I love art and craftsmanship, and I love science. I’ve got to be honest that my life as a biochemistry professor and a leather craftsman don’t often overlap. Most of the time they nicely reinforce each other, mostly in terms of allowing me to change my focus. Some of my best ideas in research have come during the almost meditative moments in my craft, especially hand stitching. Sometimes I can’t figure out a step in my leather work or I get into a rut and can’t develop new ideas, and a solution pops into my head while I’m doing something entirely different with my university job (especially the endless meetings, which if you have enough projects floating around in your brain, can be a surprisingly great source of creative inspiration…).
I’m not great at math, and I wish that I was more fluent in this beautiful language. Fortunately for mortals like me there are great computer packages like Mathematica or MATLAB that can help with big things or simpler tasks like solving an integral in calculus that you forgot how to do because your last calculus class was 25 years ago. Also I work with smart people and pick students who ultimately teach me more than I teach them.
But science isn’t just math (lucky for me!). There is a great amount of visualization of things that might seem like abstract concepts because we don’t see them directly with our eyes but need to rely on instruments, analysis, and models. I fell in love with organic chemistry when I realized that I could easily see molecules in 3 dimensions and rotate them in my mind. Most of chemistry in the natural world is “chiral” which means that it has a handedness. Think of your right and left hands: they are mirror images of each other but you can’t superimpose them. This may sound esoteric, but it is important. A good example of handedness in drugs is thalidomide, which was given to women in the 1950s and early 1960s for morning sickness. One form of thalidomide (call it the right) is effective for morning sickness and as a relatively safe sedative. The left hand form of thalidomide causes serious developmental problems and causes birth defects. Unfortunately the 2 forms are inter converted in our blood, and this led to thousands of birth defects before it was removed from the market.
Most of the chemicals that build our bodies (and every other living thing) are chiral. Our proteins are almost all “left-handed” (really, they cause light to rotate left under the right measurements…). Most drugs (legal and illegal) interact with proteins, so that is why some drugs need to have the correct handedness to work right. You might be wondering “cool, but what does this have to do with leatherwork?” I thought you’d never ask!
When I was a first year graduate student studying biophysics at the University of Wisconsin, I took a class in structural biology, the science of learning about the shapes and movements of things like proteins. These can be complicated, but a simplifying aspect is that proteins are made from little pieces called amino acids, and these form only a few “secondary structures”, the main ones being alpha-helix and beta-sheet. We were learning about the alpha-helix in my class, and I tried to build some 3D models to more easily visualize them. This is the stuff that comes easily to me, and I either learned it from saddle making or I was attracted to saddle making because of it. Well, after a lot of tweaking, none of my models fit the pictures in my text book. Did I get it wrong? No! It turns out that the figures in my textbook were drawn with right-handed amino acids rather than the correct left-handed ones. How did this happen???
I then dug in a bit more and discovered well over 10 of the major text books had right-handed amino acids rather than left. This all was traced to an early mistake that Linus Pauling (one of the greatest chemists of all time) made in preparing one of his text books. All of the incorrect right-handed figures just copied the Pauling figure (after all, he had 2 Nobel Prizes, so how could he be wrong!). This investigation led to my first scientific publication in 1990, as well as fun personal correspondence with Pauling and the author of my textbook, Thomas Creighton. In a later edition of Creighton’s book (Proteins) he corrected the mistake and nicely acknowledged me with a question at the end of that chapter asking how earlier drawings could be incorrect (answer, see A_S_Edison_1990).
Sometimes art and science do mix!