The city and the cell

By Vic Arcus 29/09/2009

A city from space resembles a dense mosaic. Roads prescribing the polygons and curves of the myriad city blocks and parks. The city periphery is often constrained by geography: mountains to the east, a river runs through it, the sea to the west. The city plans are, in some cases, the result of the invisible hands of the town planner (for a modern city such as Canberra) which rationally demarcate residential, industrial and commercial zones. These “plans” are no less apparent for a medieval city whose organization has a vernacular and sometimes brutal history as its architect. Carcasonne is one such beautiful medieval city surrounded by walls, two thick, replete with battlements, ramparts and parapets. These defenses are a relic of more strident times when small feudal states were frequently under attack. The environment surrounding the city is of equal importantance, providing the farmland, crops and resources – the energy – to keep the city (and its inhabitants) alive.

What would constitute the science of a city? Ekistics is the science of human settlements – a discipline pioneered by C.A. Doxiadis, a 20th century Greek academic who died in 1975 – which sought to systematically study our villages, towns and cities. For our purposes, as city scientists, we might start with a map! And a detailed description, which seems straightforward, but belies a fantastic complexity, even for a small city of 50,000 such as Carcasonne. The cartographers who produced early maps with their illuminations were as much artists as scientists. Nevertheless, the bare, physical structure of the city is enunciated. So we start with a map. What of the inhabitants, the production, the webs of commerce and social interactions? To account for the inhabitants one might obtain a phone book and be satisfied that now we know the names of all the people and their addresses overlaid on the map. A further level of complexity would be gleaned from the yellow pages which gives the addresses of all the workplaces in the city and, with a little investigation, the inhabitants who occupy these workplaces. We could even arm ourselves with photographs of the buildings to view their adornments, colours, size and geometry. The organizational and political structure of the city also seems important – its governors, its bylaws, its hierarchy, and accounting for the movements of people in and out of the city along with the movement of goods and energy, brings us close to a contemporary picture. But still we are descriptive observers accounting for a static view of the city.

To qualify as scientists, our account needs to be explanatory. Are there general principles which explain how the city came to be like it is? An account of the history, in the case of Carcassone, its sackings and capitulations, it feudal lords, its families, its peasants and farmers is vital. Further, would these principles have a predictive component? If we knew the history and the principles of the evolution of the city, can we predict the future of the city? Doxiadis would say yes, but it is phenomenally complicated. Who would have thought that there was such art, illumination and science in town planning?

For the parallels between the city and the cell, Dr Suess can lead us there: “Horton Hears a Who” is dedicated to Mitsugi Nakamura from the concurrently historic and thoroughly modern city of Kyoto. Although some may argue that this children’s fable is about the benefits to Japan of the benevolent U.S. post-war occupation its really about the city and the cell! In it we find Horton…

On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool
In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool
He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys…
When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.

“I say!” murmured Horton. “I’ve never heard tell
Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.
So you know what I think?… Why, I think that there must
Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!”

Horton goes on to discover not just a person on the speck of dust, but a whole city of Whos (whom Horton must protect). A description of this tiny city, not visible, but certainly real for Horton, is the same as that for Carcassonne, with its phenomenal complexity of people and the physical environment overlaid with history. And this is the colossal task which faces scientists in describing and understanding a cell. A cell has inhabitants (proteins, RNA, DNA and small molecules) and very well organized defenses which are often two or three deep (in the form of cell walls). These defensive lines are policed by gatekeepers who restrict the traffic in and out of the cell. Internally, the cell has a heavily regulated organizational structure with governors, activators and repressors! There is a phone-book (both white and yellow pages) in the form of the genome which is a list of all the proteins and RNA in the cell and encodes where they live and work. And there is an evolutionary history to the cell which explains why it is how it is, and provides some predictions about how it might look in the future. Indeed, over time there will be invaders (viruses), wars, alliances and treaties, which all leave historical traces for scientists to find.

So to describe a city with all its buildings, its people, the colours, congregations, communities and industries, and to overlay this with principles which chart its history and its future, is a similar task to studying a single cell. Were to start? I think that the phone book is a good place, and that will be the subject of the next post.

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