules, including the water, are macroscopically aligned to form a continuum. This continuum links up the whole body, permeating throughout the connective tissues, the extracellular matrix and into the interior of every single cell. Most importantly, all the molecules, including the water, are also moving coherent together as a whole.

Let me show you a live recording to help recapture my very first experience of the rainbow worm.

Slide 6. Short video of fruitfly larva emerging. (From the forthcoming I-SIS CDROM available from the I-SIS online store). Filesize 6.96Mb

I said all the molecules are 'macroscopically aligned', and that is not an exaggeration. The anterior-posterior axis of the body - head to tail - actually defines a global axis, as though the organism is a single crystal. As you can see in the video, when that axis is aligned exactly so in the field of the microscope, the organism's muscle and other structures all adopt a single colour, blue, green, orange, red, etc. But when that axis is rotated 90 degrees, blue turns to red or orange, green to yellow and so on, as typical of these 'interference' colours.

So, when the little fruitfly larva curls its head around to form a circle with its tail, its global axis is correspondingly circularised, and its muscles and other prominent structures switch colours, from blue to red or green to orange and vice versa.

The light that we see vibrates at 1014 cycles per second. Molecules, however, move much slower, probably at least ten thousand times slower. So the molecules will appear to the light coming through as though motionless. And, so long as all the molecules in each muscle and tissue are moving coherently together, it will give the appearance of static alignment and order, i.e., a crystal. It is like being able to take a sharp image of a very fast moving object with a sensitive film that requires only the briefest exposure time.

The most coherent parts are the most active parts, showing up in the organism as those with the brightest colours. (We've done all the physics and mathematics to prove that's the case.) And when the organism dies, the colours fade as random thermal motions takes over.

The colours are telling us that the living organism is coherent and whole to a remarkable degree; that all the parts are co-ordinated at every moment and every level, down to the motion of individual molecules, of which there are at least trillions in an organism the size of millimetres. In a human being, there would be a billion times more!

From there, I could begin to see hints of how life could interpose itself between two energy levels of the electron. Szent-Gyorgyi was talking about photons -packets of sunlight - trapped by chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green colour. The packets of sunlight absorbed boosts electrons from a 'ground state' to a high energy level, from where the electrons cascade down an energy 'staircase'. At each step down, part of the energy is spirited away, to make the green plant grow, which feeds the snails, the butterflies, the rodents, the birds, the foxes, the cows and the human beings.

All flesh is grass and grass drinks pure sunlight. Ecologically, all living things are interconnected and interdependent.

The reason this is possible in the first instance, is because the organism is an organic coherent whole that stores and transforms energy and material most efficiently and rapidly.

The organic whole applies not only to a single organism but possibly also to sustainable ecosystems. Jim Lovelock, indeed, saw the entire planet earth as a super-organism in his Gaia hypothesis, although the super-organism earth is not in the best of health at the moment.

I wrote a book on the organism as a coherent whole that describes the colour images, together with many other kinds of experimental findings and a lot of physics, chemistry and cell biology; and yes, even some philosophy on the meaning of life.

I can only give a flavour of how profoundly it changes life for me. Above all, it allowed me to see life in terms of spontaneity and freedom as opposed to mechanistic control.

From mechanistic control to spontaneity and freedom

The symphony of colours in the organism emerges from the grand ensemble of all its activities, playing spontaneously to no pre-set score, full of unexpected twists and turns as the organism goes about its business of living.

There is no one controlling the organism from the outside; that much is clear. An organism, as distinct from a machine, is ultimately uncontrollable and unpredictable. It is not even controlled from the inside.

There is no central controlling agency, no driver propelling or pulling the parts into action. There is no switching mechanism to turn any part on, no line-managers transmitting a chain of command from top to bottom.

Instead, all parts of the body are ultra-sensitive - a small signal is sufficient to initiate disproportionately large effects - because there is coherent energy stored locally everywhere. So, intercommunication is the key, with every part as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive. The liquid crystalline continuum of the body facilitates rapid intercommunication. It is extremely sensitive to electric and magnetic fields, and turns heat, light, sound, and mechanical pressure into electricity, and vice versa. The result is perfect co-ordination, from split seconds and minutes to days, months and years, from individual molecules and cells to tissues and organ systems of the entire body.

I call this incredible hive of living activities quantum jazz, played over a musical range of 70 octaves, where every player, from molecules to cells, tissues and organs, is freely improvising at any moment, yet remaining in step and in tune with the spontaneity and freedom of the whole.

The ideal organic whole is simultaneously most coherent and most free. It is the coherence of quantum states, which is quite paradoxical from the mechanistic perspective.

The hallmark of an organism is its spontaneity and freedom, the stuff of childhood memories. That's why it goes against the grain to hold organisms captive in the name of conservation. Let us conserve wild life in situ where they belong, within their homelands that are also the homelands of indigenous peoples who have co-existed with them for millennia. That was what the spider-monkey was saying to me.

The idea of the organic whole has important implications on how we could organise our societies, but I won't go into that today. Instead, I want to spend the remaining time on how we can obtain authentic knowledge of organisms, how to science with love.

Sciencing with love

In the early days after the first excitement of our discovery, we enlisted the help of a physicist colleague to try and explain where the colours come from. But like many other physicists, he was discomforted by this strange phenomenon, and probably quite unmoved by it. One of his first questions was whether the colours are still there when the organism is dead. (The answer turned out to be no, as we discovered later, for the colours depend on coherent motions of all the molecules, which can only occur in the living organism. As the organism dies, random thermal motion takes over and the colours fade.)

Somewhat puzzled, I asked, "Why do you want to know that?"

"Then I'd know the colours are real, and not artefacts," he said.

That comment speaks volumes about the mechanistic perspective of western science: life and all its hallmarks - freedom, spontaneity, love and consciousness - are all artefacts because nothing can be said about them. Organisms are regarded as no different from machines, devoid of feelings and consciousness, and to be exploited like machines; thus sanctioning the most horrendous abuses of animals in scientific experiments.

The problem lies with how we choose to see organisms, not what they really are.

I have explained how the colours come about. But where do the colours really come from? Do they belong to the organism or are they artefacts arising out of the way we look at them?

The colours surely belong to the organism, and accurately reflect the state of the organism from moment to moment as it goes about its business of living. But we can't see the colours unless we set up the polarised light microscope in a particular way. The colours arise in the act of knowing, in the union of the knower and the known.

This clearly demonstrates that science isn't about discovering 'facts of nature' 'objectively', or independently of us. Knowing depends irreducibly on both the knower and the known. Artists and poets have always taken that for granted. But modern western science is predicated on severing our connection with nature, and so the major strand of western philosophy is to puzzle over how it is possible to know at all.

It took centuries of separating and reducing nature to the limit of the quantum of action before western science was to rediscover that nothing in nature is separate. Everything is at once both spread out as wave and localised as particle.

And seemingly separate objects, from fundamental particles to atoms and molecules and increasingly larger objects, could be mutually 'entangled', perhaps right up to the entire universe. 'Entangled' describes a state of being intimately and inseparably part and parcel of one another.

Quantum physics also recovered the simple truth that other cultures have never doubted, and call it aptly, "the entanglement of the observer and the observed".

In other words, how we know determines what we know. Scientific knowledge is no different from art and poetry. In order to be a really good scientist, I believe, one has to have the soul of a romantic poet. It was only when I learned to know with the greatest sensitivity and compassion that I was rewarded with the most resplendent vision of the organism. And who will want to hurt a fly after that?

I felt sick with memories of how, as a biologist and then a biochemist, I was schooled to the routine of fixing, pinning, pulping, homogenising, separating and purifying until no trace is left of the living organisation we were looking for. It violated everything life stands for, and reinforced the illusion that the organism is nothing more than a machine, albeit, very, very complicated.

The organic whole works by mutual intercommunication. The healthy body has perfect knowledge of itself because it is most coherent: every part of it knows and responds to all other parts. There is literally a 'wisdom of the body', a term that physiologists use to express the perfection with which all parts of the body work together to maintain the whole.

It is exactly the same with knowing another organism, or whole ecosystems of organisms. Perfect, authentic knowledge is gained when we are most coherent with the organism or ecosystem, i.e., become one with it. That's when we are intercommunicating most sensitively. That's also when both knower and the known are most authentically and autonomously themselves. Isn't this like a perfect love affair?

This ideal is approximated by the holistic knowledge that many indigenous cultures still possess, and which contemporary western science is inviting us to recover.

I have shown you a non-destructive way to know the organism. That's just the beginning. There are other non-destructive, minimally invasive approaches based on ultra-sensitive measurement and appropriate analysis of the data, which is tantamount to deciphering the language of organisms. Unfortunately, research in this general area is severely under-funded, if at all.

The most sensitive instrumentation for studying living organisms is currently the Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) magnetometer that can detect the extremely small magnetic fields arising from the electric currents flowing, not just in the brain or the heart, but in the limbs and everywhere else in our liquid crystalline body. In fact, these electric currents are another manifestation of the coherence of the body, which explains why organisms are sensitive to extremely weak electromagnetic fields, and certainly to the fields from mobile phones and antennas.

We've had centuries of biology based on destroying and violating the organism. We already know far too much about the molecular nuts and bolts, but almost nothing on what makes the organism whole. We need to move forward to a science with love, to really understand and appreciate the organic whole that ultimately includes all that there is; which brings me to the final point.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the organic whole is that it is quintessentially diverse and pluralistic. The organism is the antithesis to uniformity and homogeneity. It is truly remarkable that we should habitually think of ourselves as "I" in the singular.

According to the verdict of the human genome project, we have some 30 000 genes; but alternative splicing, RNA editing and other ways in which the genetic code is modified by feedback from the environment gives us probably a thousand times as many possible proteins. A different combination of genes and proteins is active from moment to moment in each of the seventy trillions cells that make up the different tissues and organs of our body. Within the cell, each individual protein molecule will have its own diverse, 'cytosocial' neighbourhood of other proteins, as well as cofactors and metabolites. So much so that if ever the same kind of protein molecules clump together, as the prion-protein in mad cow disease and sickle-cell haemoglobin in sickle-cell anemia, that spells death.

What if the same principles were involved in the survival of our planet and the human species, as I have argued they might be? It is not too difficult to appreciate why we need the full diversity of cultures in the human species. The different cultures are so many repositories of wisdom necessary for our survival; they are needed to sustain the human miracle, to express the full creative human potential.

But why does it matter that the sparrow is no longer seen in my garden in London? That the frogs are dying out all over the world? That our children and grandchildren may come to feel the peculiar flutter in their heart when they see their loved one, but will never know it came from the experience of real butterflies?

Ecology tells us that the living world is interconnected and interdependent. Quantum physics says the interconnection is there all the time. Perhaps the reason we can feel other's joys and pains with such immediacy is because we are really entangled with our fellow human beings and with all creatures large and small. The self and other are but aspects of one and the same.

That's why we cannot do violence to our fellow human beings or to other creatures without harming ourselves.

That 's why I want to science with love, to thrive with all there is in nature, that nature may never cease to set our soul on fire.

General references

Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, 2nd ed., World Scientific, Singapore, 1998

Ho MW. Bioenergetics, S327 Living Processes, An Open University Third Level Course, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1995.

Ho, MW. From molecular machines to coherent organism. In Energy and Information Transfer Conference Proceedings, (F. Musumeci, ed.). World Scientific, Singapore.

Article first published 12/11/02

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