Art and science are not separate fields, and the best science borrows ideas from art and the best art incorporates science. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer of “The Aleph,” knew this.
Exposome Perspectives Blog by Robert O. Wright, MD, MPH
Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer and poet, was a key figure in Latin American literature throughout the 20th century. He was one of the original purveyors of mystical realism – stories that combine real events with elements of magic. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was more famous, but Jorge Luis Borges was also a master of Latin American Mysticism.
You may wonder why an exposome blogger is writing about Jorge Borges? It’s because I want to describe systems biology, not in a technical sense, but in a way that conveys the complexity and beauty of life. Art and science are not separate fields; the best science borrows ideas from art and the best art incorporates science. Borges knew this.
In the 1940’s, he wrote a short story called “The Aleph” which signifies the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is a story about jealousy, cruelty, pettiness, infinity, and the universe. In the story, a writer serves as the narrator, Borges lets us assume it is he. He describes his cousin, a poet whom he despises. His cousin is working on a poem about the creation of Earth describing every location on the planet in prose. The author dismissively notes he has been working on the poem for decades. He thinks his cousin is both mad and mediocre and will never complete his work. But one day he is invited to visit his cousin’s home where he is shown why the poem is possible: His cousin shows him the Aleph – a small floating object in his cellar. The Aleph is a portal to infinite time – if you gaze at it, all at once, you see everything in the world and throughout time, simultaneously, but without understanding. The author is mesmerized both by its small size (no more than an inch in diameter) and despite its size, the magnitude of what it shows.
The narrator sees the “multitudes of America” simultaneously. He sees another city he recognizes as London. He can see “unending eyes” watching him as if in a mirror. He sees a house from his memory that he had once entered thirty years before. He can see both the world’s deserts as a whole, and each grain of sand they contain. All at once, without the passing of even an instance.
Shortly after this section, the author apologizes because his prose cannot capture what he sees. He notes that the ability to describe the Aleph does not exist, as we are not wired to understand or explain infinity – so that if we see it – we can never describe it. This is not because we cannot experience infinity but because we lack the tools to understand and communicate what we see. Our language is linear; one letter follows another, verbs follow subjects. Because language is our tool for description, time can only be captured sequentially, and not all at once. But, in the Aleph, all things are seen simultaneously, all the infinite connections are captured, not in a linear sequence but in a multi-dimensional network. Borges cannot describe the Aleph because words and grammar—his language tools—are too limited, too linear, too simple. Human language is too primitive a tool to describe it, but it is all he has.
“What Borges described in the Aleph is the difference between systems biology in reality, versus systems biology in practice. We measure a reaction at a specific point in time in blood, without seeing how that reaction affects the heart or brain, but they occur not completely in sequence but in vast networks that have sequences that move at different paces and incorporate feedback loops so that all these reactions are maintained in tight control”.Dr. Robert Wright
What Borges described in the Aleph is the difference between systems biology in reality, versus systems biology in practice. The language of science—biochemistry, physiology, genetics, environment, and math—is two dimensional and mostly linear. We measure a reaction at a specific point in time in blood, without seeing how that reaction affects the heart or brain (or the impact of measuring the reaction on other reactions), but they occur not completely in sequence but in vast networks that have sequences that move at different paces and incorporate feedback loops so that all these reactions are maintained in tight control. We do not yet have the ability to measure, see, or even describe them, much less understand them – because we do not have the tools or language needed. Perhaps over time we will create a new language, new equations, or new measures, and we will get closer to the truth. This is the main goal of exposomics – to measure our own individual universe, our own personal Aleph, over time from conception to death. We are not there yet, and have many miles to travel, but we are getting closer, we see parts of the Aleph, and with each new part we see, we get closer to understanding biology.
Borges story ends with a whimper not a bang. The author pretends not to have seen the Aleph – out of pettiness and envy at what his cousin possesses, hoping that by “gaslighting” him he will make his cousin go mad. But he does not go mad. He completes the poem. Yet despite possessing and describing the secret to the universe, he only wins second prize in a poetry contest. Thus is the folly of human preferences – we often do not see or understand the really important things in life.