Anaphase in the Sky

Sometimes we forget to look up.

At night, there is plenty of reason to lift your head and expose your bare neck to the soft caress of the cool night air — stars, airplanes (or imposter stars as I like to call them), the slender sliver or full-bellied bloat of the moon. During the day, however, we are far more preoccupied with what’s in our immediate path of travel to pause and glance towards the heavens. There are places to be, jobs to be done, puddles to avoid, rocks to avoid tripping on, and not to mention a glaringly bright orb hanging in the sky that prevent us from detaching our pupils from their earthbound state and directing them to the lofty, immaterial realm of the sky.

I go for a walk every day around Lake Lagunita on the Stanford campus — although “Lake” is a bit of a misnomer seeing as there is no body of water deeper than the two-inch puddle to be found there. It’s a time for personal meditation and reflection, a brief obligation-free lull that I set aside to maintain my sanity and commune with the surrounding nature (mostly waves of rippling, untamed grass, gnarled trees, and the 200+ squirrels that grace every tree branch).

Today, as I was carefully avoiding the convoluted pattern of embedded stones on the path that I always seemed to trip over, I heard a keening screech that seemed to slice the air right above my head, missing my hair by mere millimeters and splitting space into two, neatly divided sections: the upper and the lower. I was clearly part of the lower. When I looked up, the bright, ruddy-orange flash of a red-tail hawk zipped through the upper section it had carved so carelessly, dipping low enough to brush its feathers over the boundary between my space and his. As he emitted one final triumphant screech and wheeled away abruptly, I drew in my breath with awe.

The sky was in anaphase.

Anaphase, the fourth phase in the crucial and under-appreciated process that drives all multi-cellular lifeforms called mitosis, occurs when little bundles of replicated genetic material are dragged by delicate spindle fibers to opposite ends of a cell in preparation for division (thanks, high school biology!). It looks a little something like this:

As you can see, the fibers are arching towards the opposite ends of the cell in mitosis which will eventually split into two new, identical daughter cells.

Although the sky was not, in fact, moving clouds of DNA around with fibers and preparing to split into two, the resemblance to this biological process was simply uncanny. As I lifted my head skywards, I traced the gentle arch of the cirrus clouds that stretched towards the other side of the earth in wispy, ethereal strings. To follow their path, I began to bend over backwards (which garnered a weird glance from the passing jogger) and realized that these clouds, these “organic” fibers of water droplets and air pointed to two trees on either side — the “opposite ends” of a sky in mitosis.

It was a transcendent moment — not only due to the jubilation of having remembered something from the ninth grade but also due to the thought that this unique pattern etched across the sky and capped on both ends by the Earth is being echoed in the microscopic worlds of millions of my very own cells at the same moment. Not only my cells, but the cells of every blade of grass, every budding leaf, every twitchy squirrel’s tail. There is something unspeakably beautiful in parallelism, the unexpected connection between the private, organic worlds of our cell membranes and the expansive realm of the open sky.

If you have the time today, pause and take a look at the daytime sky. You might just discover some heavenly hidden connection.

The sky in anaphase, 16 February 2016

The Syzygy is a blog run by the infinitely curious (but finitely mortal) Renee Cai. It is an ongoing writing experiment that explores everything from the minuscule wonders of daily life to the broad wonderings of a lifetime. If you like what you’ve read, please recommend and share this story with others and follow The Syzygy for more updates!

Contact Renee with comments, questions, or book recommendations at reneesyzygy@gmail.com or reneecai@stanford.edu.

syzygy: n. 
1. the alignment of two or more celestial bodies (e.g. a lunar eclipse)
2. the perfect word for hangman (e.g. you will always win the game)

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