Wigglings and jigglings

by Yasmin Chau
MIT Biology graduate student
Posted on September 7th, 2014
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“…if we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms.”

–     Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Everything, including you, is constantly moving all the time. That can seem hard to believe. The table and floor definitely look quite still. But if you could look at the atoms—the basic building blocks of matter—of the table and floor, you would see that the atoms are constantly jiggling and wiggling.

The jiggle and wiggle of atoms explains phenomena such as heat and cold, but what I find most fascinating is the jiggle and wiggle of atoms of living things. If you could look at the atoms of a cell from your body, you would find that the different flavors of atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc.) have stuck together in different ways to make larger structures (protein, lipids, sugars, DNA). You would also see that being inside a cell is like being tightly packed into a crowd at a large, popular concert where everyone is constantly moving around and bumping against everyone else. The atomic structures in a cell are jiggling and wiggling in an extremely crowded and chaotic space! Yet somehow, the right jiggles and wiggles happen. And it is actually thanks to this constant atomic motion that things in your cell happen at all. What if nothing moved in your cell? The appropriate proteins wouldn’t get to where they need to be to break down the molecules from the food you eat. The appropriate lipid wouldn’t interact with a protein to tell your cell to make more of another protein. The “jigglings and wigglings of atoms” are to thank for making your cell function as a tiny yet important piece of you.

About the author
Yasmin Chau
MIT Biology graduate student

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