Home » Feature – Experimental writing in the field of The Uncanny – Chirality by Peter Ahern

FICTION (November 2018)

A Fresh Foray into The Uncanny?

A storyteller & scientists find common cause in fiction

PETER AHERN is a teacher of Literature and Linguistics working with a group of scientists who see the need for new approaches in ‘doing’ science – especially how to invigorate the field of Sci-Comm – scientific communication.
 
In recent times he’s  been working with academics in the sciences (including professors of physics and chemistry, a doctor of chemistry, as well as biologists in Texas, New York and California) co-authoring pieces of fiction that meet the needs of scientists but that also work as fictional stories.
 
‘Readers of fiction are wary of science, but certainly don’t see it as pointless,’ Ahern says.
‘Scientists may see fiction as all a bit pointless. Idle entertainment. Playing around with words,’ he continues.
‘But I think that experimental fiction (e.g. Barthelme, Coover, Calvino, Borges, Cortázar, etc) can be used to do science, to explore scientific concepts in new ways, and still work as pieces of fiction that engage the reader (indeed, Calvino does just this in ‘Cosmicomics’).’
 
Dr M G Lizio, Research Fellow in Biophotonics at Nottingham University, and an expert in chirality*, is the scientist behind this particular piece. 
 
*Chirality – the configuration of handedness (left or right) of an asymmetric, optically active chemical compound. Also called dissymmetry. Origins  nineteenth century, from the Greek kheir hand (Collins English Dictionary).
 
Peter Ahern’s website is here: onehundredpages.

Chirality

by Peter Ahern

 

hand silhouette light black and white white photography spooky mystery finger palm halloween shadow darkness black monochrome close up help scary fear creepy terror organ horror shape emotion macro photography monochrome photography

What looks like a Murder Investigation

 

A body has been found. Grotesque: swollen, blackened extremities, bits hanging off. It was draped over the crash barrier on the central reservation of a busy motorway.

Ok. So, a number of questions immediately arise. Or they suggest themselves. Like they’re dropping from the sky. These questions. Or bubbling up. It’s as if they’re just there. Now. On the tip of your tongue.

One of which is: how could the body have got there?

Another: is this the beginning of the end for organic life as we can conceive of it?

Well, as with so many things, so many other things, it’s a matter of the arrangement as opposed to the composition. That is to say, it’s not really a matter of what’s there, but the way it’s there. Do you understand? By which I mean, do you begin to see? To see that what we’re dealing with here isn’t so many bits of this or bits of that, or whatever else, but the complex inter-relationship of each with each? Each this with each that? It’s a matter of arrangement. You see? Of organization. Of structure. Of pattern. Though, more often than not, the contrary pattern: like, did you even know that you can have backwards-amino-acids? Exact-same-amino-acids, just backwards? Yes, actual right-handed amino-acids, instead of the run-of-the-mill left-handed amino-acids?[1]

Amino-acids?

I know.

No, I mean, what is this amino-acid thing all about?

These questions, as well as many more questions, so many more questions, will here be considered. Though answers, despite what you might expect, are few and far between, because the questions just keep on piling up, leaving little or no space for us to turn each one over into a nice little answer. Or answers. But such is science, I hear you say. Yes, as with any murder investigation, it’s far too often one step forward and two steps back.

But let’s hang on, with grim determination, to what we do have.

 

A Loose Thread

 

On Tuesday, about four in the morning, January the twentieth, 2021, the most singular of all events occurred. This was no less than the beginning of the unravelling of all biology on earth. A rather gruesome death. A very definite killing. A murder perhaps, to some degree.

Yes, this was the first loose thread, and it was, inevitably, pulled at. And it was, of course, a protein. Or more precisely, it was, of course, an amino-acid. What might be considered to be a bad amino-acid.

Now the passing cars, on both sides, slowed almost to a stop. Rubber-necking: once people suspected something was in fact happening, adjudged to have happened, they must know too: oh look! Yet, all they could see was a large white forensic tent erected over the site, spanning both carriageways. But it was enough. It was, at least, something to see. To have seen.

 

Whispered to me in a quiet corridor

 

Ha, ha, you know, all of these regular amino-acids, well, they share the same basic bits. So you got the carbon atom. And that’s bonded to one of the carboxyl radicals. Then there’s the amino group, yeah? Then the lonely hydrogen. And of course the infamous variable group. So, sure, there arises the possibility, definitely, yeah, it arises, though you know it’s more of a probability, so maybe it, like, teeters, this possibility of something, of a bad amino-acid. Yeah? Which then leads to the question of how? How can there be a bad amino-acid? So, we might go along and ask, if the question itself is a question at all, like it isn’t in and of itself unthinkable, and so un-ask-able: how might this be possible? But anyway, the search is on my friend. Sure, the search is on, for this so-called, so-so, so-very-bad amino-acid.[2]

 

Introducing the Detective in Charge – Margaret Delaney

 

I’ve been thinking (where “I” is the detective in charge, and “thinking” in this case is merely verbalizing: putting into words what a moment before were merely inchoate kinds of proto-ideas), and I reckon that of the eight hundred and six cars that pass by on the fast lane of the motorway (the lane nearest the central crash barrier) per hour, on an average daylight hour, one in twenty of these drivers would have noticed the corpse, draped over, as it was, the central crash barrier. Dark jeans. But a bright red shirt, the tail of which would have been flapping in the breeze.

I like your numbers. And the breeze too. A nice touch.

But only one of these drivers, one of the forty point three drivers per hour, which, if you stretch it over the seven and a half hours since dawn (so we’re talking three-hundred and two point two-five), only one of them made the call. That means we are also dealing with at least three-hundred commuters who don’t care at all about dead people draped over crash barriers on the motorway. Which, if not itself cause for further investigation, is an interesting place to alight in this particular investigation.

I kind of concur.

And that’s to say nothing of rear-driver-side-passengers.

Nothing?

To say nothing of them. Besides most cars don’t have them. These days, maybe one in ten or one in twenty. Not quite negligible. But nonetheless. These people can, after all, be asleep. Or reading books. Looking at devices. Or lost in their own thoughts. Certainly, they rarely attend to the road. Never mind the central crash barrier, having, in that case, to look fully out of the passenger window to the right. And on these grounds, they have been omitted from any possible further investigation.

But consider, won’t you, these drivers now slowing to consider the police operation in the centre of the motorway. Rubber-necking. They can barely get enough of it.

Detective Margaret Delaney shrugs her shoulders and gently shakes her head. Yet she smiles. She can’t help but smile.

 

A Scientist

 

Now, as I was saying, (where “I” is the scientist brought in to consult on this mysterious death, and “saying” in this case is a matter of putting it simply, where “it” is a particularly knotty bit of chemistry, and “simply” is anything but) it’s more a matter of primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures. More so than the individual amino-acids per se.

Because they are coiled around themselves, these amino-acid chains, and in such a way as to make what has happened in this case more or less impossible. What you’re calling the “bad amino-acid” is really a kind of renegade bit (or piece or thing) that has no place in an organic system at the level of secondary or tertiary structure, and if it were to find its way into a living being, would fail to have any real purchase: it just wouldn’t fit. Shouldn’t. Apart from in the most rudimentary of ways.

So we are, to be fair, getting on with this mystery. As well as many other mysteries. The greater mystery though, as far as the detective in charge (Detective Margaret Delaney) is concerned, is why this happened. Whatever about the hypothesized bad amino-acid. Which wasn’t her idea in the first place. At least she didn’t come up with the term. She’s pretty sure. The “how” of it all could be sorted out afterwards. Or even contemporaneously. However much it befuddled the scientist. (She, the scientist, was a nice enough woman, if a little all-at-sea.

She didn’t seem to grasp the immediate problem, the substantial problem, the real cause for concern, the challenge posed by such a death/murder/execution. Did someone do this? And if so, why? And then, what does this death/murder/execution mean? Did this pose a threat to the populace of this medium to large city? And to the wider conurbation? Some eleven million people? Whatever about the existential threat to humanity. So, should local police forces be informed? Government bodies? And if so, of what exactly. I mean, really.) She got all excited to begin with. And couldn’t calm herself down.[3]

It was right about then that the unravelling began.

However, the scientist was adamant: the unravelling of all biological life began at just before dawn on the day of the body was discovered. That was now over 48 hours ago.

 

Another Attempt to Introduce Detective Margaret Delaney

 

How could I describe Detective Margaret Delaney? Do justice to her, in all her idiosyncratic humanity? I could, I suppose, begin with the manner in which thoughts seem to wander freely across her features, or if not thoughts, then the precursor to thoughts, and how they never settle into a decisive sense of anything: it’s as though she’s always on the cusp of something definite.

But this isn’t vacancy. No. Nothing like it. Nor what might be considered half-assedness. It should be thought of rather as a constant state of readiness. Both a determination not to panic, to jump; to hook, line and sinker. And a determination to act. Detective Margaret Delaney would not be gulled. But nor would she be convinced.[4]

 

The Thing is

 

Now, the thing is, the scientist says, this is completely impossible. You’d need ridiculous body temperatures to start to unravel the chains of amino-acids in the first place. Then for these impossible pools of freely floating amino-acids to revert to a racemized mixture, that is a mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino-acids. 50:50.

And then, gross improbability atop actual impossibility, and for no reason whatsoever, against the third law of thermodynamics, as well as flying in the face of common sense[5]… I mean…. Well… what you’re talking about here is… it’s just that there’s no conceivable process… because there’s one statistically improbable step after another… the host would be dead a dozen times over from the consequences of such a high temperature, as well as starvation, asphyxiation, melting of organs, and cellular breakdown, and God knows what else. I mean to have this “bad-amino acid” as you would term it…

Detective Margaret Delaney insists that she didn’t come up with that term.

Then who did?

 

A Detective in the Gloaming

 

The winter sun has long since disappeared. Yet there is still light in the sky. Blue. From where she sits, Detective Margaret Delaney, she can just about see a sharply circumscribed portion of this evening sky. An irregular oblong. The office itself is more or less in darkness. The few desk lamps that shine down on desks don’t yet cast the rest of the office into complete darkness, as they will soon do. There’s a kind of gloaming Detective Margaret Delaney’s partner used to say, peculiar to open-plan offices.

And then, just as now, through this particular distance, as though one were looking off into the mountains, there’s a piece of the evening sky. Pale blue. The edge of a wisp of cloud drawn with delicacy. A more somber cloud threatening at the brink. But it is the peculiar brightness of the light that pleases, that promises, that holds out hope. There. Just there. And it is thus that we place ourselves in the world. Periodically. Yes. Here I am, she thinks.

 

Back into the Thick of It

 

Look, we’re made up of left-handed amino-acids. That’s what we are. More or less.[6] No more than that. It’s just that when they start being strung together, these twenty organic amino-acids, they get all twisted and turned, backwards and upside-down. So, the chains themselves, they are right handed. These proteins. Long, long twisted chains of amino-acids. A massive range of different primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures. My God! You know it’s all so complicated. But let’s not let that get us away from the basic fact that we’re still dealing with the same building-blocks: left-handed amino acids. Ok? Let’s just keep that at the forefront of our minds.

Hang on! We were promised a simple solution. And what do we get? All of this impenetrable stuff. It’s surely not a matter of little bits and pieces. There’s the larger picture, is there not, which, in this instance, is far more important: the scale of human actors? History? Things we can see? Things that have been and will be recorded? Things with reasons? And reasons we do things? How guns work? Tools? Automobiles? Political infighting? Culture? Jealousy? And other cultural toing and froing? Not chemical bonding and cellular susceptibilities. The bad amino-acid? I mean, really?

That is not a term…

Left-handed?

As in not right-handed. They are mirror images of each other. Like your left hand and your right hand. Look at them: made of the same things (so many fingers and bones, tendons and skin, muscles, life-lines, fingerprints and so on), but also not the same. Are they? They can’t be overlapped, can they? Put one on top of the other when they’re facing the same way. Put them both down on the table, palm down, and slide one over the other. Yes. They’re different. And at the level of the amino-acid, this kind of difference is fundamental.

Try shaking hands with a person who for some strange reason, maybe because he’s standing in an awkward position, uses the wrong hand.

 

Detective Margaret Delaney Takes the Problem by the Scruff of the Neck

 

The victim is a male, twenty-eight to thirty-two, sixty-three kilos, one meter seventy-five centimeters. Brown hair. No distinguishing features. Stomach empty. Large intestine empty. Body relatively emaciated. Skin scratched. A number of abrasions on all limbs, but with no obvious pattern. And clothes, non-descript mass market items, undamaged. Heavy bruising on abdomen and chest, but not from external trauma. Body soft, not hardening as expected through rigor mortis. Yet distinct smell of rotting of flesh. Advanced decomposition of flesh evident in groin and armpits. Ribs losing definition. Bones losing shape and structure, bending under little pressure. Fingers and toes loose in sockets. Joints at wrists, hips, elbows and knees excessively loose. Tendons and muscles beginning to give way. Eyeballs fully black. Tongue black. Cavities fully collapsed.

 

 

[1] A left-handed Solar System? Christopher F. Chyba, Nature 389, 234–235 (18 September 1997)

[2] G. C. Barrett and D. T. Elmore, Amino Acids and Peptides, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

[3] This is a case, is it not, of not being able to see the wood for the trees?

[4] I feel that I’m over-stepping the mark here. I have, I’m sure gone too far. I’m getting ahead of myself. And of you too. I’ll slow down.

[5] Advances in Protein Chemistry, Protein Denaturation, Charles Tanford Volume 23, 1968, Pages 121-282

[6] No we’re not. Aren’t we like 70% water? And other stuff too, like bone and skin and fat? We’re Carbon Based Life Forms, that’s what we are. To say we are amino-acids is both a gross simplification as well as factually incorrect. Indeed, it’s unhelpful to say this at all. We are being misled.  

Now

 

Traffic is once more flowing.

In the morgue, the corpse is merely a pool of putrefied flesh, with only a few bones not fully disintegrated.

Around the body, in biohazard suits, the scientists, twelve more of them, are holding court. Each pair of eyes tells a different story.

Meanwhile, the lead detective, this woman in her fifties, is sitting in her car on a bridge that directly overlooks the scene of the crime. Assuming a crime was in fact perpetrated. She likes to get away like this. Leave the disorder and noise of the office far behind. Put a little distance between herself and the process of detection. And just sit there, looking over what no longer holds the least possible clue.

However, she feels (Detective Margaret Delaney does) that there is something mystical about such places. And not only scenes of a crime. But the place of any kind of death. Places where the animal spirit might be conceived of as having escaped. Been violently driven out. Or just let go. For places hold a kind of meaning. Events leave echoes. She can’t quite explain it. Indeed, she knows it defies explanation. But she doesn’t have to explain it. Which is another reason why she is here. Or maybe the only reason. That it doesn’t make any sense.

Detective Margaret Delaney craves a cigarette for the first time in over ten years.

 

Pieces of a Jigsaw

 

There are roughly about five-hundred naturally occurring amino acids. Twenty of which are used to make the little bits of us. These proteins. So, yes, they’re what make us. We’re amino acids. That’s what we are. Isn’t that profound?[1]

The building blocks of body tissue each have such and such amino-acid compositions. Chains and chains of these twenty amino acids. Linked together in all sorts of ways. Convoluted. For to be human is to be made of amino-acids. To be organic is to be made of amino-acids.[2] The same twenty. Configured in all sorts of ways. Like cities. Like cathedrals. But always starting the same. Rudimentary bricks.

Detective Margaret Delaney understands. Yet she doesn’t understand too. In that she doesn’t see the point. Why is she being told all of this?

Well, you see, it’s all a matter of how they’re put together.

The amino-acids?

Exactly.

Detective Margaret Delaney reaches for a cigarette, but she doesn’t have any. She pats her jacket pockets, jiggles her bag, pushes both hands down into the deep pockets of her coat. She doesn’t smoke anymore. Of course. That’s it.

It’s like a jigsaw. But all the pieces are orientated just so. So as to fit. It’s not just a diagram like you see here (The scientist shows her a diagram). It’s a solid shape. Three-dimensional. These amino-acids have depth as well as height and width. The bits point out in different directions. Straight out at you, then to the left, and to the right, and then back the other way. They’re prickly customers. They’re like really awkward pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

They’re pieces of a jigsaw puzzle?

Let me explain. Some jigsaw pieces have those rounded tabs left and right. And the corresponding blanks facing up and down? She (the scientist, this odd woman in her early fifties who hasn’t really been imagined for you) draws a picture:

Ok. A piece of a puzzle.

Yes. Think of it that way. This is one of these fully interlocking puzzles. The pieces all have a similar shape, with rounded tabs on opposite ends, and with corresponding blanks cut into the other sides to receive the tabs of adjacent pieces.  And here’s another piece of such a puzzle:

I understand.

But then the metaphor begins to break down. Because that’s all we’ve got here. A metaphor.

So, wonders Detective Margaret Delaney, why start up with the metaphor in the first place?

This woman in her fifties, this woman who understands it all, doesn’t bat an eyelid: so what if we have asymmetric pieces?

She draws this:

And then this (on another piece of paper):

Now do you see the problem?

There’s a problem?

Well, try to overlap these pieces.

Detective Margaret Delaney takes the pieces of paper on which the scientist has heavily scored the shapes with a thick black marker pen.

Oh. Wait. Ah. Well. Let me see. Hmmmm.

You can’t can you? But they have the same number of tabs and the same number of blanks. And the same kinds of tabs and blanks. So the same constituent pieces. And the sides with the tabs are on contiguous sides, as opposed to opposite sides. So the same in that sense too. But….

They’re not the same.

Exactly. And here’s the problem.

But they could fit together nonetheless.

They couldn’t take the same place in the jigsaw puzzle. That is the problem. They both couldn’t fit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detective Margaret Delaney tries to take a firm hold of the problem.

 

The Explanation Goes Too Far

 

Protein structure is meaning, the scientist goes on. Don’t you see? Chains of peptides. Polypeptides. Hundreds and thousands of amino acids. But the thing is. These polypeptide chains have directionality, like two different ends. At one end this, the other end that, and they do different things.

There’s a thing?

It’s all about the structure. You see it’s all twists and turns. They contort into all sorts of shapes. And they even come back on themselves. And bond with themselves. Like when you twist one of those long balloons. And you get a sausage dog. Or something like that. Or they get intermingled with other chains. Making other shapes. Or sheets. That are then twisted. Then they’re in parallel.  Or perpendicular. Or flipped around. Turned upside down. Backwards. Forwards. So they’re interacting. They’re talking to each other. And talking to themselves. And making things. Meaning. Those shapes are like words. But they’re not. Because then they’re talking to other things. Inanimate things. Animate things. Molecules. Hooking up with them. Repelling them. Taking them in. The side-chain interactions are doing this. They’re doing that. Attracting. Bonding. Making things. Bigger and bigger. So that you get this protein. Where it’s like a whole building. Floors. Stairs. Rooms. Facades. Height. Direction.

They have to fit.

And now, for whatever reason they don’t. Fit.

So this is the point at which begins the complete dissolution of what it is to be human. As though life, as it is known, ceases to organize itself. Indeed, it begins to unwind itself. Into its constituent parts. And now the constituent parts are bobbing around in the mix. Such that they don’t constitute anything. All within the space of one biological generation. Quick as a proverbial flash!

 

When Detective Margaret Delaney Approaches her End

 

When Detective Margaret Delaney gets home that evening she has a terrible pain in her stomach. She calls the emergency services. The pain, she says, is intense. Where is the pain? In her stomach. Only there? No, it’s spreading. How do you know it’s spreading? It’s got a colour. Have you removed your clothing? Yes. What do you see? I see it moving. The colour? Is it bruising? Is your skin bruised? Yes. I mean, no. What is the colour? My skin. It’s shifting. Your skin? My flesh. Everything.

 

A Solution of Sorts

 

Detective Margaret Delaney would accept that each of these amino-acids has a twin. Yes. But not an identical one. No. A mirror image one. Which is not the same. But it is the same as well. So the ones we’re made of, the amino-acids, and all of life too, are all left-handed. Not right-handed. They have to be left-handed. In order to fit. But now their evil twin exists.[3] The so called bad amino-acid.[4] And though we’re made of left-handed amino acids, and these right-handed ones just don’t fit, they’re now getting in amongst them. These bad amino-acids. Somehow. Where once we were one-hundred percent left-handed.

But the thing is: how did this happen? This murder. Or whatever it was. Because when we make them, in the lab, these amino acids, we always end up with a mix. Fifty-fifty. Left and right-handed. And we have to go about separating them. The left and the right-handed ones. We struggle to make just left-handed ones. Or just right-handed ones. When we go about making them. Which is what life does. But we don’t know how. That’s life, one supposes. So then, the question is asked, and has often been asked, how did it happen by accident, billions of years ago? All of these left-handed amino-acids, and only left-handed amino-acids, joining together to make up life? Because if it didn’t, then we wouldn’t exist. Life, as we know it, as we can imagine it, wouldn’t have happened.

Detective Margaret Delaney’s death is inevitable.

Billions of years. And now it’s being unwound. Life.

The scientist dies with her cat in her arms. Her cat dies. The plants in his flat die. All of her colleagues are soon dead. And the rest of humanity. As well as all organic life forms.

So, how did life begin?

Smoking cigarettes had always been something Detective Margaret Delaney treasured. Such a delicate, irrational, meaningless, pointless thing.

God, you see, had been left-handed after all.

Soon, she supposed, the scientist did, that everything would be a perfect mix of left-handed and right-handed amino-acids: entropy. For it was only on the point of her own dissolution, where both her body as well as her conception of herself began to unravel, did she fully understand.

It was, she realised, just as it was always meant to be.

[1] “New Naturally Occurring Amino Acids” by Ingrid Wagner and Hans Musso 1983

[2] You could say that to be organic is to be made of left-handed amino-acids. But properly speaking to be organic is to be carbon-based, as in a Carbon-Based Life Form.

[3] As they always have done. Though on the margins. In science labs. Theoretically. Never integral.

[4] Though who called it such has not been established. Indeed, no scientist would ever have called it that. Because, in what way is it bad?