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Out of order: Art and science
November 2017
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author
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Brahm Muhlstock and Gayle Philp—two names that likely mean nothing to you unless you attended White Oaks Secondary School in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. For me, however, these two people were pivotal in the decision of whether or not you would be reading my words in DDNews.
 
Brahm was my Grade 9 science teacher in the quiet affluent Toronto suburb of Oakville (please note, the suburb was affluent; I have never been). He was a large affable man with sonorous humor and an infectious smile. And for a curious kid who was fascinated by the world around him but did not have the tools or words to understand that world, Brahm was a godsend.
 
In many ways, he was the person who taught me how to not just observe, but also question. He helped turn an inquisitive mind into an inquiring mind.
 
Aside from affability, there was little common ground between Brahm and Gayle.
 
My Grade 9 English teacher, Gayle was a short woman with a gentle approach and a soft voice. Where Brahm held the attention of a room, Gayle held your attention. For the budding writer who was largely confused by society and relationships and found release in the written word, Gayle was an angel and herald of greater worlds.
 
With all due respect to my family, Gayle was the person who taught me to trust my creative voice, to help me see the myriad vistas of imagination (with a little help from William Shakespeare) and to validate and guide my writing. She helped turn a passive dreamer into an active explorer.
 
Elsewhere in this issue of DDNews, Jeff Bouley offers insights on my career in science and science writing. In discussing that topic with him, however, as well as in my realization that this is the 40th anniversary of DNA sequencing made routine (see the special report on sequencing that begins on page 20 of this issue), I was suddenly struck by the question of what started me down this path.
 
Like the launch of DNA sequencing, that moment came in 1977 with Brahm Muhlstock and Gayle Philp.
 
When I started my undergraduate training at the University of Toronto, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the arts and sciences. To my still-nascent brain, the two could not be more different.
 
Science was defined; it had rules, it followed patterns. DNA was DNA, comprised of the same four nucleotides. A defined gas would always absorb the same wavelengths of light no matter where or how you performed the experiment.
 
Art, by stark contrast, was open-ended and defined largely by the artist and the observer. Yes, in high school and earlier, we had been taught grammar and sentence structure and spelling. But the art of writing expanded well beyond those limits, leaving itself—and by extension, myself—open to interpretation.
 
It wasn’t really until I started to practice science, first as a graduate student and then as a research assistant, however, that I began to see the overlap in the lessons I had been taught by Brahm and Gayle years earlier.
 
Although they largely spoke different languages (both English) and used different media, they worked toward the same goal: a broader understanding of the Universe.
 
Science is only a monolith of rules and patterns if we choose to observe it that way.
 
Our textbooks show us static illustrations of DNA as a double-helix of four nucleotides paired A-T and G-C. The idea that if we completely sequenced the human genome we would have the keys to human health and disease arose from such a static approach, I believe.
 
Science, however, asks whether this is the absolute truth.
 
Experimentation shows us that DNA is malleable; it breathes, constantly folding and unfolding to accommodate the rest of the biomolecular world. Its backbone loops to expose nucleotide sidechains. It forms guanine quadruplexes. And minute variations in sidechain methylation patterns can completely alter a cell’s fate to produce phenotype A or phenotype B.
 
We want to believe that science is rational and predictable—in many respects, our industries and healthcare systems beg for this to be true—but more often than not, this is only true in hindsight, once we finally “understand” what we are looking at, having viewed it from multiple angles and tested it under a variety of conditions. And even then, the seemingly chaotic nature of science surprises us, and not always in a good way.
 
As I discovered working at the bench and continue to discover as I research my special reports for this magazine and speak to scientists and clinicians, the practice of science is very much an art. It is about viewing what is known with an inquisitive eye and asking the question that has yet to be asked. It is about altering our approach to a currently intractable problem, and saying: “I don’t care what I know to be true; rather, I wonder what might be.”
 
Brahm Muhlstock and Gayle Philp both guided me to this approach. It just took me some time to realize that.

Randall C Willis can be reached at willis@ddn-news.com

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