The Abbey of St Thomas is a simple white building riding the crest of a gentle hill. Two banks of windows, in each of its two stories, look out onto gardens. Behind the Abbey is a small greenhouse constructed according to plans originally drawn up for the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, traditionally regarded as the founder of the science of genetics. Brother Gregor sometimes haunts the gardens, counting up the tall red and short white flowers, or pondering the puzzle of inheritance in bees. In the greenhouse are more peas with green or yellow seeds, green or yellow pods. The flowers and the peas represent the inheritance patterns we call Mendelian.
Inside the Abbey is a painting of Mendel in his abbot’s robes, an old photo of Mendel with his fellow monks, and lying on a downstairs table, a fading copy of Mendel’s famous paper Versuche uber Pflanzen-Hybriden. A fire takes the chill out of the winter air. A chessboard is set out, waiting for somebody to make the next move. Behind the monastery, waves crash against a rocky shore.
Hold on, there. Waves? The Abbey of St. Thomas is in Brno. Brno is in the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic does not have a seashore. But this Abbey of St. Thomas is in the virtual world of Second Life, a metaverse made possible by Philip Linden of Linden Laboratories, and the other members of the virtual Linden tribe. In this Bohemia there is a seacoast because the Abbey is on Genome Island and islands have coasts. And like the seacoast of Bohemia in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” this Abbey is an imagined creation – a representation of the actual Abbey in landlocked Brno, but not a reproduction of it.
What IS reproduced here is the work of another imagination — Mendel’s –the inheritance patterns that he worked out without ever having seen a chromosome. In the island Abbey and its greenhouses and gardens, the green and yellow peas, the tall and short flowers, appear among the offspring of hybrids at the click of a mouse, but follow the imagined movements of factors sorting into gametes according to the laws of probability. Mendel constructed his own virtual world, somehow seeing the dance of genetic elements passing from generation to generation without speculating, at least in print, about what they might actually look like.
Genetics did not, of course, end with Mendel, or even with the rediscovery of his work in the early 20th century. The Abbey shares Genome Island with other buildings, gardens and pools that house the results of the imagination of other geneticists: the structure of DNA, genetic coding, genome organization, a human chromosome gallery, genetic regulation, bioinformatics and population genetics.
Science progresses by the creation of virtual worlds that overlie everyday and not-so-everyday phenomena. The metaverse of Second Life provides a vision of that world that one can enter and experience.
3 Comments so far
Leave a comment