‘All life is chemistry’, Jan Baptista van Helmont, 1648

‘Life roughly consists of the chemistry of three atoms, hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, which among them make up 98% of all atoms in living beings…life consists of the interplay of two kinds of chemicals – proteins and DNA. Protein represents chemistry, living breathing metabolism and behaviour  - what biologists call the phenotype – DNA represents information, replication, breeding, sex – what biologists call the genotype – neither can exist without the other.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘We are made of stardust.’ John Gribbin, Stardust: the cosmic recycling of stars, planets and people, Penguin, 2001

‘At least some life is chemistry,’ Freidrich Wohler, 1828, (following his synthesistation of urea from ammonium chloride and silver cyanide, crossing what had been the sacrosanct divide between the chemical and biological worlds).

‘In short, with the birth of molecular biology, genetics could become an exercise in chemistry: highly refined chemistry, but chemistry nonetheless.’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

"Of course, we have a long way to go before the benefits of this work are realised. The unravelled genome is, on its own, simply a list of chemicals. The next stage is to try to understand how those chemicals work together to create the genetic instructions that operate our bodies.” Sir Robert May, Chief Scientific Advisor to UK Government

‘In a sense, human flesh is made of stardust…Every atom in the human body, excluding only the primordial hydrogen atoms, was fashioned in stars that formed, grew old and exploded most violently before the Sun and the Earth came into being. The explosions scattered the heavy elements as a fine dust through space. By the time it made the Sun, the primordial gas of the Milky Way was sufficiently enriched with heavier elements for rocky planets like the Earth to form. And from the rocks atoms escaped for eventual incorporation in living things: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur for all living tissue; calcium for bones and teeth; sodium and potassium for the workings of nerves and brains; the iron colouring blood red… and so on. No other conclusion of modern research testifies more clearly to mankind’s intimate connections with the universe at large and with the cosmic forces at work among the stars.’ Nigel Calder, The Key to the Universe, BBC, 1977

‘These stars are the fleshed forebears/ Of these dark hills, bowed like labourers// and of my blood…the tree is caught up in the constellations./ My skull burrows among antennae and fronds.’ Ted Hughes, Lupercal, Faber and Faber, 1960

‘Life begins with the process of star formation. We are made of stardust. Every atom of every element in your body except for hydrogen has been manufactured inside stars, scattered across the Universe in great stellar explosions, and recycled to become part of you. The hydrogen is primordial material, produced in the Big Bang, along with Helium… we are a natural product of the Universe we live in.’ John Gribbin, Stardust: the cosmic recycling of stars, planets and people, Penguin, 2001

‘PROTEIN - The DNA codes for protein. In our cells, proteins are the labourforce. It is proteins that get everything done. Proteins make new cells and destroy old or diseased ones. Proteins break down our food to release energy. Proteins organise the transport of useful chemicals between cells. Often, these useful chemicals are themselves proteins. As well as doing things, proteins are the building blocks for most of your body…The ingredients of a protein are amino acids. To build a protein we need to build a long chain of amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids, so there are lots of different protein chains we can build. Biologists give amino acids a code letter, as for DNA’

‘Thus, the order of play of four bases in a long molecule does indeed provide an organism with all the information it needs to do all the things an organism does. Astonishing!’ Ian Wilmut, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

God is a Chemist

God is a chemist.

Chemistry is art,


Beauty is chemistry.

Earth, life -


written, spoken

with chemicals.

‘Take Carbon for example then/ What shapely towers it constructs to house the hopes of men!/ What symbols it creates/ For power and beauty in the world/ Of patterned ring and hexagon - / Building ten thousand things/ Of earth and air and water!... Love holds its palms before the flower/ Of anthracite and purrs.’ AM Sullivan, Atomic Architecture

‘THE INGREDIENTS FOR LIFE: 1) Liquid water, 2) Chemical building blocks like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, 3) An energy source.’ BBC Science, 2006

God the Chemist (1)

God the Chemist,

God the Chemist -

praise his bright materials

prised from unlikely night;

bodies of stars,

blood of light.

Make exultant hymns, symphonies,

to the invented art of First Elements,

cosmic experimentation –

spirit, love and chemicals.

Hail, Holy Alchemist, High Poet, 

Philosopher’s Stone of Creativity,

turning nothing

into Earth, Life;

a handful of darkness into green

leaf; transfiguring light into eyes. 

‘First HEAT3 from chemic dissolution springs,/ and gives to matter its eccentric wings…. ATTRACTION4 next…The ponderous atoms from the light divides,/ Approaching parts with quick embrace combines,/ Swells into spheres, and lengthens into lones./ Last, as fine goads the gluten-threads excite,/ Cords grapple cords, and webs with webs unite;/ And quick CONTRACTION5 with ethereal flame/ Lights into life the fibre-woven frame.-/ Hence without parent by spontaneous birth/ Rise the first specks of animated earth;/ From Nature’s womb the plant or insect swims,/ And buds or breaths, with microscopic limbs…3. The matter of heat is an ethereal fluid, in which all things are immersed… Without heat, all the matter of the world would be condensed into a point by the power of attraction; and neither fluidity nor life could exist….4…. Particular attraction, or chemical affinity, must likewise occupy the spaces between the particles of matter which they cause to approach each other….[Darwin’s notes]’ Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802, The Temple of Nature

‘*The word ‘mechanics’, in this context, is provocative. It stands in opposition to the concept of ‘vitalism’. Vitalists maintain that life is driven by unique processes that are not explicable purely by the standard laws of physics and chemistry, while ‘mechanists’ maintain that life simply required complicated chemistry.’ Note, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, The Second Creation, Headline, 2001

‘Chemist, you breed/ In orient climes each sorcerous weed/ That energises dream – ‘. Herman Melville, 1819-91, The New Zealot to the Sun

‘SURLY:  “What else are all your terms,/ Whereon no one of your writers ‘grees with other?/ Of your elixir, your lac virginis,/ Your stone, your med’cine, and your chrysosperme,/ Your sal, your sulphur, and your mercury,/ Your oil of height, your tree of life, your blood,/ Your marchesite, your tutie, your magnesia,/Your toad, your crow, your dragon, and your panther;/ Your sun, your moon, your firmament, your adrop,/ Your lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heautarit,/ And then your red man, and your white woman,/ With all your broths, your menstrues, and materials,/ Of piss and egg-shells, women’s terms, man’s blood,/ Hair o’ the head, burnt clouts, chalk, merds, and clay,/ Powder of bones, scalings of iron, glass,/ And worlds of other strange ingredients,/ Would burst a man to name?” SUBTLE: “And all these named,/ Intending but one thing: which art our writers/ Used to obscure their art”.’ Ben Jonson, 1572-1637, The Alchemist

Feeling the Discovered Workings of the Genome

I rub my hands together, feeling frizzy chemical combustion;

skin spawning elastic cell-seal - muffled hinges of articulate

stem-star bone crackling silently under our muscular gloves,

that can stroke notes from gappy piano teeth, but strangle;

comfort, strengthen, punch or pray - the organic red pump,

battery clock and wires, pulsing wrist guages industriously.

I run my fingers through my hair, frazzling the yellow factory,

sparking seed-silk filaments into animal fuzz - ghost remnant

sprouting arty follicles with no imperative for such a display -

kept like a peackock tail, physical halo, scripture of decoration.

My stomach oven growls - independent hunger, acidic machine

processes. Dust launches from me in dirty sun; my own glittering

galaxy of spent particles - each authored with potential me -

my universal signature floating nowhere, nano person-planets

seeded with the means of life, wandering or returning to earth.

I feel the Genome; writing, powering. My own chemicals

dancing - combining, producing, housekeeping, adapting;

such quadrilles, Eightsome Reels, a-waltzing in the heart

and brain. Pagan and religious ecstasy as one, as life.

So much vibration, I burn blue/red/gold as Autumn -

as sparking leaf, touch my small child’s spring hand;

feel silver spiral-fires of reciprocal DNA, sparkling,

chemical crackling of growing hand - practicalities

of bone, blood, skin; presence of art, beauty settling

this pristine home, universal energy flowing around

his head - the mark of a child, child halo; new light

called from old, original - yet still illuminating stars.

‘But his daily amusement is Chemistry. He has a small furnace, which he employs in distillation and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils and waters, and essences and spirits, which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops as they come from his retorot, and forgets that, whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away.” Idler, Samuel Johnson, 1758   

"I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘In January 2001, scientists… produced complex organic molecules under conditions resembling those which exist in interstellar clouds of gas and dust…which, when immersed in water spontaneously created membraneous structures resembling soap bubbles. All life on earth is based on cells, bags of biological material encased in just this kind of membrane. The implication of this work is that space is filled with chemical compounds which can easily give a kick-start to life if they land in a suitable environment, such as on the surface of the Earth.’ John Gribbin, Stardust: the cosmic recycling of stars, planets and people, Penguin, 2001

Who Breathed Chemicals into Life

Who breathed chemicals into life,

made that art of heart and rose -

process greening leaf,

sugaring siren flower.

Who put owl eyes on butterflies,

what for, or how, came eagles -

flying golden from crumbled dust,

hung burning, crucified with light,

dazzling in dusk’s first purple breath -

why came the twitching red-eyed hare,

his russet fur on fire - rocking madly

into nervous twilight, scattering slow

fat rabbits munching grass at sunset,

rusting in the final scene of evening.

Who caused honeysuckle to exhale,

romancing early moths stumbling

into light and perfume, summer evening’s

warm blue mouth - blur-blue - dim-blue -

gold-blue, rose-blue, navy, black; stoning

the still-blue hours - holding its sugared,

signalled breath, until now - time of bat-

flicker, hoots; of stuttering mice moving

grass blades aside with human fingers -

how can all this be, here, accomplished,

asks the man wearing his chemical suit

of miracles, fabulous embroidery of life;

his own experimental design, gorgeous

body and hair, inhabiting these fingers,

this brain; able to pick, read grain

of wheat or sand - feed, calculate -

admire, plant, dream, philosophise.

Why does the kissing of X and Y -

egg and sperm, do anything at all?

What catalyst comes among us  -

to that interior dark, savage sex

of lichen, spore, amoebae, dirt -

bumping into moths, moons, bats,

and honeysuckle; night’s speckled

banners hung shining with ignorant planets,

gossiping clusters milky with fogged light -

humming, searching with storm-lamp mind,

these blind fingertips telling dandelion clock

from child’s hair; but just, for a spark

one is able to imagine looks something

like a bright star -

the touch of light.

‘I come from empyrean fires - / From microscopic spaces,/ Where molecules with fierce desires,/ Shiver in hot embraces./ The atoms dash, the spectra flash,/ Projected on the screen,/ The double D, magnesianb,/  And Thallium’s living green.’ James Clerk Maxwell, 1831-79 To the Chief Musician upon Nabla

‘The shape of the DNA double helix is ideal for DNA’s role as a store and preserver of information.’ Medical Research Council, UK 

Does God Remember?

Does God remember the defining;

shining organic coalescence, time

when the first cell settled -

the wondrous chemistry.

Being drawing itself into being

by its very nature, will to exist;

using anything around,

just to be, stay, still be -

the creativity with those chemicals!

Even God thought it was a miracle

when He had made it possible,

dreamed them into existence -

imagined the matrix, Word,

to call from Periodic Table,

list ingredients, principle, into life -

held his breath that it would work,

this calling to matter of pattern,

this holy glueing; good practise

for his trick of body and soul, 

joining of irreconcilable stuff

only a god could possibly pull off -

like a magician with a miracle, or

two up his sleeve; bouquets

of flowers, coloured strings -

making the world rehearse

billennia until it got it right,

learned his own best tricks;

made his own organic son

to make sure he wasn’t wrong -

life was that good, that fantastic;

such a show of preposterous miracles

no-one could treat it as other than holy,

doubt the dominance, principle of love –

realised he must breathe to make it work,

stir such chemicals with light and love -

lifting out of artless mixture, possibility;

gently, slowly - not that great showy gasp

among the heavens, sneezing stars, planets

all over the place, burning his silver fingers

on the molten Sun brought hot – ferocious -

from his oven belly - rolling planet after planet

in his palm, learning, until Earth was perfected;

the world his bulging family album,

holy record - birth, marriage, death,

birth…fabulous circular ripples of life

bringing tiger, spider, flower and man; 

beetle and hand, eye and grasshopper

from the same root, ingredients - art.

Were there tears He learned

when the first rain happened -

sky sobbing at the huge beauty

of her blue reflection in the sea;

Earth began to learn -

reflect fresh love back,

run with His spirit of creativity;

at the first exquisite heart flutter,

possibilities of that startling blood -

when He saw the eye coming to be

to dazzling excitement of waiting light -

first mother-creature understanding love.

‘Yet what wert thou to him, who knew his works,/ Before creation form’d them…’ Christopher Smart, 1722-71, On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being

Did God Know

Did God know the pattern of the zebra

would come from water, plastic mud -

did He dream the peacock feather,

starling throat, burning tiger skin -

white bear matching melting fur

with snow at the end of the world.

Did He think the lily skin,

or thistles’ Einstein hair -

new leaves blinking, shining,

palms still damp with spirit.

Did He invent poetry’s silver bones, 

music’s flexible mercury skeleton -

silently breeding words, sounds, notes -

each one the product of a million years.

Was He amazed by us,

bred from His germ -

as our child’s face startles,

haunted by our very eyes -

tugging of umbilical wire -

groping passionflower arms.

Did He know these voices

would come in black night,

calling His name; pleading, trying

to surrender freedom for justice -

peace, healing, beauty, love,

company among dead stars -

not sure anymore if He had invented

them, or they Him in the big scheme.

Had He planted the seed of love -

His own heart, original life kernel

beating under earth, spawning all -

waiting anxious as a good gardener;

dreaming the flower,

inventing loneliness.

‘... so water and flame, the diamond, the charcoal, and the mantling champagne, with its ebullient sparkles, are convoked and fraternized by the theory of the chemist. This is, in truth, the first charm of chemistry, and the secret of the almost universal interest excited by its discoveries. The serious "complacency" complacency which is afforded by the sense of truth, utility, permanence, and progression, blends with and ennobles the exhilarating surprise and the pleasurable sting of curiosity, which accompany the propounding and the solving of an Enigma. It is the sense of a principle of connection given by the mind, and sanctioned by the correspondency of nature. Hence the strong hold which in all ages chemistry has had on the imagination.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Landing-Place, or Essays Interposed for Amusement, Retrospect, and Preparation

‘and ev’n therein are out soft bodies vext and harm’d/ by their own small distemperature, nor could they endure/  wer’t not that by a secret miracle of chemistry/ they hold internal poise upon a razor-edge/ that may not ev’n be blunted, lest we sicken and die.’ Robert Bridges, 1844-1930, The Testament of Beauty

‘Million-fueled,/ nature’s bonfire burns on.’ That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-89





Note from the author
exploring the project

    The Human Genome Project (1)
    The Word
    Genetic Transcription
    & Translation
    Nature of the Genome
    All Life is One

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