Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some of my best friends are fruit flies

Fruit flies went mainstream this week, when a vice-presidential candidate scorned their study as taking research dollars away from work that helps people. That was a foolish claim, almost instantly debunked – fruit flies have improved the human condition enormously in the last century.

So fruit flies are indisputably cool. But this wasn’t the first time politicians have called out supposedly goofy research conducted by obviously egg-headed scientists as a grievous waste of taxpayers’s money, and it assuredly won’t be the last. I think we need to do a better job teaching students to look beyond the obvious. Most biology classes describe how science is done (observation, hypothesis, testing) and they trumpet a handful of scientific breakthroughs (say the discovery of penicillin, or the description of the DNA double helix). But do we talk enough about the long and winding road from the one to the other?

I think it would be useful to have students research research. Get them to poke at work that seems frivolous and see if they can imagine what bigger things it might lead to, or if it’s really as dumb as it sounds. And have them track award-winning research back to its humble beginnings, and wonder if it would have seemed as worthwhile then as it does now. I can suggest two good places to start, far apart in prestige but perhaps not so distant in teaching value.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded for outstanding achievement, to people who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The scientific awards are generally given only after the passage of time has shown the importance and rigor of the original research. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to scientists who discovered the viruses that cause cervical cancer and AIDS. The Nobel website has all there is to know about the awards – descriptions of winning research and interviews with the laureates, videos, educational games, news articles, and links.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Ig Noble Prizes, which “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.” This year’s winners include researchers who determined that the fleas on dogs jump higher than the fleas on cats, and an award split between scientists who proved that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and others who showed that it is not. The Ig Nobel Awards fall under the umbrella of the Annals of Improbable Research. Their website too contains descriptions of the winning research, videos, games, and other commentary.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Soup's on -- Miller-Urey experiment

I caught up with an old friend today, my good buddy primordial soup. Primordial soup is a nickname for Earth’s ancient, abiotic oceans, meant to suggest the watery mix of chemicals and sediments in which life somehow began. The phrase became famous back in the 1950s, when biologists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey threw some chemicals in a beaker, zapped them with electric charges, and – it’s alive! Well, actually, it's amino acids – not quite life, but life’s building blocks. The simple but startling Miller-Urey experiments became famous, and soon found a place in every geology and biology textbook as a compelling hypothesis for the origin of life.

I encountered primordial soup decades later in college, and it was love at first hearing. The words put a vivid picture in my mind that still lingers all these years later. The aching loneliness of the empty sky and the silent sea, then a sharp crack of lightning, and in the darkness and the deep, something stirs.

The ingredients and the power of primordial soup have changed over time. Miller used a mixture heavy in methane and ammonia, but some later researchers suggested that the early atmosphere was much richer in carbon dioxide and nitrogen, gases too inert to be jump-started by a little lightning. For a time primordial soup was pushed to the back burner.

But now comes word of a new, improved recipe. Chemist Jeffery Bada recently found some old vials tucked away in a cardboard box, sealed results from one of Miller and Urey’s experimental variations. The scientists had added a jet of steam to the experiment to simulate volcanic activity. When Bada analyzed the 55-year old residue in the vials, he found all of the amino acids produced in earlier experiments, plus 10 more. This work suggests that the composition of the atmosphere as a whole may have been less important than the conditions around volcanoes. Geysers and hot springs on the flanks of active volcanoes receive frequent injections of steam and reactive gases. A lucky lightning strike into a primeval Old Faithful may have been the first link in the chain of life.

The story of primordial soup isn’t just about the origin of life, it’s a story about science. A story about how science never stops, but keeps looking and asking questions, and rummaging around in the dusty cupboards of the world. I’m thrilled to have my primordial soup back, and I wonder if some student out there right now will read those words and feel a stir on the back of her neck just like I did.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Red List

Last week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its annual Red List, a scientific census of the conservation status of plant and animal species. The list is not comprehensive – it covers only 45,000 species, out of the roughly 2 million known and 5 or 10 or 15 million estimated to exist. But it’s a useful snapshot of how the diversity and abundance of life as we know it is changing over time. And it provides yet another terrible, teachable lesson on the harsh realities of biology.

The status of the Fishing Cat of southeast Asia has been changed from Vulnerable to Endangered, because of widespread losses of its preferred wetlands habitat.

The Red List is a natural for online research into conservation issues. Students can use the IUCN website to look into the methodology, evaluate the threat categories, and contemplate the implications of situations such as ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘data deficient.’ They can compare the yearly reports, browse the photo galleries and case studies of mainly the very cutest endangered animals, and compare trends and patterns in terrestrial and marine life. The list is also an obvious jumping off point for further study of conservation, habitat degradation, and the fate of particular species or ecosystems.

Education these days also demands something beyond facts and figures and objective assessments. No lesson is complete without open-ended, free-range discussion questions. They practically write themselves when it comes to the conservation of endangered species and extinction – there are so many ethical, political, and social aspects involved, so much blame to lay, so many hard decisions to debate. These are subjects that students have opinions on, opinions they’ll share without having to be poked at with a sharp stick.

I don’t know about you, but for the most part I’ve found that students think extinction is bad. But cynicism and indifference do pop up too, and I’ve been surprised that they’re a lot more prevalent in students right out of high school than they are in older returning adults. Does early, repeated exposure to Barney make extinction seem less troubling?

Photo by Bob Bennett,