Seekers of light

It was a clear evening. My brother and I were outside, him training the telescope up towards the clear Australian sky, and me looking on. We were looking for some planets. Maybe Saturn or Jupiter.

“You know, I heard this in my astronomy class, that we are light gatherers,” my brother said.

“Hm hm,” I replied.

“This telescope here, its intricate arrangements and big size are essentially there to gather light more efficiently,” he continued.

“Isn’t it the same with microscopes, too?” I countered.

“I guess you are right,” he conceded.

I was then just starting out as a graduate student in structural biology in an NMR spectroscopy lab and my brother’s comment about the telescope immediately brought to my mind the diverse probes of structural biology. It was endlessly fascinating: the astronomer and the structural biologist, both try to observe things beyond their reach; one massive and far, far away; the other minuscule yet very, very close. Both seek the light, the electromagnetic wave which carry the information about the things out and beyond.

Of course it’s not only light or exactly it that we seek sometimes. Light microscopy does seek the light, and electron microscopy does, too, for electron has wave nature thus it behaves like light. But X-ray crystallography interprets diffraction pattern although the probe is X-ray. NMR spectroscopy does use radio frequency wave, but it probes nuclear spin instead of electron density. Over at the astronomy side, there are neutrino detector and gravitational wave detector — they are not seeking electromagnetic waves. And yet, light, the metaphorical light, the illumination of the dark parts of the landscape of our knowledge…

“Seekers of light,” I exclaimed as I jolted out of my reverie.

“I guess we all are,” my brother said quietly as he gestured for me to look at the telescope eyepiece. “Here, I found Jupiter for you.”

It was getting dark, but the light is there, reaching our eyes, all the way from Jupiter, amidst the stars.

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