Thinking Negative 1/13/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Why just think positive? Okay, I’ll be honest here; I’m thinking about a research project of mine. My friend asked me about an old discovery that to this day I wish I had published, but at this point I don’t have the resources that I need to revive or finish, but still, it was an interesting find. What I discovered was the value of sometimes thinking negatively.

Artists that work n the visual arts already know about this. Painters, photographers, graphic artists all now the importance of the “negative space”. This means that the artists think as much about what is not painted or pictured as they do what is. In the Guggenheim museum in New York City, there was (back in 1992ish when I visited) a very interesting little painting near the start of the exhibit. It was maybe a foot on a side (as memory serves) and it was basically white on white. At first glance, it looked like nothing at all, just a white painting with slightly different shades. I almost wrote it off as a piece of “modern art” that I would probably never understand, like duct taping a piece of fruit to the wall and valuing it at hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, something in my mind must have registered. I stopped, and just looked at it. A couple of minutes later, I realized that it was a painting of a tree. It popped out at me like one of those three-dimensional posters that were popular about thirty years ago where the incomprehensible pattern yields an image if you manage to “look past” the pattern. What the author did was use the slightly darker shade to paint the negative space of the tree; the spaces between the limbs and the leaves. It was, frankly, stunning.

Emotionally, one can think of “negative time” as down time. We all need it from time to time, and, uncharacteristically for me, I’m not referring to depression. Depression has a funny way of truly piling on the “negative time”, making it difficult to get out of bed, to get out of the house, to participate in activities, but depressed or not, this kind of down time (or “negative time”) is critical and healthy. There are times that we just need a little time for ourselves. It has a rejuvenating effect, and this negative time also enriches our lives. It’s as if it recharges our batteries and gives us fresh power to go and live our lives to the fullest. Artists understand how important this negative space is to the painting of our lives, while amateurs like me have a difficult time understanding it.

In my project, I was faced with the question of how distamycin (an anti-tumor drug) recognizes the specific DNA sequence AAATT. The distamycin can form four (positive) intermolecular forces called “hydrogen bonds”, so how does four of these interactions recognize five base pairs? The funny thing is that, as intelligent as scientists often seem to be, they have a hard time “breaking the mold” and thinking outside of the box. For example, the (very well-known and highly respected) biochemist that launched my research hypothesized that each site that could form a hydrogen bond didn’t form just one, but two. Okay, the details of this aren’t so important, but suffice it to say that this brilliant biochemist knew little about programming, and simply believed what the computer program told him, but this was based on a programming shortcut that wasn’t exactly wrong, but was incomplete. He simply took these results and ran with it. But my studies indicated something very different. It wasn’t the presence of attractive bonds that gave rise to the sequence recognition, but rather the absence of negative interactions. See, if you put a G or a C anywhere in the AAATT sequence, there was interference, so it wasn’t the attractive forces that allowed distamycin to bind to this specific sequence, but the absence of repulsion.

If you’re still reading this, congratulations. I imagine if you’re not interested in art or chemistry, getting this far is like continuing to chew through the gristle of a steak. I love art, and I think it’s clear I also love science, but the concepts of this post can be applied to our lives. When we post about the exciting things in our lives we tend to highlight the exciting things that we do. The reality, if we posted about the dull things it would come across as, well, dull. But these “down times”, these negative times are just as important in our happiness as any other. Think about curling up with your beloved; not talking, not watching movies, not riding the rapids, but just holding each other, and enjoying their company. Is anything more beautiful than this negative space?

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