Posts Tagged ‘science’

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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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr 

–“Intensive multitakers are ‘suckers for irrelevancy,’ commented Clifford Nass, the Stanford professor who led the research. ‘Everything distracts them.’” The Shallows, p. 142


People have long felt that creative ideas come to us when we have time to think, optimally in a quiet, natural environment. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explores this idea by digging into the research. He looks at what it means to be constantly hyperlinked to information that is extraneous to the task at hand; what it means to be constantly inundated with tweets, with dings that display incoming emails and chat messages; and how multitasking is different from concentrated thought not only in work outcome but in its effect on the human brain and its growth.

Although the title of this book is apt, I still find it unfortunate because it seems to scream “angry Luddite who can’t accept modern technology!” And this isn’t the case at all. Carr obviously uses computers and the Internet. And he details some of the positive things that Internet availability has done for people in their daily lives—it may help older people keep their minds sharp; gamers have improved visual fields as well as increased speed in shifting visual focus. He also discusses positive changes that using the Internet can make to the human brain, the plasticity of which is astonishing.

And yet. The question. Are we losing something important in human culture, perhaps even the most vital aspects of being human like having compassion and empathy?

Carr begins with the boons that the Internet has given us and specifically discusses Google as a search engine. We can find lots of information about anything at any time and we don’t have to remember it. We will be able to retrieve it again and again. The problem, though, is that the brain grows and changes in response to the way information is accessed. Using the Internet dulls our capacity for concentration and contemplation. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Well-educated folks admit in these pages that they can no longer read extensive works and are irritated by having to stop and read text rather than click on hyperlinked words.

The Internet certainly isn’t the first technology to change the way the brain develops. Carr has interesting discussions of clocks and maps, of the printing press, and how these things created both gain and loss for users. However, a distinction of what is now called “deep reading” is that readers become more attentive, able to “concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book.” Doing this isn’t the natural state of the brain. (If a cave man could have gotten lost in a book, he also could have been eaten by a Saber-tooth tiger. He needed his brain, his awareness, to be constantly jumping around.) But the great advantage of being able to read deeply is that the brain expands and sets off other intellectual paths in the reader—who will be able to make his own associations, draw his own inferences and analogies, and foster his own ideas. In other words, deep reading is deep thinking.

There is plenty of research to back Carr’s claims. Many studies are discussed in the text; in addition there are 30 pages of endnotes and a few pages of suggested further reading. As I hear some people claim that reading fiction is no longer a very important task, I was particularly interested in a study that showed “’readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensations are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” Further studies discussed in The Shallows indicate that the new knowledge isn’t just intellectual. It’s also emotional, giving rise to compassion and empathy as character traits. (OK, if you are a life-long deep reader, you know this intrinsically—but research and evidence are quite handy in discussing it.)

Carr argues that deep reading becomes difficult when the platform changes from a print book to a screen—say in a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. This surprised me, as I often read books on those platforms. The problem is that people click out of the books to see the comments of others readers, etc. (I get so involved in good books that I don’t do that, so maybe I’m going to be OK 😉 ) The studies on this phenomenon make me worry about textbooks, which will all be online soon. I’ve been welcoming the new form of textbooks because they have such cool extras—videos showing a lab experiment or links to art museums, etc. But if students are clicking on the links and videos embedded in the book, they’ll have the same problem that they’ll have on a webpage—the inability to immerse themselves in the deep reading that generates deep thinking. (And then people will say the schools are failing and teachers are getting lazier and lazier. When we don’t understand the cause, it’s always safe to blame the teacher!)

A related problem is how authors will start tailoring their books—the words they use—to get hits on search engines. They’ll be seeking visitors (as opposed to readers?), who in turn will be seeking ‘groupiness’ rather than enlightenment.

Carr moves beyond the deep thinking argument to studies on memory. Put quite simply, readers of hypertext don’t remember very much of what they read. I wonder, again, what this means for our students, who are young enough to have done almost all reading with hypertext. When teachers complain that students don’t remember as well as they used to, it may be more than crankiness that drives that perception. It may be true. Even the way the eye moves on an Internet screen (an F pattern—they don’t actually read the text) is different than reading and is not practice. We can keep making scapegoats of teachers, if it makes us feel better. But it may be that in fifty years, remembering and deep thinking will be specialized activities, perhaps done only by chosen people. Sort of like the YA novel The Giver that is so popular with students, with a twist. Everyone else will be buried in tons of information that is of immediate interest to them, whether it matters or not.

Carr finally takes on artificial intelligence and our incorrect assumption that it is modeled on human intelligence. The brain does not work like a computer; it’s not a simple data storage and retrieval system. Some of the research here—begun after studies on the brains of boxers (who had taken concussive blows to the head) and on post-seizure epileptics—is some of the most interesting stuff in the book because it proves that interruptions of short–term memories keep them from taking hold in long-term memory and that the two types of memory require different biological processes. Long-term memory is responsive to learning; it’s not a discreet data-bit hotel, but keeps processing, in numerous ways, the information it receives. We don’t need to free up space in our brains by storing information on the Internet because the brain doesn’t run out of space. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Building up as store of memories sharpens the brain and makes it easier for us to learn new ideas and skills. It increases intelligence.

And how does the brain make the choice to convert working memory into long-term memory? Yup. Attentiveness. On the other hand, multitasking trains the brain for distractedness. With multitasking, neural pathways that process information quickly will grow in abundance, but pathways that create something new with that information won’t. And this doesn’t stop when you leave the computer because this is the new structure of your brain. We are giving up a lot in order to “mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment.”

Are we sacrificing the ability to read and to think deeply? The research says yes. Will it matter when everyone’s mind works like a computer works, when we use the Internet as a substitute for personal memory, when–following the path of artificial intelligence, we will, ironically, imitate the computer’s ‘brain,’ which was meant to imitate human intelligence? Carr thinks so.

Although The Shallows doesn’t take an alarmist tone, I found it pretty scary. As Carr cleverly put it, “The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.” And if it wasn’t bad enough, I read the epilogue, which is about using artificial intelligence to grade essays. I agree with Carr that software cannot “discern those rare students who break from the conventions of writing not because they’re incompetent but because they have a special spark of brilliance.” I suppose brilliant students will get lousy scores and stop showing their brilliance.

Is there any hope? “A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition.”

So—check out this book. Then, go do a Thoreau, and make your way to the woods.

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