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Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

creation    Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.

The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?

Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.

Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.

In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?

Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.

Interesting  discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.

There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.

High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.

Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?

Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach  stiff

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.”—The opening sentence of Stiff

If Mary Roach weren’t so funny and—well, curious—some of the strange subject matter she chooses for her books might seem like fodder for a sick voyeur. But she is funny—and probably one of the most inquisitive people alive. Her desire to know about things becomes the reader’s desire to know. This is especially true in Stiff. I don’t think I am as spooked by dead bodies as some are, but before I read Stiff, I can’t say I ever thought of them as interesting. Now I do. And I’ve had the chance to think about my own body and its fate once I die.

Dead bodies—cadavers—are very useful to us. Scientists and researchers have always needed them. Through study of  the dead, people have learned that blood circulates and that the heart is the pump that keeps it moving, that the brain is the center of thought. Bodies donated to body farms, where corpses are left out to decay under various conditions, help investigators understand rates of decomposition, which is useful in murder investigations. Bodies or their parts can be used in understanding how land mines injure people. Doctors use “beating-heart’ cadavers in organ transplants. Did you know that corpses were used to test the guillotine?

In the history of the world, humans in several cultures have attributed magical or medical powers to dead bodies or dead body parts, and countless graves have been robbed to provide those parts. (OK, lots of graves were robbed for science as well, and there are some wild tales about that in this book.)

To me, one of the most interesting things that cadavers are used for is in test crashes and weapons testing. Yes, there are those ‘dummies’ for car crashes, but they can’t quite replicate what happens to people. (According to Roach, for every cadaver used to test and develop airbags, 147 lives are saved.) And then, we need to know what happens in airplane accidents, too. Bodies can be used in simulated air crashes. The information learned has helped investigators in deciding if a plane accident was truly an accident due to mechanical failure or the work of terrorists. Bodies can also be used to test bullet-proof vests and other equipment meant to save lives.

Despite her great sense of humor, Roach treats cadavers with respect, including all of the ones she meets in researching this book. Others who work with dead bodies—folks in medical school (you’ll be happy to know that your surgeon practices on dead bodies before s/he tries out new skills on you), researchers, morticians—all appear to have the same respect. Even the people who crash bodies to learn about car and plane accidents have a protocol of respectfulness that both surprised and comforted me.

Although we hate to think about it, we all die. Stiff addresses the (philosophical) problem of what we should do with our dead bodies. This goes far beyond the choices of burial or cremation. There are many opportunities in scientific research. And for those who want to be buried, there are new considerations of having a ‘green’ burial, one that is ecologically sound. Sort of like composting. The same is true of deciding in favor of ‘water reduction’ (or, less euphemistically, ‘tissue digestion’) instead of cremation, another sterile and less-polluting choice.

Crazy as it seems, our dead bodies can be as useful to humankind as anything we do while living. Finding out just how useful is the wild ride that is Stiff.

High school housekeeping: Stiff is an engaging introduction to how research works in real life. I think it’s the kind of book the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read. Putting aside their naïve disdain for fiction, they are right about the need to also read this sort of nonfiction—it will open a new window on reality and may pique your interest in science. All in a book that you can’t put down.

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed  wild
In her prologue, Strayed describes losing her hiking boots—yes, really losing them , knocked over the side of a mountain—in the middle of her quest to hike 1,100 of the 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. So, how much worse can this get? You wonder.
Plenty, and Wild details it all. But even as she suffered heat, cold, dehydration, hunger, pennilessness and a supreme loneliness, Strayed also found many kind people on her path (and a couple of very scary dudes). Her story is about triumph over adversity, about starting over and doing something really, really hard in the hope of proving to herself that she could be something better than what she had been.
“My hike on the Pacific Crest Trail hadn’t begun when I made the snap decision to do it. It had begun before I even imagined it, precisely four years, seven months, and three days before, when I’d stood in a little room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned that my mother was going to die.”
Strayed was particularly close to her mother and her grief over her painful and untimely death from lung cancer appeared boundless. She was something like those hiking boots—she went off an emotional cliff, lost herself to sleeping around, cheating on her husband, to drinking and to heroin. The thing that she had most longed for just before her mother died was to be told she had been the best daughter in the world. Three years later, as she began to sleep around, she felt that she understood why a person would cut herself on purpose. “Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regrets. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again.”
Of course, this doesn’t work. To get off ‘Planet Heroin,’ Strayed had to walk the PCT. “Which, it turns out, is not very much like walking at all. Which in fact, resembles walking less than it does hell.”
But this hell is purifying in the way Strayed hoped for. “I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good.”
It worked. And this is what I love so much about this book. There are ways back to goodness. There are ways out of grief. Not easy ways, but deep, life-altering possibilities.
Many teens tell me how they think they’ve messed up and ruined their lives. Strayed’s story will inspire you to see that life is always about turning around, about second chances, about the do-overs that make us whole.
This is a beautiful, well-told memoir that doesn’t waste words. And a heck of an adventure story. Pick it when your teacher asks you to read an inspiring biography. Or when you feel that you’ve messed up and don’t know how to get back to the wonderful person you once were.

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road  One of the comments you’d never see in a professional book review is “The book is graphic enough to appeal to high school guys.”  I hate to admit it, but this is something I think about when I’m reading. Research shows–and anecdotal evidence at Colony High backs up that research–that high school boys rarely read, almost never when they have the choice.

This summer I read a great book–and I mean great in every sense—a literary masterpiece, a stunning work of fiction, an insightful look into a bleak future, a beautiful rendering of the father-son relationship. And–ta da–a book graphic enough that it will appeal to high school guys.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the story of an unnamed father and son who are making their way to the sea in a post-apocalyptic world. “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” have left the world barren. Animals are dead (or long ago eaten by the few remaining people), plant life is scorched and roads are melted. The air is always gray with ash, as is the snowfall. The sun is blotted out and winter arrives early. All living people are scavengers—and with little left to scavenge, most are cannibals as well.

In a world that is virtually hopeless, it is amazing that McCarthy can wrench the heart of his reader with the love of the father and son. The father has often told the son that they are “the good guys” and while they have to be on a constant alert for others (who might capture and eat them), they would never do such a thing themselves. Though starving and exhausted from their trek, the son reminds the father that the two of them “carry the flame.”  The son always wants to do well, including helping other people. The father knows better and is more wary. Understanding that he is dying, he saves two bullets in his gun so that he can take his son with him.

Some of the situations McCarthy envisions are horrific (people imprison others and eat them limb by limb, cauterizing the amputations) and yet all strike the reader as inevitable in such a world. Too often, I’ve read reviews that describe a new novel as a ‘tour de force.’ After reading the book, I assume that the reviewer was the author’s best friend. The Road is one novel that deserves the praise.

(Another review that I wrote pre-Chaffey but am linking to QR codes. Originally posted in 2007.)

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life of pi   Note: Ms. Waddle wrote this for Colony Library Lady back in 2007. Now that the book has been made into a movie, she thought Chaffey students might be interested in checking it out!

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Here’s another story that begins in India, but marches to a very different drummer. The main character, ‘Pi’ Patel is named after a swimming pool in Paris. His father, a zoo keeper, decides to immigrate to Canada, and sells the animals. Most of these stay in India, but a few are destined to cross the ocean and live in distant zoos. During the Pacific crossing, the ship capsizes and Pi is thrown overboard into a 26-foot-long lifeboat. Though his family all die, Pi finds himself floating with Richard Parker—a 450 pound Bengali tiger from his father’s zoo—as well as a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. The most rudimentary knowledge of the animal kingdom will tell you which of the animals survives. But Pi tells the reader that this is a story with a happy ending, so the reader wonders–how will Pi survive with Richard Parker on board?

Pi does survive with the tiger—for 227 days. And, yes, the journey is an epic one. Pi uses all his knowledge of the animal kingdom as he realizes that the tiger’s survival is necessary to his own. He expounds on faith and his understanding of Christianity and Islam as well as his native Hinduism. He makes an argument for the environmental value of zoos. Both his ill-fated meeting with another castaway and his salvation on a mystical island may be unbelievable, but who cares? The story is so weird and intriguing on so many levels, that the reader will follow Pi’s faith in the universe anywhere it takes him.

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Girls Don’t Fly by Kristen Chandler 

Family matters, but Myra’s—an older, pregnant sister, four younger rambunctious brothers, and a pair of overworked parents—is so needy that she appears to be on track for martyr of the year. The problem with that is that Myra isn’t taking care of herself or her own dreams while she goes to school, works at a lousy job, baby-sits all four brothers, makes dinners, and watches over her depressed sister who is ill with pregnancy complications. If anyone has ever known that she’s stuck, Myra is that girl.

Adding to Myra’s misery is that her Prince Charming boyfriend, Erik, has dumped her for another girl. She feels hopeless until her biology teacher announces a competition through which two students will win grants to go to the Galapagos Islands to study for two months. The problem is that the winners must each provide one thousand dollars of their own money toward the trip. Myra is determined to earn the money and take the Saturday classes to prepare to write her proposal. But Erik, who is also competing for the prize, thinks that Myra isn’t smart enough to compete. His parents are affluent, and he doesn’t have to worry about the money to apply. He happily sabotages Myra at any chance he gets.

Myra becomes interested in the flightless cormorant (a bird known only to the Galapagos). She sees herself as a sort of flightless bird, someone unable to escape her small Utah community to learn about the larger world. But her Saturday teacher, graduate student Pete Tree, is helping her understand just how remarkable she is. Myra begins to transform her study of birds and the Galapagos into fairytale format (complete with pirates and a scullery maid) for her younger brothers’ bedtime stories.

Anyone interested in the environment or in the life sciences will love this quick novel, but—remarkably—the reader doesn’t have to know anything about the Galapagos or have background in science to enjoy this book. The information is so perfectly woven into the story that just becomes part of Myra’s life and never comes off as didactic, as if the author’s trying to make this into a science lesson. It appeals to anyone who has to sacrifice for family and yet still yearns for dreams of his or her own. It also does a great job of looking at romantic relationships, the pain and heartache of break ups, the aching desire to get back together, and the need to move beyond the pain to recognize the more important center of a person’s life—his or her own creative and intellectual potential.

Girls Don’t Fly is a quick read with wide appeal. I recommend it to all teens.

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Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

That Used to Be Us was recommended to the COHS staff by the principal.  Since I’m summarizing it anyway, I thought some CHS teachers might be interested in it and what it says about steps we should take for the future.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V: Rediscovering America

The authors reiterate that they are “frustrated optimists” who are inspired by “the number of people and small groups who are summoning themselves with their own trumpets.”

Good Signs

Sacrifice—soldiers who are willing to re-deploy to wars in the Middle East. “Never have so many asked so much of so few—and never have those few delivered so much for so many and asked so little in return.” (Again, a good book on what that sacrifice is like is War by Sebastian Junger.)

Diversity—example of the US military and particularly the Navy. “It’s amazing how you guys can be so many religions, ethnic groups, and still make this thing work, and be the best in the world.” (Authors paraphrasing an Iraqi coast guard officer)

Teach for America—“Kopp said that of all the TFA grads, about one-third stay on as teachers. . . . Not all education experts support the program, because it puts the least experienced teachers in the most challenging classrooms. It will take more time to determine how much of a difference TFA teachers are making in the lives of children . . .”

Inventors—Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, has invented processes fro separating plastic form pile sof junked computers, etc. and recycling it, using less than 10% of the energy used in making new plastic. (However, he uses plastics from China and the EU because America doesn’t have laws that require manufactures to foot the bill for recycling. According to the authors, manufacturers don’t mind these laws because recyclers compete for the junk.)

Companies that stick it out with American manufacturing and workers. “The role of the CEO now is not to dictate but to empower.” (Robert Stevenson, whose company is the oldest manufacturer in continuous operation in Buffalo, New York.) “Get your people working toward a common goal. . . .I set the goal and show the road and say, ‘How you drive on that is up to you.’”

Last thoughts:

America needs a comprehensive 21st century job strategy. We need to address the “growing mismatch between the needs of the employers and the skills American workers get in school and in the job market.” With this in mind, it’s time to begin again to finance start up companies. (Government involvement, regulations, standards are necessary, but must be clear and simple.)

In the section entitled “Shock Therapy,” the authors say that America needs to understand that it is “’an anchor to the floating world.’ Weaken that anchor and the world will drift in directions we cannot foresee and probably will not like. A declining America will be bad for business—all business, including [that of every country in the world].”

To succeed in a way that will keep the world afloat, America needs a politics of the “radical center.” Moderates are not lukewarm–they are reasonable, and they compromise and get things done. A way of mandating change as a moderate is to have a third party candidate in national elections. Though the candidate won’t be elected, s/he will serve to moderate the opposite ends of the spectrum and influence national policy. S/he will affect the agenda of the two major parties.

The authors claim that voting for a third party candidate is not ‘throwing away’ a vote, and give the (unfortunate) example of George Wallace, but also of Ross Perot, and of the Progressives and Teddy Roosevelt. (I don’t entirely agree that a third party vote isn’t thrown away. I think of the example of Ralph Nader—not in this book. Whether you are a Democrat or not, you’d probably agree that folks who voted for Nader in the Bush v. Gore contest, ended up throwing their votes away by assuring the election of someone whose priorities were far from their own.)

The candidate that America should elect is the one who will specify which taxes s/he will raise and which programs s/he will cut, since both must happen.

Calling America exceptional doesn’t make it so and doesn’t help us. Exceptionalism isn’t a permanent state. We have to make sacrifices and get back on track

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