On Eating Hydrogen and Breathing Sulfur

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(scan from Cabinet Magazine, click to enlarge)

Pyrodictium:

For a while, it held the record as the highest-temperature organism at 113 degrees Celsius. It eats hydrogen and breathes sulfur.

I was reading through the latest issue of Cabinet Magazine yesterday and came across a very interesting article called “Figuring Life” by Margaret Wertheim. In it, she describes her interview with Dr. Norman Pace, “a leader in the new field of molecular mapping of evolutionary relationships.” I found their conversation fascinating, especially the description of the changes that have affected Darwin’s Tree of Life, the tree I learned of in grade school and carry around as a mental model today. We are now classifying life based on the sort of chemistry that the organism does, and the previously animal/plant-centric tree has been usurped by a teeming cloud of microscopic eukarya, bacteria, and my new favorite organisms: archaea.

Every time I start to get my mind working on scientific topics, I get a funny, light-headed feeling that reminds me of the way you feel when you’re standing on the edge of a tall precipice and looking down at the interminable drop below. I feel like Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain when he contemplates his Homo Dei in its infinity of perfect cellular processes. But it feels SO important to be glancing in the direction of science, especially with regards to biological, chemical, and physical processes. Process is the important part. When I was studying Whitehead, the last few classes were spent reading excerpts out of various texts on the philosophy of biology. The majority were by an author whose name escapes me (had a J in it…) and were excellent for opening my eyes to the philosophical ramifications of minute, microscopic processes.

I think of Leibniz’s description of the most perfect garden which, at every level, contains such variety and perfection of life that the image takes on fractal-like proportions. Or of Whitehead’s more sterile modeling of the processes and change of the universe, in the attempt to discover the patterns and principles of the way life operates. I wish I had more scientific knowledge because I mostly feel amateurish when I try to pursue a train of thinking that launches from some interesting scientific reading (whenever I read about knot theory and string theory for example) and falls flat in the realm of philosophy because I’m currently incapable of translating a scientific problem into a philosophical problem without losing something, or everything that is vital.

The light-headed feeling that I get makes me think that however difficult it is, this is a very important exercise to continue trying.