Before medicinal drugs enter the marketplace, they are synthesized in a laboratory, tested in controlled environments and disease models and then, once approved by the authorities, released for medicinal use. As a student, I used to work in such a laboratory. To pass the time, I would fantasize talking to molecules (nerd alert!) – the following is a story I wrote in those days.
Chin was bewilderment personified. “I’m going crazy …..”
Asked his friend Nat: “Why?”
“It’s this molecule.”
“It isn’t behaving like a molecule?”
Nat raised an amused eyebrow, “How can a molecule not behave like a molecule?”
“That is just what has me stumped. I’ll explain. See, it was four and a half years ago that I started off on this task of converting a certain chemical to another – of possible medicinal interest.”
“And after a series of 23 reactions, I was on the brink of success. The last step was the conversion of a bicyclic compound with a side-chain to a tricyclic one.”
“After this last reaction which I carried out two days ago most meticulously, I subjected this compund to different spectroscopic determinations.”
“What are these determinations?”
“Methods of identification of a compound.”
“So you did not get the compound expected, is it?”
“That would merely be a disappointment. It wouldn’t challenge one’s sanity like this. The results we have obtained defy logic.”
“Proton N.M.R. spectroscopy, that is one of the kinds of spectroscopy we did on the final compound, gives no signals with this compound – as if there were no hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms in the molecule.”
“What of it? This molecule may not be having hydrogen atoms.”
“Impossible. All other kinds of spectroscopy we did and the elemental analysis indicates the presence of hydrogen atoms beyond a shadow of doubt. Anyway, as the bicyclic compound I started with in the last reaction has hydrogen atoms, there is no way the product cannot have hydrogen atoms. It defies Chemistry.”
“You do have a problem there.” Pause. “I think the best you can do is get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed in the morning, and have a heart-to-heart talk with your molecule.”
“I’m in no mood for your wisecracks.”
“Alright. I’ll leave you alone. Relax, pal. You’ll think of an explanation in due time.”
After Nat left, Chin tried to sleep, but to no avail. Acting on an impulse, he left his room in the hostel and made his way to the laboratory.
The sample of the compound was just where he had left it – on his table. He pulled up a stool and gazed at his sample tube. The words of Nat came back to him. “Have a heart-to-heart talk with your molecule.” He smiled despite himself. How silly? Or was it? Just suppose it were possible?
And there – like Alice in Wonderland he found himself growing smaller and smaller (no, there was no cake on the table). He slipped into the sample tube. Smaller and smaller. Curiouser and curiouser.
He could not pinpoint any solid masses. He was in an atmosphere where there clouds of varying densities, sometimes so dense that they were almost solid masses and sometimes so rare that it almost looked as if there were only empty space there.
Chin could sense thoughts. No, they were not thoughts from his own mind. They were from somewhere around. They seemed to be addressing him.
“Hello! You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“I’ve come to meet your hydrogen atoms,” Chin found himself speaking.
“Why are they not giving signals?”
Laughter. All around. No sound, like human laughter. Chin could only sense it.
“Dash it, this is frustrating.”
“Are you a scientist?”
“And your Ph.D. degree depends on our hydrogen atoms here?”
“I am not really worried about my degree. But that four and a half years of work should go to waste just because some hydrogen atoms want to go to sleep is…. is….” Chin could not find words to express his anguish.
“Don’t get excited. You’ll get all the signals you want.”
“Will you kindly explain what has been going on? And may I know who I am speaking to?
“You are speaking to what IS – to EXISTENCE.”
“It is time your concepts were made clear. How do you define life?”
“I’m not very sure.”
“What is the structural and functional unit of the human body?”
“What is the cell made of?”
“Atoms and molecules.”
“What are atoms and molecules made up of?”
“Smaller particles – protons, electrons, neutrons …”
“What is the nature of these sub-atomic particles?”
“In what sense?”
“You must be knowing about the dual nature of sub-atomic particles.”
“Yes – these ‘particles’ behave sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves of energy.”
“Okay. You know Einstein’s theory of relativity – about mass and energy being interconvertible; of mass and energy being different personifications of the same thing.”
“So, in essence, your body is made of cells which are made up of atoms and molecules, which are in turn made up of subatomic particles – these particles are not strictly particles – just clouds of dense energy. Ultimately, what do we come to? Your body is made up of dense clouds of energy, as is every object in the universe, as is the universe – only the density is variant. Very, very dense energy projects itself as having mass. Therefore, EXISTENCE is ENERGY, ENERGY is EXISTENCE.”
Chin started feeling giddy. “Do you mean to say that there is no difference between a living body like mine and an inanimate object?”
“Essentially, no. But apparently, yes. What is the difference between a living human body and a dead human body? A living human body performs a multitude of functions in co-ordination. That is, there are countless molecules in the body performing in co-ordination – the body has ‘life’. When this co-ordination is lost at some stage, the body ceases to live. Yet, all the molecules continue to exist. Only the co-ordination is lost. Now, the question is – what causes this co-ordination? The answer is – a certain force.”
Chin was excited. This could be the answer eluding man through the ages. “What is this force?” he asked eagerly.
“A force. It is difficult to explain. You have not quite reached the level of intelligence required to grasp the idea. It will be something like trying to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to a monkey.”
“Hey!” Chin turned purple with indignation.
“Suffice it to know that it’s some kind of a life-force, a different embodiment of the same energy which holds the sub-atomic particles together in proper order in an atom of a molecule. This ‘life-force’ exists in all living beings. When the life-force goes away, there is no ‘life’ as you know it.
“Okay! I’ve swallowed all this. But in what way is all this connected with my not getting proper signals in the spectrum?”
“It has all the connection. Do you know the theory of N.M.R. spectroscopy?”
“Yes. N.M.R. or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy is based on the principle that in the presence of an external magnetic field, nuclei of atoms absorb electromagnetic radiation of different specific frequencies to undergo transitions among specific orientations. It is this absorption of radiation that gives rise to signals.”
“Right. You see, what happened was this. Some life-force moving around in the vicinity was entrapped by the hydrogen atoms of this molecule. That is, according to your definition of life and death, these hydrogen atoms started having life – and started acting with a will of their own. They occupied the orientation of the lowest energy and refused to absorb electromagnetic radiation. With the result that you go no signals.”
Within Chin’s breast, the initial wonderment gave respectful right-of-way to exasperation, which burst out as a cry. “So, what do I do?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get your signals tomorrow morning. This ‘life’ was only transitory. The hydrogen atoms are already ‘dead’ according to your definition.”
Chin arose from his slumber. Recollecting his nocturnal experiences, he started wondering, “Was this a dream?” It seemed likely.
Then he remembered that he had been told that he would be getting signals this morning.
Feeling like a fool, he took his sample to the instruments’ room and recorded the spectrum. Perfect. The hydrogen atoms had started giving signals. More puzzled than ever, he wondered what he would tell his Professor and colleagues. All that had happened? They would laugh at him. He was not so sure whether or not to laugh at himself.
Until next time, my friend, take care of yourself and your health.
Dr. Ajit Damodaran