Saturday, December 1, 2012


"By appreciation we make excellence in others our own property." ~Voltaire

What differentiates between excellence and the rest?

There appears to be a pervasive truth in real life, “good enough” seems to suffice for effort. Does it? What drives us as humans? Or better yet, what prevents us from driving ourselves to achieve the peaks of our potential? Is it need, or want, or something inane, unquantifiable that remains elusive to most?

I met a man a few years ago who had shaped his life to the purpose of his desires. He was learned, quite adept at understanding the nuances of science even though he was not a scientist. He also could rattle off a soliloquy in literature and merge it in off-the-cuff everyday conversation. He knew numbers and could manipulate them to his whim on the back of a napkin and he wasn’t even a mathematician. One could sense his underlying stream of thought was a river that ran deep. His words were chosen effortlessly, perfectly conjugated, impeccable in their expression and deep in their meaning and yet they flowed without any overt contemplation. One could view them in the context of ones own reasoning or the lack of it. Such was the nature of this wise person that it struck me that he must have been educated in some school of great repute once upon a time and that he should have many capital letters and commas after his name.

We got to talking that one lazy afternoon when the sun has crept to the top of the canopy and is just ready to slide down the other side and the shadows barely taint the brightly lit  earth. Our subject of discussion varied from medicine, a subject that he seemed quite familiar with, but he was not a physician, yet he could name some esoteric anatomical parts of the human anatomy and relate their physiological function. He equated the basis of pathology with such simplicity that it would have startled a few academics in medicine. You see when a person looks at disease, the way he did, as normal physiology gone wrong, there isn’t much room for discussion when he arrives at a conclusion. We spoke about the heart and its chambers and he was able to coalesce the argument into rhythm and muscle failure based on blood flow access via the coronary arteries.

We spoke about cancer and he was able to form a picture of the broken down cell function and its relation with its counterparts, its messaging to its neighbors and the deregulation of the communications within.

True he was not conversant in each and every gene that filters good and bad behavior, nor the new found language of the microRNAs or the Histones and their function or Zinc fingers and their effect on protein modulation, but within his arguments, I could see a sense of understanding that required these operands for the whole to function with impunity. The more he spoke about a subject, the more familiarity I was able to beckon within my own reasoning.

And as familiar he was to the landscape of medical science, at my urgings he seemed to go deeper into the cell and then to the strong and weak nuclear forces within the cells and the nature of their behavior.

He spoke of governance based on the rationale that there must be thousands of hits on our well synchronized, capitalized, coordinated life-form via the free-flowing fermions and even some bosons that hit our outsides through Background Cosmic Chatter and from inside us, through the ingested foods grown in a soil that reeks of radium and cesium from the deep fusion machine within the earth’s core. “And yet, lo and behold” he stated with some degree of joy and contemplation that we live fruitful lives through almost ninety years. We must have some mechanism within us to prevent the “wheels from falling off,” he stated and then proceeded quickly into the mismatch gene repair mechanism and thence into a five minute discussion of the p53 gene and its guardianship of the replicating cells.

What struck him, as his emotions would betray every once in a while allowing his passion to soar was the interaction of the protons and electrons within each cell. “After all,” he claimed, “the animate matter is the same as inanimate matter, and each is comprised of the same basic fundamental energy of cohesion?” The questioning nature of the statement wasn’t anything but the rise of cadence in his voice.

 “You see, at the very fundamental level, a disharmony between cellular function would occur should a stray electron come hurtling through space entangled in its fuzzy path to the nucleus of a far away animate object and the pull and push of the nucleus of the fundamental unit of the ATGC within the DNA could be knocked off kilter. A simple variation of the H+ turned into an OH and the A can change to a G that can reformat a specific gene, thus allowing for a disruptive effect on the cell function. “Imagine if you will,” his voice now lowered a few decibels, “a perfectly functioning cell whose mechanism of action via a specific gene has gone awry as a result of this “hit” and now it has to divide to create more of its kind, unless there is a mechanism to stop the cell from dividing with its repository of normal as well as that one specific abnormal gene, the progeny would have the same disrupted function?” His thumb rubbed over his chin and I could tell the wheels were grinding up there in that rarified reasoned mind of his. Some heavy-handed logic!

 “Almost like getting hit by the flu and the virus injects a piece of its DNA into our human DNA with the reverse transcriptase enzyme. I call it a photocopying effect. That little piece of injected DNA may do nothing at all, or it just might strengthen or weaken a neighboring gene and thus change the course of history of one person or a whole subset of the human population.” He grew silent for a moment and then in the same quiet voice he said, “something like the Sickle cell disease that started as a result of the human being coming into contact with Malaria or the Ashkenazi Jewish subset population with the BRCA 1 gene mutated silence of the breast cancer suppressor gene.”

He explored the science of prediction and with a simple but direct blow to the very essence of it, declared that the assumption that grinds the predictive value into numbers is the fudge factor that betrays our lack of reality. Pretty heady, I thought. We skimmed the surface of the ODDS ratio and probability and somewhere in that kernel of discussion we might have hit on Thomas Bayes and what followed was a brief history of the man behind Baysean Logic. Absolutely incredible it seemed, how seamless the conversation was as it bridged between the varied disciplines. It just flowed as a stream, easily circumnavigating the streambed and the rocks beneath.

What do you say to that? Even though I sat stunned in my hard back wooden chair, my mind was alert though my body had slumped under the pressure of his grand yet simple  and mostly verifiable logic. My shoes were moving involuntarily from side to side trying to smooth the wrinkle of my understanding on the tarp that covered the carpet, but this was a wrinkle the size of the Himalayan range.

I thought that hours must have passed with that free-flow of knowledge, yet it was only about forty-five minutes when I looked at my watch. He took a bite of the plum that he had held in his hand gently turning it over and over for the past hour. “Looks like I have wasted enough time. I have to get back to work,” he said. He got up and picked his paint brush and the masking tape and gazed at the corner of the wall next to the window where we had decided that a paint color would be a shade darker then the rest of the room to give the room some “character.”

I finally had the nerve to ask him how he had acquired such knowledge. Painters don't know this much medicine, science, literature? Or do they? 

Amazing insight, I thought, in this fifty-year-old slender man with the wisdom of millions working comfortably as a painter. There was remarkable excellence in this, one seemingly quiet gentle human being who stored a fund of knowledge within, lost on those considered as the “Intellectuals.” His reasoning championed a process of understanding that comes only from a desire to cross the gulf between mediocrity and excellence.

He thought about my question for a while, hesitant to answer it and then said, "I used to be a physician once, now I enjoy the finer things in life! I live with the constant fear of ignorance."

As a parting shot, he looked back before his paintbrush reached the paint...

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