Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What's life?

We open the year talking about what science means, then roll into the definition of life.

This is my third year, which means I'm up for tenure, so advertising this might not be in my best interests, but I am not sure what the words "science" or "life" mean.

High school texts will list 6 or 7 characteristics of anything alive:
  • composed of one or more cells (highly organized)
  • can reproduce
  • change over time (evolve)
  • respond to stimuli (boo!)
  • maintain homeostasis (well, try to anyway--we all die eventually)
  • need energy/metabolism (gobble gobble)
  • growth and development
I am the only one in the department that thinks viruses should be considered alive, but they do fail the "composed of one or more cells" part. If you want to go by high school textbooks, well, I have no argument.

Tells you a thing about high school texts.

Using that kind of thinking, though, millions of Americans are not alive since they are infertile.

I think most people would consider sperm or eggs alive, though each without the other cannot reproduce either.

I'm sure it unnerves a few kids to start the year unclear what even constitutes life, but a big part of science is recognizing its limits.

If you accept that sperm and eggs are alive, then life does not start at conception. It just is.

If you accept the cell theory, then life, for whatever reason, started happening, and all life since then goes back to some primordial event leading to the first cell.

(Seems to me if the conditions were right for life to start at some arbitrary "here", then little reason to suppose it didn't start at some arbitrary "there" as well.)

These kinds of discussion in the classroom can be dangerous to one's teaching career, but if you're truly interested in defining life, sooner or later a wise child is going to ask the impertinent question.

Until a wise child does, I do not know how I will answer it. I hope I do not just punt.

Last year I spent a few moments in class discussing alive, dead, and non-living (in the sense of never alive). I facetiously argued that something is alive if it can eventually be dead, but it was 1st period (which starts at 7:45 AM), and tangents like this are (relatively) safe when most of the adolescent world is still fighting off the delta waves of sleep.

I could have brought it up in 4th period, but my frontal lobe kicked in, and I like my job. So I didn't.

This year I will.

Fire has a lot of characteristics of life. It doesn't have cells, true, and development is arguable, but I had fun when I asked the class to convince me fire is not alive.

The danger in these kinds of discussions is that someone goes home and complains that their idiot science teacher thinks fire is alive. (I like to play with fire.)

Still, any discussion at home about science that presents the discipline as something more than a recitation of facts makes me smile.

We use the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston text Modern Biology in CP science here in Bloomfield. It's nice and thick with lovely pictures, and it's not bad.

On page 13 (oooh, unlucky number), it talks about science as a process. In two paragraphs.

Two freakin' paragraphs.

Oh, it goes on to spend a few pages about the scientific method (and more on that in a future post), but science as process warrants just two paragraphs. About 150 words.

In those "about 150 words" it covers two major principles of faith in science. It also manages to throw in a Greek myth about Zeus and lightning.

The textbook is over 1100 pages long.

It spends about 2 inches of space on the faith in science.

Faith is a funny word--it can get you kilt in public education.

Kudos to Holt for at least mentioning the faith in science. The editors did not, of course, use the word "faith"--you need to sell these books in Texas, after all.

Here are the lines:
When trying to solve a puzzle from nature, all scientists...accept that there is a natural cause to solve that puzzle.

A second principle of science is uniformity. Uniformity is the idea that the fundamental laws of nature operate the same way at all places at all times.
"Natural" is a two dollar word. Really. We need to spend time I class talking about what it means.

Uniformity requires faith. Not belief--if we ever find that it's not true, scientists will drop the concept like a hot potato. But it's truly unprovable.

Science is a philosophy. Even "hard" science.

Some kids will scribble in their notebooks: "" with no more thought than I gave the mosquito that tried to suck my blood today, before I severely reduced its chances of reproduction.

Others will text their friends, electronically rolling their eyes at a madman ranting about life.

But one or two (or maybe more) will perk up. They have in the past.

I have faith in uniformity. I know a few will perk up this September as well.

All the pictures are from the National Archives--EXCEPT the sperm and egg (Wikipedia Commons) and the lightning (C. Clark, NOAA'S National Severe Storms Laboratory)--I'd be much obliged if some techo-savvy reader could show me how to get captions under photos without disrupting the text flow.


Rebecca Rachmany said...

As a science teacher, you should know the mosquito was female.

doyle said...

"Should" is an interesting choice of words.

Here in New Jersey, even toddlers know the habits of skeeters.

A 3 year old child sits on Grandma's lap, eating her homemade blueberry ice cream, and listens to tales of legendary mosquitoes so big they carried away houses.

And as the child scritches at another growing welt, the grandmother says, "It's only the 'girl' skeeters that bite."

The child rolls her eyes, she's heard it a million times....

"Yes, grammaw, I know..."

At any rate, there's already enough problems with sexual identity bio-politics in this neck of the globe.

(Only the 'girl' honey bees sting, only the 'girl' mosquitoes bite, 'girl' praying mantises eat their 'husbands'.)

I'm feeling silly this morning, true--but I prefer "its" to "her" in that line, even if it suggests (to some) that I am ignorant of the sexually differentiated feeding habits of the mosquito.

Rebecca Rachmany said...

In this part of the world, it isn't possible to refer even to a chair without associating a gender to it (leading to a somewhat disappointing translation of "The Giving Tree"). Second-person pronouns and verbs have gender, such that when you speak to someone on the phone, the person next to you knows whether you are speaking to a male or female.

Gender sensitivity is a cultural difference that comes not only with norms but with grammatical rules. For example, you cannot say in Hebrew "What a lovely baby!" without having associated a sex to the baby. If you guess wrong, you will be corrected by the parent, who will be particularly offended if you guess female but it is male.

The obsessive politics that Americans associate with sex-labeling is not only bizarre to the rest of the world because it is, in fact, bizarre; but also because it is not even debatable in other languages.

doyle said...

Well, this is America--obsessing is what we do, and in a culture that prides itself on belief in equality while acting otherwise, we can, indeed, get a bit over our heads in gender politics.

Attaching gender to neutral (not even neutered) objects, even if inherent in language, strikes me as bizarre.

I wasted hours in high school French class trying to logically decipher why, say, a table is feminine and the floor is masculine. (And yes, I, a good American, split my infinitives.)

That I attempted to approach any language as a rational system defies sense. My time would have been better spent just memorizing lists instead of fighting them.

A question, and not a facetious one--do you think that the assignment of gender to every conceivable noun changes the sense of gender in language to the point it does not really matter?

(I'm not asking the question well--but I wonder if the "its" versus "her" assignment to a biting mosquito resonates the same way in different cultures.)

((Shoot, I am now descending into language worthy of a bureaucrat in Babel--I may need to go reboot my brain.))

Rebecca Rachmany said...

Does the assignment of gender to everything change the sense of gender in language so it does not matter?

It depends on what you mean by "doesn't matter". On the one hand, when speaking, you don't really think of a door as having female attributes while a window has male ones. You just talk. In that sense, sex doesn't matter.

If you mean, "Does it lead to a more egalitarian society?", the answer is not at all. Here, again, there are some interesting assumptions in the politically-correct crowd regarding what you can't say about the differences between men and women.

If you were to say, women bite but men don't, you would get in a lot of trouble, even if it turned out that, as with mosquitoes, the behavior of men and women is different in different situations.

Many societies accept as fact that women and men are different. That doesn't mean that women can't pursue careers or that men can't be full-time parents. It just means that in most societies it is considered acceptable to point out differences between men and women. In that context,

I think language has no influence over how sexist a society is, and actually leaves more openings for inequality. If you accept difference, you can accept inequality.

While we know on an intellectual level you can accept difference without accepting inequality, in fact, that is a rare situation. I believe that the confusion between "different" and "unequal" is why so much of the politically-correct movement thinks you shouldn't talk about the difference.

doyle said...

I think language has no influence over how sexist a society is, and actually leaves more openings for inequality.

I'm not sure if language as a whole has much of an effect (but give me a few months to dwell on that), but the words we choose to string together to convey (or attempt to, anyway) ideas do carry weight.

I believe that the confusion between "different" and "unequal" is why so much of the politically-correct movement thinks you shouldn't talk about the difference.

Excellent point. Compounding the problem is that many who pride themselves on being politically incorrect fail to see the distinction. Of course, basking in one's ignorance is practically an Olympic sport in these parts.

At the risk of overstaying my welcome, I'd like to toss one more language question, one you mostly answered already:

Does the gender assigned to a noun have any influence at all in how you view the object?

Rebecca Rachmany said...

Does the gender assigned to a noun have any influence at all in how you view the object?

Usually not. There are some individual usages that are strange, like when you see a cat and don't know its gender, you call it a female cat, but you don't do that for any other animal. I think calling cats female does slightly change the perception of what you are seeing. English has its exceptions, too. If you call a ship "she" rather than it, the meaning of what you have said is subtly different.