Friday, August 7, 2009

"Now, I am become death...."

This morning I saw a wasp dragging paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.Photo by Bruce Holderbaum

I knew this. I did not intervene.

Leslie and I kayaked again today, which is what we do.

While drifting past the Harborview, a nice bar sitting on the Cape May harbor (which I guess you've already figured), I found a piling with several purple sea urchins on it. Why they picked this piling, I do not know. It's been a couple of years since I've seen purple sea urchins around.

A long, long time ago, when my hair was still black, a professor explained to me that I was to inject a sea urchin with a hormone, to induce the urchin to lay eggs. I did.

I was then instructed to split the dividing embryo, which I more or less did, but with much less enthusiasm.

I grew up with a microscope and an imagination. Splitting the developing embryo under the scope, willfully, in order to observe something that had a predictable outcome, knotted my stomach.

I knew nothing about the GI nervous system when I was 18, but I knew enough to trust it.

I quit the course.

I learned a lot about botany as a result.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

-J. Robert Oppenheimer..

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He, like me, is no spring chicken, and he, like me, occasionally changes his mind on topics. He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

Now, before I completely embarrass myself, let me state right out front that I am no Oppenheimer. Few of us are.

Still, back in 1977, a few people had enough faith in me that I got a lot of strangers' money to attend the University of Michigan. The biology department was rockin' then and may well be now, I don't know, I don't pay much attention to these things.

Still, I was a hotshot. Until the sea urchin. Looking at Oppenheimer in this video, I am glad that I got out of the hot edge of biochemstry. He made a mistake, and suffered because he realized that he made a mistake.

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum and can be found here--used with permission.


Ms. P. said...

I understand what you mean about the sea urchin. In the past, we were supposed to have our students (3rd graders)conduct experiments on snails and crayfish. I refused to have my class participate and we met the state objectives in other ways. I would not have my kids put the crayfish in a situation where they had to fight for housing or have my kids tape metal washers to a string attached to the snail shell to see how much weight it could pull (they were to continue to add washers until the snails could no longer move). What were they really going to learn from that??

doyle said...

Dear Ms. P,

It amazes me still how little regard we have both for life and for the perception children have of life.

The kids weigh the washers, create neat tables, compare results, and what have they learned about snails? (They do learn, though, that "low" life does not deserve respect.)

This morning Leslie and I just sat around the garden, watching. Just watching. Then watching some more.

If you want to know about snails, just watch them. Unless, of course, the state plans on harnessing the superpowers of snails for the better good.

momomom said...

I grow mountain mint because it attracts the parasitic wasps that lay eggs in the grubs of Japenese beatles. I move swallowtail butterfly larvae from the top of the fennel to the bottom to help them avoid parasitic wasps. We all have our biases.

nashworld said...

Doyle- this one got to me in several ways.

For one, please accept this link to a really crappy little video in trade for the beautiful wasp image:
Erin and I shot this little beauty with a rather lame little camera that easily slips inside the top lid of my tackle box.

As a kid I remember cicada killers crashing out of the sixty foot limbs of the silver maple in our front yard. They make quite a ruckus when trying to wrestle such a massive (by modern Earth standards) insect into submission. These are thumb-sized buzzers! I'll never forget the day that I read about the fact that the male doesn't sting, and the female can only rarely be provoked into doing so.

And just to run this comment into some pretty strangely intertwined territory... I'll never forget the day that my little pre-med butt had to pith a frog just to tap on the sciatic nerve in order to see..... no... wait for it............. the leg as it twitched.

Sean soon enrolled in plant physiology, plant morphology, etc... and signed on with a professor to investigate the fate of remaining virgin Loess Hills prairie stands when disturbed by typical "conservation" methods. I spent six years working that investigation to publication. To this day I remain quite intimate with the taxonomy and ecology of some of the most rugged characters to call the Kingdom Plantae "home."

As for the video of Mr. Oppenheimer... that item gives me even more cause to sigh than the two previous. I have read those words many times before, but had never seen that particular clip of video. How many people today could even put that into any sort of proper perspective?

No, really... how many people in our general public could extract even the slightest bit of background knowledge after watching that little clip? Think about what that says. Think about what that says about our system of schooling where science and history, or science and the arts, or really... just about everything is analytically extracted ala Western ideals.

Putting up so many walls and compartmentalizing the human experience is deleterious to the survival of our species... if not our soul. Of course, this is all my opinion.

And by the way, I'm waiting for the day where I stop finding specific, concrete reasons to connect to your writing. Or wait... no, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Thanks for not writing a book. Thanks for doling out ideas day by day in this blog. I forget a certain amount of what is presented in a book. Big chunks of text sometimes dilute meaning.

I take in delight in seeing what will next come out of the three pounds of electrified gray slush you call your brain.

Thanks again.

nashworld said...

@momomom - my three foot clump of mountain mint is currently a buzzing metropolis of wasps, etc.

I have thought many times that I should film what goes on there. Hmmm... after this post tonight, I may just do that tomorrow in the 102 degree Missouri air.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Michael

I agree with what you say about having pause for thought and perhaps not teaching anything at all if we agreed with Truman. But of course, as you alluded, there's more to it all than Science.

Early this century my oldest daughter sent me a Sting CD. On it was the track Russians - the words by Sting.

It is stately, sinister and moving. It moved me to tears the first times I listened to it.

I wanted to hug my children and I did - for a long time.

Thanks for the link.

Catchya later

doyle said...

Dear momomom,

My bias is, as you know, my tomato plants-still, it haunts me when I see a horn worm covered with cocoons of wasp larvae that have eaten their way through the critter (and the critter is still alive).

I did not intervene yesterday for a couple of reasons, but if I had, the wasp would have found another cricket. I'd make a lousy Master of the Universe.

Dear Sean,

Your "lame little camera" did a fine job capturing something most of us never see. (Given the stunning quality of your photos, though, I can understand why you might preface the video, but isn't it amazing what lame little cameras can capture instantly? That "crappy little video" would have made Marlin Perkins drool back in the 1960's.)

I would like to hear more about the research on Loess Hills prairie stands and conservation--I'm a sucker for stories about hubris. (I'm going to Google this as soon as I finish this.)

Leslie is just finishing a novel, which speaks to her discipline, her persistence, and her gifted writing ability. Me, I can only sustain a thought long enough to dash it down, which I occasionally do, before some other shiny object catches my eye. The only books coming from under this roof will have Leslie's name on it.

I wonder how many of us were weeded out of certain branches of science because we were affected by the preliminary, I daresay ritualistic, routines: pithing frogs, slamming rats heads on counter-tops, injecting this or that to see exactly what we knew was going to happen anyway.

(Who knows, maybe the two of us would have collaborated on the virus that ate the world.)

BTW, if you ever plan to write a book and want a wild-eyed wild-haired collaborator with a HUGE ritalin deficiency, I'm your man.

Dear Ken,

Thanks for prompting the post, and thanks for yet another link that provokes thought. The Sting video is beautiful, the comments that follow telling.