Finally! After a year’s pause (2013 fell through the cracks, as they say), we are springing into Spring 2014 with a brand new year of Protein Portraits, 2014. We will call this The Year of Duct Tape.
And Bailing Wire, too.
I, Phil McFadden, am glad to be back teaching this class because I feel we still have much to create. So many protein structures, and so few students, and such an important topic …
I am also glad, because like the famous Sam-I-Am confronting someone who Might-or-Might-Not have thought about it before, I get to spend the next ten weeks asking: Did you ever build a protein?
“If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good.” (ref: Theodor Seuss Geisel (1960) from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Random House (page number from somewhere in the middle of the book.)
Skipping ahead from Dr. Seuss, another relevant view comes from the writer/editor/philosopher David Brooks who publishes frequently in the New York Times. He recently pointed out that the creative process is messy. If you are being creative, you are likely not following the directions but are flinging aside the old recipes and inventing new ones. Individuals working on their own projects then come together to talk about the progress they have made, but in the endeavor to create, there is something magical about the soloist who is granted wide latitude. The work of the creative process is as much about breaking down old barriers as it is about building new ways of seeing the world. So let’s assume that we are going to be messy in this class. We are rule breakers interested in exploring new, creative aesthetics.
Who knows how to put together a “good” view of protein molecules? Is there a “correct” view? Of what value is the “standard” view? Random as these questions may seem, they are questions that may be key to future learning — your own learning, learning by others. Linus Pauling himself could only “see” the full fruition of his discoveries by continual sketching his thoughts. His notebooks are full of sketches. He carried around toys and models and was forever spinning this one, stretching that one, breaking pieces apart, and putting puzzles back together. Looking back on his career and his massive output of innovation, it is fair to say that Pauling was one of the premier scientific artists in western history. He basically invented, for example, today’s typical conception of electron orbitals and covalent bonds as graphical depictions of atomic surfaces in contact with other surfaces. The visual nature of molecules and the pictures of them that we carry around in our heads are examples of art in the service of science.
Of course we recognize that such drawings only have a conceptual relationship with what our eyes see. The human eye cannot “see” atoms and molecules and electron orbitals because our eyes are too big and the structures just mentioned are too small. But despite the physical impossibility of seeing a molecule, Pauling led the way by using his visual sense to explore molecules.
When we search the protein data bank, which is something we will do often in this course, we are playing in this very same visual-conceptual world of Pauling, and of course we now have computers to help us generate complicated 3D images. But the creative expression and full realization of this playground depends ultimately on the refined, careful and caring brush of the human artist. So in this regard, our class can be thought of as an arts and crafts class where we are going to train our visualization skills and our abilities to render molecules in new and artistic styles. We will portray proteins in new ways for all to see.
Our group consists of 12 Honors College students plus 1 professor. We are ready, with duct tape and bailing wire, and other stuff, to construct artistic visuals for the rest of the world. May our portraits inspire future portraits far and wide.