Whenever I listen to TED presenters I’m left in awe of their ideas, discoveries and thoughts. Sometimes it’s not the fact that they had a particular idea, it’s that they were BOLD enough to pursue it. While it’s normal for me to feel inadequate in the face of such great minds, I’ve also noticed that it stirs something else up inside me – something good. Their passion and intuitiveness push me to approach the world in different way and help me rediscover parts of myself I’ve lost. Today, Nathan Wolfe helped reignite the explorer’s itch I’ve borne in me since I was a kid and to purposefully and BOLDLY pursue the unknown.
On any given day as a child you’d find me trekking through the South Texas brush or burning rubber on the hot asphalt of town on my bike. My parents were gracious enough to let me be adventurous and I’m thankful that all I needed assure them of was that I’d be back before the sun went down. Other than that one stipulation, I was left to my own devices. When the wanderer’s fever took hold of me, I grabbed my backpack and disappeared with pleasurable independence into the unknown. I remember seeing my first deer somewhere out there in the chest high grass of the prairie. I recall finding the burned-out remnants of a forgotten ranch house taken back by time and trees. Every bend in the path was an opportunity for discovery. I basked in the feeling of being the first and only person in existence to be where I was in that moment in time. A sense of newness permeated everything. It was me and the world in the simplest of ways.
Now, some dozen or so years later, whenever I go to visit my parents at the house where I grew up, the drive affords me the chance to observe the effects of urbanization and the steady progress of time. Those untouched acres and seemingly endless sprawls of savannah oak that once surrounded our home have transformed into strip centers, apartments complexes, and manufactured homes. Asphalt cuts through streambeds. Where wildflowers grew people now water grass and barbeque. The droning of the cicadas and occasional cry of the coyote is now drowned out by a confluence of automobile engines, train horns, and dog barks. I feel privileged to have been able to experience the land as it was, before it became “conquered” and “civilized”. This pocket of wilderness may not have been Yosemite or Yellowstone, but it was mine, it belonged to me and I to it because I had discovered it.
One question has always nagged at me though. We’ve been to the moon, we’ve mapped the continents, and we’ve even been to the deepest point in the ocean.
What’s left to explore?
This is one of those questions that is tailored for TED. Biologist and explorer Nathan Wolfe suggests this answer: Almost everything. In his talk he discusses the limitless boundaries of the unseeably small.
A little more than 100 years ago, while cars were rumbling over roads and night was turned to day thanks to electric lighting, the world of viruses was unknown. Today, we now know that viruses make up the majority of genetic information on our planet – more than all plants and animals combined. By discovering this plane of genetic existence, science was able to study and uncover the causes behind once deadly diseases like small pox and cervical cancer and develop vaccines against them. As technology and science have spurred one another along, we’ve been able to peer into once unseen worlds that have always existed around us. We’ve gone deeper and deeper, from the bacterium, to the virus, to the genome. Continuing to extrapolate, our well of knowledge has exponentially grown in both depth and breadth.
There is a difference though in discovering something new about what we know already exists and uncovering a totally new modality of existence. We could compare this thought to finding a previously unknown species of frog and encountering an alien race from Alpha Centauri. They are both new, but one discovery is drastically different from the other. One has the potential to tickle a few curious minds in the world of biology – the other, to shake the foundations of what we know about our place in the universe. Wolfe mentions that a typical cotton swab nose sample contains over 20% unknown genetic information. This means that no plant, animal, virus, or fungus is known to match whatever it is that comprises this biological dark matter. Science, for its prowess, has no idea what it’s up against. Only 20% you say? Well, consider that your stomach contains almost 40-50% of this cryptic-crossword, scrabble-like genetic information.
What could it be?
What researchers are finding is that buried in all the archival information that is this plethora of genetic material, are signatures of as-of-yet unidentified life. This is exciting. All those ATCGs we thought we knew so well could harbor a completely new class of life that could fundamentally change the way we think about biology.
For all our creative drive and ingenuity as humans, we also have a lot of bad habits. One of them is the tendency to become complacent about nearly anything. Even science sometimes needs a shot of adrenaline to keep it asking the necessary questions that enable it to relentlessly pursue answers. Discovery isn’t just a scientific achievement, it’s a human one. People aren’t born with answers but with questions. As long as individuals like Nathan Wolfe cultivate that inherent drive of curiosity that exists within us all, the sun will never set on the age of discovery. Don’t assume that what we currently think is out there is the full story. Be BOLD. Go after the dark matter in whatever field you choose to explore. There are unknowns all around us.