Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mitotic footballs

We're doing the cell division thing this week--today we chatted about mitosis. One of the students asked why biologists used so many difficult words.

I launched into my canned discussion about universal languages, Latin roots, and the very human "us not them" mentality many professionals wrap around their lives--language matters.

I was having one of those flow moments, when I think maybe I have a clue. Those moments are all too brief. This one was briefer than brief.

Next new word? "Mitotic spindle."

No one in this part of the world spins anymore. Cloth comes from the store already cut and sewn and patterned into various forms of clothing that lift, shine, allure, and even occasionally serve utilitarian purposes. (It was 11 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and still some children come in with bare midriffs--the price of fashion.)

Two things dawned on me. The kids had no idea what a spindle was. The kids also had no idea what "mitotic" meant.

The mitotic part was easy--if you're an athlete, you're athletic, if you have a neurosis, you're neurotic. "Mitotic" derives from mitosis. (Don't assume anything when dealing with 15 year olds.)

Spindle was a little tougher--only two kids knew who Rumpelstiltskin was, and I hadn't boned up on him, not anticipating the spindle conversation. (My Rumpelstiltskin reference led to more confusion when a student insisted Rumpelstiltskin was the princess with the really long hair. Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, what's the difference? Had the superintendent walked into the room, I might be looking for my med school diploma tonight.)

The word "chromosome" was coined in the late 1800's. Everyone knew what a spindle was then. A spindle looks like a football. The mitotic spindle looks like a football.

So today we called it the mitotic football. And it made a little bit more sense to a sleepy crew of sophomores. At the end of class, the football was put back on the shelf, and the spindle took its place.

And next year I'm taking the football off the shelf again.

The mitotic spindle was taken by Tim Mitchison at Harvard.


Ben said...

I had a similar experience this year discussing some history of atomic theory. The freshies decided that the "Blueberry Muffin" model made much more sense than J.J. Thomson's "Plum Pudding."

It crossed my mind to make plum pudding in class next time around. But then there's the several hours of stirring and large amounts of alcohol it's steeped in. Oh well. I can easily bake blueberry muffins.

doyle said...

I am going with the blueberry muffin next year--past years I used Thomson's plum pudding, but this year I just gave up.

It's interesting how we hang on to the older "unscientific" words when newer words would work better.

I think I could spend a whole marking period or two on the model of the atom. If you get the history behind the model, the universe becomes both orderly and unimaginable again. I get to play that game in church--it's even neater to play it in real life.