Molecules and Language

Tao Lin
7 min readJul 7, 2020

The following is the Appendix to Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change.

screenshot of DNA animations by for Science-Art exhibition
  1. There are ninety to one hundred natural types of atoms on Earth — hydrogen, helium, etc.
  2. Most atoms aren’t small, conceptually.
  3. Oxygen is made of eight electrons, eight protons, eight neutrons.
  4. Atoms automatically, in time, join to form molecules.
  5. Hydrogen and oxygen form water, a 3-atom molecule.
  6. Amino acids are a type of small molecule.
  7. Amino acids are made by adding a “side chain” to a specific 9-atom molecule.
  8. Glycine, a 10-atom amino acid, has a hydrogen atom as its side chain.
  9. Tryptophan, a 27-atom amino acid, has an ethylene and an indole molecule.
  10. Estimates of how many types of amino acids occur in biological systems range from hundreds to thousands, according to a 2013 paper in Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling.
  11. But life uses only twenty different amino acids, made from ten to twenty-seven atoms, to build proteins. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, wrote in Life Itself (1981) that it was surprising only twenty were used and that it was the same twenty, made of only hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur, for all life on Earth.
  12. Life uses twenty-two amino acids, it has since been discovered, to build proteins, but the twenty-first and twenty-second — selenium-containing selenocysteine, used by animals but not fungi or land plants, and pyrrolysine, used by some bacteria — are inserted into proteins differently than the others.
  13. Life is made of billions of different types of proteins.
  14. Life builds proteins by connecting tens to tens of thousands of amino acids in one-dimensional sequences that automatically fold, in microseconds, into three-dimensional objects that function by their unique shape. Before this was discovered in the twentieth century, no one seemed to have predicted it.
  15. The dimensional inflation seems like the most surprising aspect of the process.
  16. The others — atoms forming amino acids, forming proteins, forming cells — seem more predictable.
  17. Proteins can’t be made with atoms, only amino acids.
  18. Titin, the largest known protein and third most abundant protein in adult human muscles, is made from 34,350 amino acids.
  19. The smallest known foldable protein is the semi-synthetic, Gila monster saliva-derived Trp-Cage, which is twenty amino acids — NLYIQWLKDGGPSSGRPPPS — and looks like this when unfolded and folds in four microseconds.
  20. Hemoglobin, a protein that moves oxygen to tissues and carbon dioxide to lungs, is 574 amino acids.
  21. Receptors are proteins. CB1 is 472 amino acids in humans. CB2 is 347, 360, and 361 amino acids in mice, humans, and rats.
  22. CB1 and CB2 are two types of serpentine receptors, of which more than a thousand types exist in mammals and which cross the cell membrane seven times and are also called G-protein-coupled receptors.
  23. Enzymes are proteins that accelerate chemical reactions. INMT is a 263–amino acid enzyme that can N-methylate tryptamine, which is decarboxylated tryptophan, twice to create N,N-dimethyltryptamine.
  24. EPSPS is a 427–amino acid enzyme used by life in the seven-step shikimate pathway to create, among other compounds, phenylalaline, tyrosine, and tryptophan.
  25. In March 2016, in their fifth paper on glyphosate, Samsel and Seneff theorized that life mistakenly inserts glyphosate instead of glycine into hundreds to thousands of proteins that depend on glycine to function, including EPSPS, the CYP enzymes, collagen, and various receptors, contributing to or causing autism, cancer, infertility, birth defects, diabetes, obesity, asthma, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, and many other modern problems.
  26. Collagen, which is 20 to 25 percent glycine, comprises a fourth of the proteins in humans.
  27. There are “proteins whose job it is to unwind the double helix,” wrote Crick.
  28. A list of every known protein would begin with ones containing hundreds of atoms and end millions of entries later with titin, which contains more than 400,000 atoms.
  29. On a different planet, the periodic table of elements would be the same, showing ninety-plus types of atoms, but a table of the planets’ proteins would be much different.
  30. This is because, I learned from Crick, on a different planet, life may have chosen a different set of twenty amino acids to use to build itself. Life that uses only sixteen amino acids probably exists on many of the hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way — and maybe these forms of life, lack-
    ing the complexity of twenty, never evolve past unicellular existence.
  31. If we encountered a planet of life-forms made from twenty-eight amino acids, maybe they would seem, in a strange way, all the same — looking and acting in a certain 28–amino acid way. We would become self-conscious and realize that, despite our variety, from chlorella to flying fish to Barack Obama, we are almost all built from the same set of amino acids. Crick stressed that this was how terrestrial life was, beneath appearances, unified.
  32. The knowledge of how to build proteins is stored in DNA. Human DNA codes for around twenty thousand proteins, each of which, post-assembly, can be modified up to a hundred ways.
  33. Species know how to create unique sets of proteins, which partially determine their form.
  34. DNA is made by connecting two small molecules, which are always the same, with a third, which can be adenine (fifteen atoms), guanine (sixteen atoms), thymine (fifteen atoms), or cytosine (thirteen atoms); each triplet is called a nucleotide.
  35. DNA is read in three-nucleotide groups called codons. There are sixty-four codons because 4 × 4 × 4 = 64.
  36. Sixty-one codons refer to twenty amino acids; the other three mean “end chain” and can also refer to the twenty-first and twenty-second amino acids. Tryptophan is the only amino acid of the main twenty with only one codon; the other nineteen have two to six codons.
  37. Life reads a codon that says “adenine (A), adenine (A), guanine (G)” and knows to insert a lysine amino acid next, knowing as a planet knows how to orbit its star, by being its unique shape and following natural laws.
  38. If I had a box of amino acid models and a model of twenty codons of DNA coding for Trp-Cage and I wanted to teach a child to build Trp-Cage, I would give the child a chart showing the twenty-two proteinogenic amino acids and “the genetic code.”
  39. The genetic code says what the codons mean — that GGA is glycine, UAA “end chain,” etc.
  40. Life does what the child would do — reads a codon, consults the code, inserts an amino acid, reads the next codon, etc. — automatically, using proteins and natural laws. It learned how over an unknown amount of time.
  41. The automatic process involves transcription, translation, RNA, and ribosomes. “Because it is so complicated the reader should not attempt to struggle with all the details,” wrote Crick.
  42. The “important to thing realize,” he felt, was that the genetic code “must have evolved from something much simpler.”
  43. Life built cells from proteins, animals from cells.
  44. Life automatically, in time, created humans.
  45. Crick pointed out that enough time — 9.3 billion years — had already passed for life to have gone from “soup to man” twice by the time Earth formed. This made him theorize life began extraterrestrially and, over billions of years, spread to other stars and probably galaxies. Which made him theorize life on Earth was seeded from elsewhere, maybe as bacteria,
    which over three to four billion years became humans.
  46. Humans created language.
  47. English uses twenty-six letters, -, — , ;, :, ?, !, ., and other symbols, like ~, +, =, and ,.
  48. Connecting words in a one-dimensional manner, with punctuation, humans created sentences. Instead of always folding the same way, like proteins, sentences dimensionally inflate in unique ways depending on the mind and time.
  49. As life tunneled efflorescently through the universe and into the imagination, complexity increased in a level-jumping, nonlinear manner.
  50. Atoms, amino acids, proteins, cells, humans. Strokes, letters, words, sentences, books.
  51. In 1937, Olaf Stapledon published Star Maker, a novel made of hundreds of thousands of symbols arranged one-dimensionally into thousands of sentences.
  52. In Star Maker, a character in London goes outside one night feeling discouraged and bleak, suddenly zooms away from Earth as a disembodied consciousness, and participates in the entire future history of the universe. At the end of the novel, the character, now comprised of every galaxy — around half — that had “awakened” sufficiently to form a
    mind, meets its creator.
  53. The universe-character learns it’s arguably Star Maker’s first mature work. Requiring half a trillion years to sustain an incipient, cosmic mind for fifteen billion years, the universe was much more complex than Star Maker’s earlier creations. Star Maker placed the half-conscious universe alongside its other art and, after contemplation, continued creating.
  54. In April 1939, five months before the start of World War II, Jean Rhys published Good Morning, Midnight, a novel about a woman in her forties living in hotels in Paris in October 1937. It intimately conveyed the strange experience of being a lonely, afraid, alienated, modern, ideology-less human interacting with others in an unsatisfying manner.
  55. It was in four parts, often used the ellipsis symbol, and included this sentence: “All that is left in the world is an enormous machine, made of white steel.” And these: “I have another drink. Damned voice in my head, I’ll stop you talking…”
  56. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1979, Rhys said, “All of writing is a huge lake.” She called herself one of the “mere trickles” and said, “All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
  57. Stapledon (1886–1950) and Rhys (1890–1979) are two of the 108 billion humans, according to the Population Reference Bureau, who’ve lived since 50,000 BC.
  58. The effect of 108 billion humans metabolized on Earth over 52,000 years is agriculture, solitary confinement, skyscrapers, science fiction, postmodern novels, two world wars, factory farms, smoked DMT, ubiquitous glyphosate, computers, and the internet.
  59. 108 billion molecules of LSD, the most potent psychedelic, metabolized in a human isn’t noticeable.
  60. 108 billion molecules of LSD weighs less than .0001 micrograms.
  61. 150 micrograms of LSD are in an average, contemporary tab of LSD.
  62. More than 225,000,000 billion molecules are in 150 micrograms of LSD.
  63. 225 million billion molecules of LSD metabolized in a human over hours is startlingly, scarily, and safely intense.
  64. 225 million billion humans metabolized in a universe: ?



Tao Lin

I’m the author of Leave Society (2021), Trip (2018), Taipei (2013), other books. Visit my website at