Join Susan Mathews every fortnight for weird and wonderful conversations, narrated essays and poems that dwell on the evolving contingencies of life.
The Folds of Life: Exploring Origami, Proteins and Human Biology
To understand life, you must understand proteins. Proteins, simply put, are the workhorses of the human cell. These molecular chains are assembled from chemical links and building blocks called amino acids. What a protein does and how it does it, depends also on how it folds up after its creation into its final intricate shape and function. When folding, sometimes they coil up into slinky formations called ‘alpha-helices’, while others fold into zig-zag patterns called ‘beta sheets’, which resemble the folds of a paper fan.
In this episode, we talk with Sudha Neelam, a research scientist in the field of cell biology. Sudha Neelam graduated from the University of North Texas, Dallas, USA with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. She is currently studying the mechanisms of protein synthesis; exploring how misfolded proteins cause diseases and how therapeutics can intervene to correct the damage it causes.
She compares protein folding with origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, which has entertained generations with its beautiful simplicity. Proteins are our own biological origami. They fold spontaneously based on a series of codes in the form of amino acids, akin to the crease patterns and folds of origami. This biological origami depends on the correct genetic code, accurate assembly of amino acids and the precise folding of the amino acids into a functional protein. Connecting the folds back to her childhood memories, she muses on how paper folding and protein folding are unique in their creativity and similar in their need for precision and perfection.
Origami is also a deeply contemplative practice, engendering calm and stillness. It is rich in symbolism, stirs up creative juices, gives breath to paper, and similarly to protein folding, its pristine folds meld life and art.
Follow Sudha Neelam on LinkedIn
For more reading:
- The art of paper folding and the science of protein folding- Sudha Neelam, September 2020
- How do proteins fold? November 30, 2020, The Economist
- AI predicts the shape of molecules to come, Cade Metz, July 22, 2021
Land, lyrics and the Poromboke commons
In this episode, we speak to Nityanand Jayaraman who is a Chennai and India-based writer, social activist, and a member of the Chennai Solidarity Group — a collective that fights environmental injustice and discrimination.
As competition for access to natural resources pits powerful corporations against farmers, fishing communities and indigenous people in violent conflict, Nityanand has placed himself on the side of the latter, working to ensure that rule of law and ideals of democracy are not buried at the altar of commerce. An engineer turned journalist and activist, Nityanand describes himself as a solidarity worker who generates city-based support for community struggles against corporate crime and government high-handedness in dealing with such issues. Relying on volunteer energy and local resources, the Chennai Solidarity group has played a critical role in expanding democratic spaces for community struggles. They are known for their innovative use of arts and cultural interventions.
In the episode, we discuss the Poromboke, a medieval Tamil word that refers to communally held commons such as water bodies, grazing lands and community forests. These lands were carefully managed, yielded value to the community, and were subject to strict regulation. But over time they began to be perceived as ‘wastelands' and are dismissed as worthless. We discuss the origins of these commons, spanning from medieval through colonial times and touch upon industrialisation, the rise of the metropole, and the dominant worldview of built-up and paved economies. The shift in how this land was classified, managed, used and contested is a microcosm of civilizational conflicts around land, livelihoods and culture all over the world.
The song that features in this podcast is Chennai Poromboke Padal, conceived by Nityanand a few years ago, written by Kaber Vasuki, and sung by T.M. Krishna. It speaks of how we need to revalorize these commons and shows us how art can be a powerful form of protest. The music video is available here.
For more reading around the subject, check out these links:
- June 2019, Chennai’s Drinking Water Day Zero is a result of environmental discrimination
- March 2019, “A Manifesto for the Commons” – coauthored with Amitav Ghosh and T.M. Krishna
- November 2015, Chennai Floods: A Creation of Unrestrained Construction
- November 2014, Remember this much: The Sea will Eat You (Tsunami 10 year anniversary special)
Flow like a river, play like a child
In this episode, I speak to Ryan Christie, originally from Colorado in the United States of America, who has been a holistic movement coach in Switzerland for the past 15 years. Ryan loves helping people achieve goals that at one time seemed unattainable, making the impossible possible. Moving and coaching people from children as young as 6 to his more life experienced clients of 70+ years of age. His focus with his coaching clients is to provide support with ‘life’ coaching, focusing on mindset and mental tools, enhancing emotional intelligence through conversation, and increasing physical strength, power, stamina, and flow. Therefore, I reached out to him for a talk, given my own personal experience of how he can help change mindsets, provide a physical boost, instill fun moving and grooving, and just so joyfully share of his wisdom and empathy.
Ryan and I speak about flow and play, improving our vestibular intelligence- the doors of our perception, and how we relate to our environment. We discuss why children seem to have so much more fun, are so curious and adventurous and experience time more slowly while as we age, we become more rigid, set in our ways, watching life just pass by so fast.
Flow is both go and slow, time can be pliable and elastic and so is our brain. So, we do need to try out new things, learn new languages, make origami shapes, cook up a storm, play a musical instrument, find our playgrounds, embrace our inner child, go exploring and invite novelty and creativity into our lives.
A recent addition to Ryan’s toolbox is something he has worked on with his father. They have revamped what was a Shena-board as the Earthboard. This was an ancient Persian tool for calisthenics and wrestling and symbolizing a sword in battles of ore. The board now is a simple fitness tool to help build stability and strength while also improving balance and mobility. We explore this and more in this conversation of how we can bring these gifts of intuition and play into how we relate and connect to each other.
All creatures great and small
“Of bug, bee and beast” is a book published in 2015 by Zubaan, written by an environmental lawyer turned writer and poet, Devaki Panini. The book was created with the objective to create a movement of empathy toward and informed interest in smaller and less known biological species. it is a playful exploration of the lives of animals, great and small and the precarity of the worlds they live in, affected in a range of ways by human activity, hubris and ambition. She takes us on a wonderful journey through little story gems.
In this conversation, we will talk about what motivated her to write the book and what inspired the poems. Many of the poems are about animals that she felt were left out of dominant conservation efforts and remained hidden to most people because these were lesser species to many people. Most conservation still remains mega-faunic while it is the bees, the ants, the spiders that are really important species in terms of avoiding mass extinction. These poems are signposts to a difficult road ahead but also bring a more tender, personal feel to what can often be seen as terrifying prospects ahead.
Introducing The Subverse
The Subverse, presented by Dark ‘n’ Light is a podcast that speaks of the hidden and marginal in stories about nature, culture and social justice. From the cosmic to the quantum, from cells to cities and from colonial histories to reimagining futures. Join Susan Mathews every fortnight on a Thursday for weird and wonderful conversations, narrated essays and poems that dwell on the evolving contingencies of life.
The show is produced for us by Vaaka Media. A special thanks to Krizia Bass, vocal producer for recordings and the trailer.