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Apocolypse Now?
By Alan Friedman
More than a thousand years before the start of the nuclear age, a diligent monk named Beatus from Liebana, nestled in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, spent long hours pulling together page after page of words and pictures about the destruction of the world. Beatus' Commentary on the Apocalypse comprised writings of earlier Christians such as St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and Tyconius of North Africa. It included illustrations based on the Bible's last book, Revelation: men assaulted by lion-headed locusts, angels pouring blood and hail from the heavens, the Antichrist and his army attacking Jerusalem.

Why did Beatus of Liebana go to so much trouble to assemble these images of apocalyptic horror? Historians and biblical scholars from the ninth century to the present have long assumed that Beatus was hoping to rally a Christian response to the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711, as if the invasion, indeed, signaled the impending Armageddon. But Distinguished Service professor John Williams, who has studied the text for 14 years, doubts this theory. First of all, he says, the mountains protected Liebana from the Muslim invasion. "And there's no mention of the Muslims anywhere in the text," he adds. Williams believes that Beatus had calculated that the world would end in the year 800 and, as a spiritual leader, felt responsible for people's salvation. "Beatus was writing a manual of warning," Williams concludes, "a manual instructing people how to prepare for the end of the world."

Since the year 800 came and went without a tremor, you might expect Beatus' book to have fallen into disrepute. But monks in Spain and France, recognizing the biblical references in the text, believed it was God's prophesy--that Beatus had the right message but the wrong timing. Driven by similar religious duty, they labored to produce exact replicas of the manuscript.

"In the course of four centuries," explains Williams, "the monks never changed a word of the text, and they never introduced changes into the composition of the pictures."

But when Williams compared the 25 remaining copies of the text, he discovered that one aspect of the manuscript did change over time. Beatus had included maps in the manuscript that illustrated the path each apostle took as he spread Christ's word around the world. While the rest of Beatus' Commentary was left unaltered, the monks amended the maps each time they made a new copy. Although Williams originally had set out to determine why Beatus wrote the text, he quickly "became fascinated by what changes in the maps could tell about cartographic knowledge in the Middle Ages."

If you line up the rewritten maps in chronological order, from the eighth century to the eleventh century, it appears as if the face of the earth had been changing at breakneck speed. From one copy to the next, Africa grew to twice its original size, the Nile in Egypt and the Don River in Russia changed course, land masses in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea vanished under water, new lands emerged where water had been. Williams asserts that each time a weary traveler visited the monastery or a missionary returned with tales about far reaches, the monks wove their new stories into the next map. It was not the earth itself that had been changing, but rather the monks' knowledge of the earth.

In addition to illustrating how the monks saw the earth, the maps in the Commentary offer insight to how the copyists may have felt about their place in the world. Centuries earlier, the Romans had put North at the top of their maps. But the monks put East at the top, since they thought heaven must be near the Garden of Eden, which had flowered in the East. Even religious cities like Jerusalem, which had not been included on Roman maps, were displayed prominently in the monks' versions. Not only did Williams uncover an evolving understanding of the world, but also the way people learned to relate to that world--all hidden in a manuscript foreseeing its end.

Poetry in Motion
By Curt Wohleber

Poets have long wrought verse on such wonders of nature as trees, mountains, flowers, and the exquisite mysteries of love. Yet they have been surprisingly silent on the topic of molecular biology. And, to paraphrase Joyce Kilmer, I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as the Eco RI nuclease restriction enzyme binding to a DNA molecule.

But who knows what stanzas may have issued from the pen of a Yeats or a Shelley had they been able to witness the microscopic natural splendor rendered visible through X-ray crystallography and ultra high-speed computation.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center have employed this technology to create stunning three-dimensional, animated images of the interaction between DNA--the molecule of heredity--and an enzyme called Eco RI endonuclease.

Eco RI is an essential part of the well-equipped genetic engineer's toolbox, a fine-toothed saw for chemical carpentry. Bacteria use this enzyme to slice up strands of foreign DNA injected by invading viruses. ECO RI's ability to snip DNA at precise locations on the molecule makes it handy to scientists, who put the enzyme to work as chemical scissors for gene splicing.

DNA molecules roughly resemble long, spiral ladders. Each "rung" of the DNA ladder is a letter in the language of life. A gene, which might be hundreds or even thousands of letters long, is an instruction to the cell. Each cell in your body contains tens of thousands of genes, inherited from your parents, and they are what determine the color of your eyes, the texture of your hair, and countless other qualities.

Gene splicing with Eco RI and other enzymes enables molecular biologists to synthesize hormones such as insulin, to engineer genetically improved crops, and to track down genes responsible for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

But John Rosenberg of the University of Pittsburgh's biological sciences department wants to know just how Eco RI recognizes and attaches itself to a single six-rung site on the DNA ladder. (If Eco RI were less discriminating, a bacterium using the enzyme to fight off viruses would be in danger of having its own DNA attacked by Eco RI--with fatal consequences.)

Understanding Eco RI's homing ability, and that of other proteins, could considerably streamline many aspects of genetic research and genetic engineering, simplifying the design and manufacture of certain drugs and industrial agents and aiding in the detection and treatment of genetic diseases.

A technique called X-ray crystallography can generate detailed images of the enzyme binding to the DNA molecule, but a crucial element is missing.

"It's kind of like a snapshot of a square dance," explains Rosenberg. ''You know who's paired off with whom. You have some idea of what's going on, but you would get a better idea of what the square dance is all about seeing it in motion."

Although the movement of the enzyme and the DNA is dictated by the precise laws of physics, the square dance involves some 25,000-50,000 atoms moving in three dimensions. Charting the motion of all those atoms is a task of mild-boggling complexity requiring the vast number-crunching power of a Cray supercomputer.

Rosenberg's supercomputer studies of Eco RI are gradually navigating the elusive homing path of the enzyme.

"The motion is very complex," he notes. "We're still trying to come up with a convenient descriptive language to talk about these motions--what's a do-si-do and so forth."

But the computer-generated images seem to speak for themselves- -a series of snap shots of colorful undulating tangles of atoms, dancing to the silent music of life."

Boy Wonder
By Elizabeth Starr Miller

The nervous feeling of seeing things the rest of the world has failed to notice can be addictive--especially for a writer. The magical glimmer of sunlight on tiny flecks of sand in the sidewalk. Your own awkward transparent reflection in a shop window. The odd shape of the face of the man who sells wilted flowers on the street corner. It's as if the writer's mind races on a five-minute shopping spree, stockpiling the images for later stories, poems, essays. It's exhilarating, often empowering. But sometimes it can get in the way.

Grady Tripp, the main character of the new novel, Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon (Arts and Sciences '84), is so bogged down by his awareness of details that he is drowning. He is having trouble finishing his own novel. But Grady does not have writer's block. Although Grady's manuscript is substantial--all 2,611 pages of it--there is so much more he wants to write. He has "too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name...too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers." While Grady is not lacking in details for his novel, he worries that his hyperawareness has made him an "emotional insomniac." At every conscious moment, he says, he "feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom...listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep." Grady calls this the "midnight disease." It's a disease that forces its victims to notice everything and everyone around them, leaving them unable to focus on the things in life that require intense devotion: love and dependability. It's a disease that has come between him and his wife, his mistress, and his novel.

Chabon's own gift for detail is on display in the novel. Lyrical sentences abound: "The top was down and I listened to the hiss of the wheels against the street, the flow of the wind over the car, the sound of Stan Getz blowing faintly from the speakers and trailing out into the air behind us like a pearly strand of bubbles from a pipe." The prose offers a window into the souls of the characters and hints that Chabon himself is familiar with the "midnight disease."

Just as in Chabon's first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the names of familiar Pittsburgh neighborhoods, places, and buildings are scattered throughout. A writers' conference is held in Thaw Hall. His characters traipse through Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield, and the Hill District, stopping along the way at a bar on Centre Avenue. Says Chabon, "I lived in Pittsburgh during a very important moment in my life, the years in which I awoke after the weird dream of adolescence, to my adult self. I fell in love for the first time. I discovered great art and music and, above all, great literature. It was a very porous time I was subject to all kinds of influences and passions. And since all of this was happening to me in Pittsburgh, the city seeped into my consciousness, too, very deeply and ineradicably as it has turned out. In many ways I became who I am today in Pittsburgh. It's a part of me, like my love of Borges, The Clash, or Joseph Cornell."

In Wonder Boys, Chabon uses an elaborate, twisting-and-turning plot to control and change his characters. Grady's bizarre adventures are unpredictable, amazing, and hilarious. For instance, an accidental shooting of a dog turns Grady into a minor fugitive, so to escape the city he goes to the country in search of his wife, who left him that morning. After arguing with his wife, he leaves the country to go back to the city, in the process running over his brother-in-law's nine-foot-long pet boa constrictor. Still Chabon does not let the plot become contrived or manipulative. Seemingly unbelievable incidents become realistic, and a chain reaction of the unusual follows.

Michael Chabon could very well be the wonder boy of his generation. After selling The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at the age of 23 for an advance of $ 155,000 (the largest amount ever paid to an author for a first novel), frequently publishing short stories in The New Yorker; and now coming back with Wonder Boys, Chabon has held onto his own chain reaction. Wonder Boys seems to be his attempt to come to terms with the challenge of his own life as a writer. Because of Chabon's talent for description and detail, we are able to watch Grady Tripp's struggle. Through Grady's narration and adventures, Chabon shows what it is like to be a writer, aware of all that is going on around him, "while...the neighbors soundly sleep."

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