Aha Moment: Gravity's Rainbow
Friday, February 24, 2012
Gerald Joyce is a professor of biochemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. In the 1970s, he was studying biochemistry at The University of Chicago, when he discovered Gravity's Rainbow, the sprawling World War II novel by Thomas Pynchon.
In the novel, the Germans plan to send V2 rockets into London and British military intelligence tries to predict where they’ll land. Eventually, the British realize that the deployment is random. The novel centers on this idea of the randomness and chaos of the universe.
Pynchon writes about “The Force,” which refers to the universe’s natural tendency toward maximum entropy — a condition Joyce knows all too well as a biochemist.
“It’s a depressing thing and humans really can do nothing about it,” he says. “Perversely, they seem to make it worse.”
But for Joyce, hope arrives in the last section of Pynchon’s novel, titled “The Counterforce.”
“You get to this part of the book after having been depressed by 600 pages of The Force,” Joyce explains, and then Pynchon provides an alternative. “There’s an arrow that points the other way that makes order from randomness … Pynchon calls it ‘the living green against the dead white.’”
Since reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Joyce’s goal as a biochemist has been to create “the living green.” By developing molecules that self-replicate and evolve on their own, he tries to make order from randomness.
“We can watch the immortal molecules arise — increase in number — indefinitely,” says Joyce about his laboratory work. “To me, that’s The Counterforce in motion.”
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