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Here's Why Some Mess Is Not Always A Bad Thing


It's spring, which for some means spring cleaning - Marie Kondo because mess is bad, right? Not so says astrophysicist Adam Frank. It's all part of the good news the universe holds.

ADAM FRANK: I get it. I spent years battling my son's messes. But guess what. When it comes to life and the universe, sometimes a mess is exactly what we need. Take a good look at your kids again. Inside them and you are remarkable molecular machines - you know, proteins. Proteins are the workhorses of cells, and they come in thousands of different varieties. Some act is the scaffolding that gives a cell its shape. Others act as transport vans, moving important molecules like sugars around the cell. Others still act as border guards, allowing only certain kinds of molecules into and out of the cell membrane. But when you look at them, what you see is each protein is just a long chain of atoms like a nanoscale piece of Silly String.

Proteins work because of this amazing trick they can pull. To accomplish its particular task, each string of protein folds up into a very specific shape. Some parts of the protein fold into slinky-like twists called an alpha helix while other parts fold into overlapping zigzags called a beta sheet. And to look at them - well, they look like a mess. But out of the apparent mess of these folded proteins comes life itself. What's truly remarkable is that nature is really specific about the complex, messy shapes individual proteins must take. If the shape is even a little wrong, then the protein won't work. So what looks to most of us like a tangled ball of string looks like a perfect molecular engine to a cell.

Life, through billions of years of evolution, is so much smarter than we are. It can build order in the most remarkable way. So the next time you're about to pull your hair out over your kid's messy room, stop for a moment, and remember those proteins. They can remind you that life and mess - they just go together. And sometimes they're both really glorious.

CORNISH: That's astrophysicist Adam Frank. He's a professor at the University of Rochester and author of "Light Of The Stars: Alien Worlds And The Fate Of The Earth." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.