Sunday, May 23, 2010

Craig Venter: Cautionary Tale Two

I feel like Chicken Little here--

If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive. If it turns out not to be … useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella, Vatican’s top bioethics official

Craig Venter has led a mythological life. If DNA is the soul of life, he has become a god. He has created a synthetic DNA molecule, and successfully replaced the original genome of a bacterium. It reproduced. It's still reproducing. Dr. Venter holds the keys to the Kingdom.

Has the Vatican forgotten the story of the Tree of Knowledge? Or is Msgr. Fisichella just a very trusting cleric?


While Venter has not created a cell from scratch, his artificial genome did, once placed inside a bacterium, direct the manufacture of a completely new cell. Manipulate the genome, manipulate

Our science curriculum, increasingly influenced by businesses and national committees, does little to instill joy in schooling. Venter's latest venture will lead to further calls to cram biotechnological jargon into the skulls of high school sophomores to try to make up for the amazingly uncritical skills of their parent's generation.

I teach science, not ethics, but here's a letter I need to write:

Dear His Holiness, the Pope,

I realize you are busy, and that the Church still has some fixing to do despite apologizing to Galileo in 1992, but my hands are tied.

I am a science teacher, a government employee charged with teaching technology in the classroom. Dr. Venter just pushed hubris to a new level and the best response the Vatican can come up with is meh?


This is a big deal. You are The Church, we need a better response than let's wait and see. The story of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis is an old one, older than Christianity, older than Judaism. Its lesson was true for the Sumerians as it is true for us now.

We live in a culture where taboo is taboo.

Maybe a peek at what others are saying will get the folks in Vatican City back in the muck of life.

This experiment will certainly reconfigure the ethical imagination.
Paul Rabinow
Anthropologist, UC Berkeley
Maybe instead of reconfiguring our ethical imagination to fit our needs, we reconfigure our needs to fit our limited ethical imagination.

We didn't get any smarter, just more powerful.

Craig Venter: Cautionary Tale One

Chemistry still struck particular fear in my heart. The subject was crucial for a career in medicine, and yet high school had left me allergic even to the thought of grappling with the world of atoms and molecules.

Craig Venter almost ended his life by swimming out to sea off the coast of Viet Nam. He was a medic during the Tet offensive, when the Viet Cong and the NVA pushed over 80,000 soldiers south. He lost many lives, and chose to end his own.

A shark circling around him, like Jonah's great fish,changed his mind and he swam through miles of dark water back to the bloody shores of Nam.

Three decades later he would be instrumental in developing the human genome. This week Science announced that Venter has successfully placed an artificially made DNA molecule into an organism, and it replicated. If DNA is the soul of life, Venter is now God.

While I am a Luddite who fears powerful folks sashaying with hubris, I cannot help but wonder:
Which came closer to preventing Dr. Venter from venturing this far?

A near suicidal act to wash away the blood of hundreds of men he could not save? Or was it a high school science class that nearly killed an innate love of untangling the unknown?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Our horseshoe crab trip

What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?

from Why regret?
Galway Kinnell

Yesterday we took over 160 high school students to Sandy Hook to see horseshoe crabs.
A few had never seen the ocean before.
A few dared let a fiddler crab tickle their palms.
A few touched a live striped bass, a yard long and just pulled from the ocean.
A few saw an osprey glide of the bay.
A few held comb jellies in a sea water puddle in their cupped hands.
One lost his flip flop to the muck.

I have no idea how much "biology" my lambs learn in the classroom. I suppose they learn as much as anyone else required to sit for the New Jersey EOC Biology Exam, and after 10 years of mandatory schooling, they're pretty good at taking tests about things they do not get (as no one does) to please folks they never met (as we all do).

I have no idea how to test what a child learns as his foot gets caught in the muck, a gray cloud now hiding his footprint, the sweet smell of life and death mingling in mud.

I do know this. The children were as alive as I have ever seen them. I suspect that many of them will carry vivid moments tucked between their amygdalas and their cortical gyri.

We are trained to keep the mulch and the muck hidden from the children, the classroom is safer (and much easier) that way. It was fun to teach real biology life for a day.

I bet even Arne might get it if he spent some time mucking around....

Yep, same photo--I love it. Look at the twists and turns, decisions made
by a chilled tiny horseshoe crab on a late February morning.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Planting time

May light.
May life.

This morning I brushed my hair, as I do every morning--on the brush was the usual mix of my hair and Leslie's. We have been together a long time.

When I pull the roots of a live plant, there's is a resilience, a resistance. Dead roots rip like paper.

The hair on our brush feels more like paper these days--gray paper. Science is about what we can know. Getting older is about recognizing what we cannot know.

I planted today, and a wizened robin watched me as I dug holes for tomatoes and basil. The robin feasted on the worms I shoved to the surface. The pale blue eggs in its nest are now insatiable mouths, begging to be fed. The worm dies so the babies may live.

I saw two gulls peck at a freshly dead horseshoe crab today, less than an hour ago. She was huge, perhaps a couple of decades old. She had lain millions of eggs in her lifetime, and now she's dead.

I saw an angler pull up a horseshoe crab today, less than two hours ago. He spoke, I think, Russian, and a little English. His daughter splashed in the bay as he untangled the horseshoe crab in his line.

"OK eat?"
Alas, no--tastes muddy....

I doubt he understood my words, but he knew my tone. I returned the creature to the bay, but not before I showed his daughter it could not hurt me, nor her.

Tonight we will eat the flesh of fluke, caught last year. The last thing it tasted was a killie fish, dying on a hook.

We will eat last year's basil, now pesto, grown in soil fed by the compost.

We keep eating and living and loving, but our hair keeps graying, becoming more brittle, as we wander to our eventual end. All of us. So others may live.

How do you teach biology and remain silent?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

National Lab Rat Day

We all have a vested interest in advancing our country’s proficiency in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math as a means to driving innovation and jobs — which are key to fueling our economic growth and global competitiveness.
Steve Ballmer
CEO, Microsoft

Yesterday was National Lab Day--major corporations, foundations, politicians, and business folks got together to fuel a national PR project to push technology under the guise of science. Again.

Technology serves the self, science is another beast altogether.

We teach mostly technology in high school--it's what the corporations want, it's what the Feds want, it's what parents want. Get edumacated, get a degree, get a career, get fed, get laid, maybe have kids, and eventually get dead. I'm not saying that's a bad plan, at least not publicly, but it does require limited vision. Thankfully, we live in a culture that's designed to provide the blinders.

Science, unlike technology, serves no one. It is selfless. Peek beyond the hoopla of equations and models and jargon and the floor falls out of the universe.

Or rather, the universe, it seems, has no floor.

If I could teach this to 15 year old brains, bad things would happen. Fortunately, their brains are not mature enough to grasp this, and I'm not half the teacher needed to teach this. Even with tenure, I'm not sure my career could survive a class of children grasping how tenuous reality is.

Pick up an object you know, one that gives you comfort, maybe an old shell. It feels solid, has some heft, it's real.

Yet it's mostly empty space.
Yet is is tugged by every other object that exists in the universe.
Yet its elements were fused in the vast gravitational depths of some unknown star.
And maybe most stunning, the oyster was once alive, a sentient creature, and no longer is.

I do not teach religion in class, I teach science. You get to the edges of it, though, and words fall apart. When words fall apart, walls, which are mostly space anyway, fall apart as well.

If a child is locked in a human universe, culturally bound to the myths that will help her become the successful careerist she's been taught to want, grasping even basic physics may ruin her as surely as mainlining heroin.

Thankfully, a child can fly through school "knowing" all kinds of equations without truly understanding their implications. We keep science safe.

Steve Ballmer wants your kid's brain wrapped in gauze. I want your kid's brain so open to possibilities that it oozes all over the universe. I admit his version is more likely to lead to financial success.

But I bet my version is happier.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ring of Fire

Something happened about 14 billion years ago, or so our version of the story goes. Something happened, maybe from nothing, and here we are now. Someone much like me will likely be here long after I die.

That is the heart of the story. Entropy drives the drama.

I am too wrapped up in life to get hung up in existentialism--a quick peek at a patch of ground teeming with critters reminds me that rejecting anything human does not end the universe.

So while I keep trying to bring my lambs back home to the bigger story that drives science, I often fail when navigating through membranes and enzymes and all kinds of minutiae I am paid to impart.

Johnny Cash knew biology. Willie Nelson still does, and he lives it--you can fill up your truck with BioWillie Fuel.

We love for a lot of reasons, and we do not talk of love in biology for far fewer reasons, but when you get down to it, the business of spilling ourselves into others involves respiration and reproduction. Love is indeed the essence of evolution.

And all along the way, oxygen ultimately rips electrons from sweet sugar, reducing life back to water and carbon dioxide and heat, the same theme in Shakespeare's sonnets and in lurid dime novels. We're all driven by a slow form of fire.

Just ask anyone paying attention.

For the Social Distortion version, take a peek here.

My wife once walked on window ledges, I once pushed motorcycles to their limits.
We fell in love, survived anyway, and now we tell stories.

Mary Oliver wrote "Oxygen," a poem, one of my favorites.
I originally saw it in the New Yorker--you can find it here now.
(Thank you, lucychili!)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Androcles and the green crab

My son and I went to Sandy Hook today to scout for our multi-class horseshoe crab trip scheduled later this month. We solved the more pressing issues (a Park Ranger will open the latrines, we'll bring the toilet paper), then meandered around the park.

Today a congregation's worth of fiddler crabs appeared to synchronously wave their claws at my son as he stared at them from a small wooden bridge, an osprey eyed us from her nest, and I felt a hermit crab tickle my hand as it made its escape. I have gone to the shore's edge thousands of times, and every time I see something unexpected.

Today's story, though, is not mine--it belongs to a U.S. Park Ranger, and he trusted me enough to share it with me.

The Sandy Hook Park Rangers regularly schedule walks along the beach. At this particular walk, only one person showed up, a woman in heels carrying a large black purse. One person is enough for a tour, so the two made their way to the shore's edge.

While the blue claw crab gets all the glory around here, the green crab occasionally shows its snippy smaller self around here. The few times I have found one, it was quick to scurry away, though one did nip me pretty good when I tried to grab it.

As the Ranger and his tourist stood by the water's edge, a green crab crept out of the bay, unusual enough. Even more remarkable, though, was what followed--the crab walked right up to the Ranger and the woman.

The Ranger stopped down to pick it up, well aware of the green crab's penchant for pinching. This one did not even try. While showing the crab to the woman, the ranger noticed that a tiny mussel was nestled in the apron (underside) of the crab. To the ranger, it appeared that the crab was in pain.

(No, I do not know how a ranger knows this--but if anyone would, a U.S. Park Ranger would.)

Using the woman's purse as the operating table and his knife as a scalpel, the ranger gently scraped at the byssal threads holding the mussel to the crab, finally freeing the crab from its tormentor.

The crab returned to the water.

We really know nothing about what other critters know. Nothing.

No, I did not make this up--and I doubt the Ranger did either.
The photo is indirectly via wikimedia,

Yes, I know, the Androcles analogy does not work well. I just like the title.


My guvnor, Mr. Christie, has taken a hatchet to education here in the Garden State. He's now bucking to grab a piece of Arne's slush fund to temporarily patch up the hole he created by slashing education funds.

And, by golly, I trust Mr. Christie--any man who lobbied for the accreditation of the University of Phoenix no doubt knows the value of edumacation.

The picture is from another online degree mill, not the University of Phoenix.
It might even be a hoax--so hard to tell these days....

Monday, May 3, 2010

About face....

Inside, under a human-made roof, lit with human-made energy efficient fluorescent bulbs, listening to a human-made tune through my human-made laptop, cozy with heat generated from a human-made furnace, drinking human-made ale in a human-made pint glass, I am absolutely petrified of dying.

Even worse, because it is so permanent, I fear death.

Once I get my butt outside, I no longer fear death. (I still fear dying--I spent years watching a very creative god figure out myriad ways to dispatch his toys.)

The more human I become, the more fearful. Words trap us.

So I did something drastic. I quit Facebook.

I used to watch my dying father watch television. He enjoyed it, as I do, and he could watch it for hours, as I could.

He died anyway.

The biggest mistake I can make teaching science is convincing children that this whole thisness is in any way manageable. It's not, nor will it ever be.

I have never regretted being outside. I have been frightened out of my skin as lightning rises from the ground no more than 10 yards away, or as some night critter ambles past me as I dare piss under the moonlight at 4 AM, or when caught in a riptide that threatens to carry me back to the land of my ancestors.

Pure, adrenaline-soaked, black-out fear beats the snot out of the day to day impending nameless dread I occasionally feel when inside.

I teach science so I can share what (little) I know about the universe. I suspect science is mandatory in high school because folks in power believe the opposite, that through science we will conquer disease and death, and maybe get whiter teeth in the process.

I want to continue to improve as a science teacher, focusing on the natural world beyond the human world.

So I did something drastic. I stopped tweeting.

I took my AP class outside two weeks ago. I had the students "randomly" map out square meter plots, and describe everything alive they could find within their assigned plots.

Within each square meter lay an unseen universe. Ants and clovers and grubs and "baby trees" and tiny yellow "hoppy thingies" and bees and plantain and worms and dandelions and grass. My lambs were surprised, as I am every time I bother to look.

I need more time to look. I left Everything2.

My students will all leave digital footprints in their lifetimes. If I have any influence, they will be aware of their virtual footprints as well.

This past weekend I saw an osprey carrying a small bluefish in its talons, the fish carried headfirst, perhaps dead, perhaps not. I saw a seal and some dolphins. I grasped a razor clam and felt its desperation as it tried to pull itself back into its watery home. I saw glossy ibises feeding in a vernal pond.

Even now I am distracted by a male mosquito, his voluminous feathery antennae searching for the right frequency (Kenneth?) as it walks across an envelope stamped with Google on my desk. I love Google as a drunk loves his hooch, and it is about as healthy.

I've used up more years than I have left. No more Delicious. I am full.

The mosquito antennae were mounted by a Victorian entomologist, lovingly
preserved by Howard Lynk. I'd love to buy him a pint.

And yes, writing a blog makes me a hypocrite--consider it a disease, a personal failing, a weakness, a whatever.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

If anyone asks, say "Limulus polyphemus"

We're taking a bunch of kids to Sandy Hook.

We will be looking for horseshoe crabs, pipefish, eels, and anything else we can legally catch and release. (Clams, alas, are out--even with a license, raking for clams is illegal in condemned areas.)

Many of my kids have never seen a horseshoe crab. Many of those that have, fear them.

Every day from now until the trip I will remind the children that if anyone asks, we are going to study Limulus polyphemus. I work under great conditions, under a wonderful supervisor, but why start trouble?

OK, what do you say if someone asks why we're going to Sandy Hook?
Limulus polyphemus!
What do you say if someone asks you what we're studying?
Limulus polyphemus!
What do you say if someone asks you how nuclear fission works?
Limulus polyphemus!
Spew out a scientific word and folks go running.

Part of teaching is getting observed. I don't mind it so much, and prefer frequent, unannounced visits to formally planned lessons since it gives the administration a better idea of what happens in my class, which (ideally) gives me better feedback. I love gold stars as much as anyone, maybe more (I had a lot of concussions growing up), but I learn most from the occasional disasters. A second pair of eyes helps me dissect them better.

Folks without a scientific background, however, often preface their remarks by saying science is too hard, so they didn't really get the lesson. I don't hear anything else said--I am completely deflated. If I cannot teach an administrator a concept I'm expected to teach to children who still believed in the tooth fairy a few moons ago, what's the point?

(And yes, I get another gold star for my collection....)

So here's the point--we live in a wonderfully complex , ultimately inexplicable,universe. (OK, that was too much of a mouthful--go stare at an ant colony for a few minutes and get back to me). This fantastic universe appears to be governed by teasingly simple laws.

If I ever hope to get a child interested in grasping these laws, a child who just rubbed a amgazine advertisement for Stetson cologne on his chest while leering at another child who (it seems) forgot to put something on over her stockings, I need to get them outside themselves by getting them outside.

If the Park Ranger asks if we have a permit, I'll just mutter Limulus polyphemus....

The horseshoe crab photo is from NOAA, via Wikimedia (public domain, eh?)