Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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HYDROGEN ISN'T CULTURAL
In the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, H. Beam Piper had a story "Omnilingual" concerning the translation of the Martian language, found in the 50,000-plus year-old ruins. The anthropologists and linguists insisted that, since there could be no Rosetta Stone bilingual key, relating the unknown Martian writings to a known language, no translation would be possible.
Piper had a very simple, but enormously powerful point to make; the Martians had had a highly developed technology of chemistry, electricity, mechanics, et cetera. And chemistry is not a matter of cultural opinion; it's a matter of the "opinion" of the Universe. It makes not the slightest difference whether you're a Martian, a Russian, an American, or an inhabitant of the fourth planet of a KO star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; hydrogen behaves in one, and only one way. Because the term "hydrogen" is a human-language symbol for a specific set of behavior characteristics, and, in this universe, that set of behavior characteristics requires the interaction of a single proton and a single electron in an atomic structure (there may be 0, 1, or 2 neutrons with only minute variations of the chemical properties, though the resultant nuclear characteristics are widely different).
Any highly developed technology of chemistry will have a term referring to that pattern-of-characteristics; it has to have. The pattern of characteristics is a function not of the culture, but of the Universe itself. Whether you call a certain element "sauerstoff" or "oxygen" makes no difference; the behavior characteristics of the hydride of that element will remain the same.
Technically, under international agreement, there is no such element as "tungsten" any more - but the metal they use for incandescent lamp filaments maintains the same characteristic of phenomenally high melting point, whether it be called "tungsten" or "wolfram". No alien-star culture can develop a chemical system in which that element dissolves in dilute sulfuric acid and melts at 1100°C; the laws of the Universe, not the agreements of intelligent entities is involved.
Perhaps the scientists working on the problem of cracking the genetic code should take time out to read H. Beam Piper's story. It might help in understanding one of the "mysteries of the genetic code" that has been discovered recently.
The communication system of genetics appears to be based on information encoded in the very complex arrangement of amino acid units in the giant molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid-DNA. A great deal of work has been done on some of the simpler, and more tractable organisms - microorganisms usually, because they're cheap, reproduce rapidly, and are "the small economy size".
The colon bacillus has been a favorite; it's hardy, handy, and prolific and - which is not an unimportant consideration! - it's not a dangerously lethal organism.
Certain "codons" or groupings of three-bases-together, are "words" in the 'language" of genetics. There are four important amino-acid-bases; adenine, cystine, guanine and uracil. It is combinations of these four, taken three-at-a-time that make up the "words" or codons.
The codons are genetic-language "words" which specify a particular amino acid which is to be incorporated in a protein molecule being constructed - an enzyme, hormone, or tissue component.
Careful research established that, in the genetic language of the colon bacillus, certain identified codons "meant" certain specific and identified amino acids. I. e., the biochemists had succeeded in translating some of the codons of the colon bacillus genetic language into human language.
A scientist of Polaris B IIc studying human chemistry might learn to translate the symbols HCl into his native symbols "*~>;" so human biochemists learned to translate b. coli genetic language into human language.
Our article "Cracking the Code" by Carl A. Larson, in the December, 1963 issue covers a good bit of the work done in that area. It's one of the neatest pieces of cross-collaboration between scientists in history; biologists, chemists, information-theory specialists, and computermen had to work as a team to get the answers.
Recently, scientists in that field have been able to make another important experimental step. If a specific codon, ACG, in b. coli geneticese "means" alanine - what does the codon ACG mean in the genetic language of other organisms? Or do all organisms "speak" the same genetic language?
The experiments performed recently by Dr. I. Bernard Weinstein, of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, strongly indicate that all terrestrial organisms "speak" the same genetic language.
The identification of meaning of colon bacillus codons permitted checking those specific codons in the genetic DNA of other organisms, and determining whether these other organisms used the same "dictionary" of codons. Six specific codons were checked for "meaning" in the genetic language of a protozoon, Chalmydomonas, rat liver cells, and mouse tumor cells. All six codons, in each type of cell, correlated with the same specific amino acids.
The language for all these widely different organisms was the same, at least with respect to these six specific amino acids.
The evolutionary gap between bacillus coli, which belongs in the plant kingdom, and at an extremely primitive level, the protozoon, and the highly evolved rodent tissue cells is enormous. The branch-off of the plant and animal kingdoms must have occurred at least two billion years ago; the evolutionary level of the placental mammals represents perhaps a billion years of advance and development beyond the protozoon.
Any system of message encodement, that remains unchanged through some two thousand million years of transmission - through perhaps two trillion relayings from one generation to the next - has a most remarkable degree of stability. The encoding system carries genetic information; the genetic information is, of course, subject to mutation. It's those mutations over the megayears, that separated the bacillus, the protozoon and the rodents. But the system of encoding is evidently either absolutely immune to mutation, or so nearly so that not even two billion years of time, and two trillion relayings has altered it.
It's been suggested that the organisms all have the same genetic code because they all descended from the same original life-cell, and have not changed the coding since.
There's another possibility, however.
Nearly ten years ago, on a visit up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I got together with a group of Harvard and MIT researchers - all science-fiction readers - in a fine bull-session discussion.
With "malice aforethought" I threw in for discussion the following problem: suppose that for some reason it is necessary to deposit a message on a planet - we'll make it a planet like the Earth - which is to be recoverable after a period of two billion years.
Now carving it in a mountainside won't work for that period of time. Nor will engraving it on platinum-iridium plates, even if we deposit hundreds of engraved plates all over the surface of the planet.
Well make the message something relatively simple and specific, so we can discuss it - we'll say it's a statement concerning the interaction of carbon dioxide and water.
The discussion took off in fine fashion - and it was really being analyzed by some highly competent minds. As I recall, Claude Shannon, the founder of Information Theory, was there, and Warren Seaman, of the Harvard Computer Labs, Wayne Batteau, Instrumentation Theory specialist, and some of the men working on the machine translation of language at the Harvard Computer Labs.
It was strictly a discussion of a problem for the fun of analyzing problems; it lasted well over an hour and a half before they'd agreed on a general technique that could preserve such a message, on such a planet, over such a period of time.
To begin with, trying to establish some monument that can be stable against all tectonic, chemical and erosive attacks for any such period of time is nonsense; give up. A method of multiple-record must be used; the message must be inscribed so many times that even if a million copies are lost, there will be plenty more to be recovered.
But the use of multiple-record introduces problems of error-multiplication. Moreover, no number of copies distributed across the planet's surface at any given time can be expected to be sure to leave some available at the surface a billion years later. Erosion and tectonic forces keep changing the surface.
It must, then, be not only a multiple-record system, but must also be self-replicating, and be given a tendency to seek the surface of the planet.
However, a self-replicating system now compounds the problem of error-transmission, since a defective copy of the message will tend to replicate the error indefinitely.
Somehow, the self-replicating message-carrier device must have an error-detecting-and-rejecting arrangement that will automatically destroy any false copies.
The entire discussion couldn't be printed here, even if I had a magnetic tape recording of it (which, I deeply regret, I do not!). The essence of it was that, starting from the proposed problem, these Information Theory and Instrumentation Theory men derived precisely the fundamental mechanism of genetics. And the discussion had gone on for well over an hour before they consciously recognized that they were, in fact, defining genetics!
Dr. Weinstein should have been there! The genetic mechanism is, clearly, precisely such a mechanism as that group sought to define; it has preserved, in very multiple record, a precisely accurate message concerning the interaction of carbon dioxide and water - try living on this planet without that information! - and preserved it without error for better than two billion years.
The message is self-replicating, and has a built-in mechanism for eliminating faulty copies (any cell with false notions about the interaction of CO2 and H2O is immediately self-terminating!).
That the message is recoverable, even after this immense span of time, is being proven by the work of Dr. Weinstein and his associates in the genetic decoding work.
That the message has been preserved accurately - i. e., correctly - is demonstrated by the fact that the living cells are living successfully.
The one factor that wasn't brought out in that bull-session discussion was that it is advantageous to have self-replicating multiple-record devices of many variant types, so that ideally the self-replicating message-carriers should be capable of self-generated adaptations as the planetary surface varies over the megayears. There's no need to make the devices unable to carry additional messages; the requirement was only that The Message should be carried on infallibly.
I think the reason why all terrestrial life has the same basic genetic language - uses the same codon-dictionary - is, simply, because That's The Way This Universe Is. Hydrogen is not cultural; it's universal. The laws of chemistry aren't the private opinions of human beings - or of terrestrial life. There is one, and only one way of making a hydrogen atom. The interactions of CO2 and H2O are what they are, and there is no alternative. You can't have any different opinions... and stay alive in this Universe.
I'm willing to bet that, when we get a chance to study extraterrestrial life, well find that the codon-dictionary is not merely a terrestrial-life dictionary - but the dictionary of biochemistry for all CHONS, we might say. CHONS standing for Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur life forms.
Life's business seems to be preserving The Message of Life across gigayears of time, unfailingly, accurately, and always re-coverably. The face of a planet isn't stable; it changes beyond recognition in even a few megayears. No structure of matter is stable against the changes of billions of years; even the nuclei of stable atoms are not certainly trustworthy over such a span. Ask any carbon-14 dating expert!
Only the absolute, fundamental laws of the Real Universe are to be considered adequately stable for The Message... with the added proviso that if those laws are not, in fact, stable, the self-replicating multiple-copy message eventually transmitted and recovered will then not be accurate, but will be true! For the message will have changed to preserve the meaning, rather than the fact!
Hydrogen isn't cultural, as H. Beam Piper pointed out.
And I'll bet that the genetic codons aren't terrestrial, either.