Monday, December 17, 2012

A simple lesson in enzyme kinetics

(Ever since a college class on physical chemistry, I retreat to the verities of thermodynamics when confronted with the incomprehensibility of human behavior.  There’s no understanding what happened in Connecticut a few days ago--just trying to arrive at a mechanism that will allow you to get through your day without hiding in a bunker to avoid every other human being.)

Look, here’s a test tube of solvent with two solutes in it. 
One is a substrate—a chemical that can undergo a reaction, but doesn’t readily do so.  The other is an enzyme—a chemical that, when it bumps into the substrate, makes it undergo the reaction. 
Enzymes are proteins, noodle-like strings of amino acids that must fold up into a specific shape to do their job.  This process can, and does, go awry at a certain rate; a defined proportion of a population of this enzyme will be misfolded.  If there are only a few molecules of the enzyme, then it’s unlikely that you’ll find a single misfolded enzyme.  If there are thousands of molecules of the enzyme, then you’ll find a couple misfolded enzymes.  If there are millions of molecules of the enzymes, then it’s a certainty that you’ll find a good number of misfolded enzymes.
Now, the misfolded enzyme is evil.  When it bumps into a molecule of substrate, it makes it undergo the wrong reaction, one that produces a lethal product.
Very simple.  Since the proportion of misfolded enzyme is constant, if you increase the amount of enzyme in the jar, you will increase the amount of evil enzyme.  There’s no way around that fact. 

Let’s say that you keep the amount of enzyme in the jar constant, but you increase the amount of substrate.  You will increase the likelihood that a molecule of evil enzyme will bump into a molecule of substrate, and make something lethal.  This is physical chemistry, this is the way the world works, and arguing against it is like arguing against gravity.

(In the picture, I’m just looking at the "evil" reaction; the “good” reaction still happens, but I’m more interested in the “evil” reaction catalyzed by the evil enzyme.)

If you’ve had college biology, you may have encountered enzyme kinetics.  That’s what we’re seeing here.  You can make a graph showing the relationship between substrate concentration and the rate at which the reaction happens.  Eventually, you saturate the system, and the reaction goes as fast as possible. 
There’s two ways you can avoid producing the lethal product.  Make the concentration of enzyme really, really low—it will be less likely that you’ll have any of the evil enzyme.  Or, you can make the concentration of substrate really, really low—it will be less likely that a molecule of substrate will encounter a molecule of evil enzyme.

In any population of humans, there’s going to be a small percentage that just ain’t right in the head.  If there’s only a thousand people in your population, and there’s a good social support network, then there may not be any such troubled individuals.  But, in a country of 300 million, there’s going to be people who do evil.  Unless we reduce our country’s population to a thousand people, there will be psychopaths, just like in a collection of millions of molecules of enzyme, there will be evil misfolded enzyme.

For a normal human being—for most of my neighbors here in a pretty “red” part of the country—an encounter with the substrate in this argument, a gun, is part of a recreational experience.  People hunt, or practice marksmanship, or just go plinking tin cans.  Many of my neighbors have the kind of semi-automatic weapons used in Clackamas and Connecticut and Aurora and Milwaukee, and nothing bad happens.   

But if you put the substrate of a semi-automatic weapon into the hands of a psychopath, you get that lethal reaction that we saw in Clackamas a week ago and in Connecticut a couple of days ago. 

If you increase the concentration of substrate—of guns, especially those guns that are useless for hunting—you will increase the rate of the reaction.  This is reality, this is how thermodynamics says the universe works, despite the idiot fantasies of Dennis Richardson, the Oregon State Representative from Central Point, just down the interstate from here:

“If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide…we need to ensure that our children are safe, and we can’t do that by disarming those who are on the scene.”  

I don’t know if Representative Richardson ever studied any physical sciences in school; if he were taking introductory bio from he, he’d have just failed.  This is really simple stuff. 

As I’ve said, many or most of my neighbors have guns, mostly for hunting.  More than a few have handguns (We once got our car towed by a guy who had his on the dashboard, and who reminded me a little too much of the character John Goodman played in “Barton Fink”*).  Some have semiautomatics.  They tend to feel more strongly about their weapons than I do about my most prized possession.  They will all aver that they are of sound mind and practice all the rules of gun safety.  Most will point to a highly ambiguous clause in the Constitution.  A few of the fringier ones will maintain that their ability to outgun government representatives is the bulwark that prevents tyranny, which I’d find laughable if it didn’t reflect a cocktail of psychosis and lethal force. 

Reading and talking with gun enthusiasts, I’m struck by the degree to which these weapons are signifiers of something transcendent and essential to their self-regard.  They try for words to explain it to me, and give up—it ends up being like explaining religion or love.  Having not had their—I’m at a loss for what to call it…epiphany? Love affair? revalation?...I’ll admit that I utterly fail to understand their point of view.  I’m fine with hunting rifles.  But no one needs an automatic or semiautomatic weapon, any more than they need a howitzer or Sherman tank. 

Reading Representative Richardson’s remarks, two things are clear: he wants lots of guns, and he ardently wants dead children (just not as many).  Other gun enthusiasts have basically said that there’s no eliminating psychopaths, but the right to hyper-lethal weaponry is sacrosanct—so, we just have to accept a certain baseline of slaughter.  In their view, we’d be best off if we were in the saturated region of the enzyme kinetics graph. 
If we, as a society, want evil such as happened this week to stop, the only way we can do it is to reduce the concentration of substrate—of weapons whose designed purpose is to kill lots of humans—to zero.  If we, as a society, don’t have the will to do this, then we, as a society, are affirming that we want this to happen again, and again, and again. 

This is not politics; this is really basic, simple physical science.  How we get there is politics. 

*I’ve heard it argued that a well-armed society is a polite society.  This is both true and utter horse$#!+.  I was very polite and most agreeable with the tow-truck driver.  I did not feel especially freedom-y, and I don’t think I would have felt any more freedom-y if I were also armed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment