“BDSM Eye Drops” turned out to be a bad idea

My wife and I have the weirdest conversations, and I absolutely love that. I am a lucky man. I found someone who can turn her magical perspective into a set of tiny numbers in a computer that we perceive as colors that are then assembled into a picture that makes me laugh. This person is called an “artist.” The result is this week’s comic. There’s a video version of this post available, too.

You know, life is full of unpleasant things. Everything from having-to-put-in-eye-drops to the-inevitable-fact-of-our-demise. But it helps me to find a little humor where we can. And… while the script is loosely based on true events, in the interest of the joke, the comic did take some liberties with the outfits.

As you may be aware, I love science. But it can be overwhelming. There’s just so much of it! This week I went down a bit of a research rabbit hole reading about this one molecule called Interleukin-6. It got me thinking about the fractal nature of human knowledge.

I was thinking of the Mandelbrot Set – a fractal. Let’s look at it as an analogy for human knowledge. The black, inside parts represent stuff we – humankind – KNOW about the world. Like, there’s biology, right? That’s just one lobe of the set.

2022-06-10 21_52_29-The Mandelbrot Set in HTML5 Canvas & JavaScript — Mozilla Firefox

But still, there’s so much to learn about life! It’s a huge area.

We can zoom in to immunology, the study of how the immune system works – that’s a pretty tiny piece of all of biology, but it’s still an amazingly huge subject! The immune system is insanely complex – lots of different kinds of cells and antibodies and histamine, right?

So we could look at just the biochemistry of the immune system, one small part of immunology. Holy mother, it’s still a HUGE subject – there are thousands of relevant genes that all react inside cells and outside cells to make the immune system work. And every. single. one. of those molecules has a whole scientific story to tell.

And you might think that if we can zoom in far enough, to a single one of those molecules, like take interleukin-6, it would get simple, right? NOPE! Still crazy complicated! It has a structure, it has interactions with other molecules, it does one thing in infections but a WHOLE DIFFERENT THING in injuries. Do we need to look at mutational analysis? Do we need to make a small molecule drug to inhibit it? Oh man, we better learn some evolutionary biology and organic chemistry so we can even talk to the right people about what might be going on!

So, what even is Interleukin-6? It’s a signal molecule. It’s a molecule that some cells send out to other cells to try to get a response. Signal molecules in general are like the cell biology equivalent of emojis. Interleukin-6 is maybe like this one: [😝]. One cell sends it to another, sure, but what does that even MEAN?

Just for one tiny example of one of the many things IL-6 is involved in, here’s an example. When the spinal cord gets injured, it summons a whole bunch of immune cells to do repairs. That’s inflammation, and it’s necessary and important. Unfortunately, that process can get out of control and do more damage than the original injury. Interleukin-6 is really important in whether it all works out – not too intense [💦] but still holds the immune system’s interest [😉]. It is an important part of this nonverbal communication, but the meaning is highly [😝💩] context-dependent [😝🍑].

But once I read about interleukin-6, I started to see it EVERYWHERE. That’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency illusion. It’s like when you buy a Chevrolet Bolt and then suddenly you see Chevrolet Bolts on the road all the time. But instead of Chevy Bolts, I see Interleukin-6 EVERYWHERE.

It shows up in aging, weight loss, spinal cord injury, arthritis, the cytokine release syndrome that kills COVID patients. That’s just a few. It’s like zooming down into one of the tiny little parts of the fractal.

2022-06-10 21_52_44-The Mandelbrot Set in HTML5 Canvas & JavaScript — Mozilla Firefox

But EVERY little nook and cranny on this fractal is JUST AS COMPLICATED, just as deep and infinite as that one.

And I am grateful that all of that knowledge exists. That the experts are there in those fields. It takes a lifetime to become an expert in one tiny fragment of our knowledge. My only regret is that I have but one life give to studying science.