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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a four letter alphabet.

Describe yourself in four letters.

Yes, all right, cute is fair enough, but that doesn't give us the full picture, dpes it? it doesn't give any hint of your penetrating intelligence, brown eyes, and ability to crack your knuckles.

What I'm looking for is a system to describe every single physical and mental aspect of you in just four letters.

Yes, I'm talking about a four-letter alphabet.

Now, there doesn't seem to be a human society that uses an alphabet that only has four letters (though Hawaiian has only thirteen) but such a thing would be possible.

However, there is already a language that describes you, every part of you, using four chemicals usually represented by the letters A C G and T (they stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine).

These chemicals make up your DNA, and therefore they form the instructions that make you your own self, and not your mother, say, or Scarlett Johansson or Leonardo da Vinci. 

Or Donald Trump.

Yep: powerful stuff.

Now, because you are made up of lots of cells stuck together, these DNA instructions have to be present in nearly every single cell in your body*.

Okay: so if you laid out all the DNA-based instructions in all the cells of your body end to end, how far do your think they'd reach?

a) if you curled it round in a spiral you could fit it on the head of a pin.

b) it'd go all the way round a football pitch

c) nearly as far as a marathon 

d) more than sixty five times from the Earth to the Sun and back.

What do you think, truly wonderful person? 

The answer's below!

Word To Use Today: guanine. This word comes from guano (which is seabird poo), which is very similar stuff to guanine. The word comes to us from Spanish, from Quechuan huano, which means dung.

The answer to the multiple choice question is, astonishingly, d. Yes, it does seem vastly unlikely. I worked it out partly from information in Bill Bryson's excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything...I think I got it right. Another estimate I found says your DNA stretches twice all the way round the Solar System. Mind you, no one's sure about how far that is, so it doesn't help all that much, but either way we're talking billions of kilometres.

*Though not in mature red blood cells, hair, or hard skin.

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