Monday, August 23, 2010

Death in a classroom

Is part of a public education reminding a child of her mortality?
And if so, would the task fall upon the biology teacher?

It's not a trivial matter. For all the posturing by folks at the national level about our record college enrollment rates, almost a third of graduating high school senior do not go. Many of those that do go are going to juice up their resumes more than their minds.

Would teaching mortality produce a more thoughtful citizenry?


All of this, whatever this this is, cannot last for any individual. The oldest known bacteria survived 250 million years, the oldest plant a mere 43,000 years. We tend to think of ourselves as special, a gift (or curse) of our consciousness.

The oldest animal? Maybe the clam--a quahog made it for 405 years. Alas, it was killed by the same scientists who marked its age.

Oldest conscious animal?

A 211 year old bowhead whale leads the list, roaming this Earth since John Adams was President, finally felled by an Inuit.

And good westerners that we are, we oooh and awwww at the record, imagining a life triple life span we have, again forgetting that we truly only live in moments.

How many Saturdays do you have left in a lifetime?

Would folks behave differently if they accepted mortality, accepted limits? Would we be braver? Would we spend hours inside manipulating artificial universes? Would we accept the culture we have?

We are all, in a sense, immortal, or at least as immortal as life on Earth. We all share ancestors. We all come from single celled organisms that continues the spark of life for billions of years, long enough for consciousness to develop.

Or maybe consciousness has been around much longer than we know. Bacteria talk to each other.

Dying, I suspect, is a big deal. It doesn't require a whole lot of practice, and just about every one of us will manage to accomplish it whether or not we have graduate degrees, but still, for each of us, it's the end of a universe (at least among the empiricists).

To be fair, I'm a bit warped. I grew up Oirish Catholic, I practiced medicine in the inner city when poor kids were doing their best to die from AIDS before the middle class even heard of it, and I've lost enough people to accept that maybe, just maybe, this death thing is permanent.


We relegate death to religion, and otherwise make it taboo. But we all face it.

Biology is literally the study of life--and life is defined by death, the ultimate limit for those of us who pretend to be conscious. A culture that recognizes limits has a chance to be sustainable.

A chance.

Just a chance. Which is more than we have now.....

The skull is from wikipedia, credited to Bernard Bill5
I've watched a lot of people die, most of them young--you will, too.

Ain't Bonnie Bassler wonderful?


John Spencer said...

I covered cell division today. I say "covered," because I have a hunch that what I offered merely covered what they already knew or wanted to know.

I stopped in mid-sentence and said, "I don't really understand cells, guys. Come up with some questions and then find me both an internet and real-life way you can find your answer."

It's a cop-out, I suppose, but I seriously don't understand the cell process. And the book only made it more confusing.

I'm re-reading their list of questions about cell division and I catch this one:

"If cells are always changing, do we have any original cells from when we were born and if we don't, then how can we really define the beginning of life or death?"

And then this one:

"Do viruses have cells? Are viruses living things?"

And then this one:

"Can you see a cell divide in action? I don't mean on video or nothing. I mean in person? Is that possible?"

Not going to find that in a textbook.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Great start!

Cell division stages are a bit arbitrary, as you know (but the kids may not). The steps are mostly defined by dissolution and re-formation of the nuclear membrane and the coiling and movement of chromosomes, kids around the country memorize this for no particular reason.

The questions posed by the kids are GREAT!

"If cells are always changing, do we have any original cells from when we were born and if we don't, then how can we really define the beginning of life or death?"

We do, in the heart, brain, and eye lens, but the question is one of my favorite all-time questions.

When you get doen to it, the life spark or coil or whatever you want to call it, goes back billions of years for every one of us.

"Do viruses have cells? Are viruses living things?"

Viruses are not made up of cells--they are much smaller, and infect cells to let the cells do the work for them. Most biology teachers will say viruses are not alive, based on common characteristics of life. I happen to think they are a form of life and that are definition of alive needs a little tweaking, but I'm in a very small minority.

"Can you see a cell divide in action? I don't mean on video or nothing. I mean in person? Is that possible?"

Yep--takes some time, but why not?

This is science, my friend. Keep up the great work.

monika hardy said...

wow guys... glad i landed here. cool jets of a lesson. thanks.

Kelly said...

Thank you, again, Doyle and John.

Kelly said...

One more: John - what you did wasn't a 'cop out' - that was excellent teaching.