Proteins and Pythagoras

We have gone from a world where no one in our grandparents' generation knew what even a single protein looked like to a world where every current middle schooler needs to be able to recognize at least a dozen of them on sight. Not because they will meet them on the street, but simply to shape their habits of thought in forward-looking ways. It is by getting on a first-name basis with proteins that we see how much of old school science is inapplicable to life.

Ockham Was Naive

Back in the Middle Ages the friar William of Ockham asserted that simpler theories were more trust-worthy. Life knows better. In life, terse is worse, because reducing everything to the lowest common denominator leaves no wiggle room.


In a nutshell, the more “compressed” the program, the more catastrophically it is altered by any minor changes in the instructions. Hence the more compressed the program, the harder it is to achieve by any evolutionary search process. source


Evolution makes its living off of very slight changes to very verbose genomes and the proteins that ensue.

Euclid Doesn't Do Mashups

Euclidean geometry tells us a lot about single objects, but nothing about how two of them might fit together. A protein's whole purpose in life is to interact with other molecules in the cell, typically small ones. Each protein is very particular. It only lets certain other molecules cozy up to it. All the others bounce off. Buried somewhere in its ungainly bulk is the protein's active site: the niche or crevice where it does its business.

Geometry As Metaphor

We all prefer habits of thought that are based in something concrete. Old school economists looked at societies and saw the simple inanimate molecules they learned about in their high school chemistry classes. Some still refer to members of those societies, i.e. us, as "electrons that think." To think more usefully about life, it is critical to have some intellectual building blocks that are themselves alive. Every middle-school student need to be on a first-name basis with a few proteins for that reason alone. While the Data Stories Book and Companion App focus primarily on geographic data, they conclude with examples of protein visualization that can help students do so.