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It’s either brilliance or madness

September 25, 2009

Denise Scammon
September 24, 2009
Prof. Barry Rodrigue
Global Past, Global Present
Quiz-Essay #2

If someone says “We could play Einstein’s Dreams,” I would like to play because what that would mean to me is that I/we would have to come up with 30 different possibilities that explain an abstract idea such as time and space. Is abstract the right word to use when talking about time and space? If time and space can only be truly explained with mind-boggling mathematical equations that only Einstein could understand, then time and space remain abstract to me. This book by Alan Lightman will be a favorite of mine, friends who have read it say.
Chapter 4, The origins of life and the theory of evolution, in David Christian’s book, “Maps of Time,” opens with a discussion on reproduction, interestingly assigning what I consider a trait found in living organisms to tornadoes and crystals: “Living organisms manage significant flows of energy and matter, so they must have some form of metabolism…. They also reproduce, again like many other complex but nonliving entities from tornadoes to crystals” (p. 79). I like this personification of tornadoes and crystals. Because of this personification, I am imagining the string energy of tornadoes and crystals, so it is accurate to state that they reproduce. This chapter delves into the complexity of structures, the second law of thermodynamics and gravity. I wonder if in my lifetime I will learn that this statement is true: “Chemical processes may have generated life elsewhere in the universe, though at present we do not know if this is true” (Christian p. 80).
I just had a discussion with my 28 year old daughter in which I told her that I was learning things that she hadn’t been taught in school. I wish that somehow learning could be incorporated in everyone’s life after formal education, like a general course that covered all the latest discoveries and kept reading, writing and arithmetic skills sharp. We are learners and explorers: “Living organisms explore their environment in ways that have no parallel in the inanimate world” (Christian p. 80). In the reading, I came across what I thought were contradictions, yet now believe are more like a balance: biology is more complex than physics and chemistry; “gravity can create stars – objects of great density and high temperatures. But the universe as a whole is extremely cold” (Christian p. 81). This balance leads to Christian’s discussion of “adaptation” and “all living things seem to be exquisitely fitted for the environments in which they live” (p. 83). It’s convoluted and twisted, but it is a balance.
Christian’s discussion of Darwin and the natural selection process was a review of what I learned in Biology class last summer. I particularly remember the study of the adaptation of bird beaks depending on what type of food was found in their environments. Weren’t Crick and / or Watson supposedly on an LSD trip when they discovered DNA’s structure? I remember reading the phrase or something similar to this, “Life could be generated only from life” (Christian p. 94). Life comes from life. I also read about the Miller-Urey experiment in Biology class and their experiments in recreating early Earth’s atmosphere to discover how life first appeared on Earth – where did life begin? The three answers are “one) in space, two) on planets, and three) inside planets” (Christian p. 97). This tidbit of information about the clay was discussed in Biology: “tiny crystals of clay may have provided a template for the formation of more complex molecules” (Christian p. 98). Here I am taking a History course and finding that I learned some of the course information in my Biology class. Not only that, but Darwin’s discussion on “why some individuals are more likely to reproduce than others” (Christian p. 104) was also part of my General Psychology coursework. So, Global Past, Global History – the Big History – is a great interdisciplinary course.
Chapter 5, Evolution of life and the biosphere, recounts the origin of life, eukaryotic cells, reproduction, multi-cellular organisms and organisms that join in social groups. Scientific discoveries make a case against the translation of the Bible that states the universe was created 6,000 years ago: “Living organisms probably existed by 3.8 billion years ago, for rocks of this age from Greenland contain a level of the C12 isotope that is normally associated with the presence of life” (Christian p. 109). I had a conversation with my mother about the Bible translators having interpreted the creation of Earth as occurring 6,000 years ago. She said they were wrong. It was very different to be on the same side of a discussion with my mother. I was very surprised that she felt that way. She still believes God created the universe.
I absolutely loved listening to the “Rumblings of Underwater Giants,” but especially liked Mr. O’Connor’s theory that whales have an understanding that in order to find their way from Alaska to Hawaii, they need to listen for the underwater volcano rumblings. It was both eery and beautiful. Nice sound bite to include in the lesson.
As I investigated the Encyclopedia of Life site, I thought to do a search on “global warming” as the group project I am working on follows that topic. I came upon Jesse Ausubel who “has authored and edited more than 150 articles, reports, and books, including Changing Climate (National Academy, 1983), the first comprehensive review of the greenhouse effect, and Toward an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), the 1983 Research Council report originating the Global Change Program”(http://www.eol.org/content/page/bio_jausubel). I will search for some of his articles in USM’s peer-reviewed journals. Yay, good find.
The film,  Origins: How Life Began, NOVA, is about how life began and how that question remains a mystery. I think we haven’t been able to answer that question because we either don’t have the right tools yet or we have the tools, but haven’t used them in a way that would reveal the answer. The film is a good reinforcer of what we’ve learned, that the living organisms that we see today take up a very small segment of time in the timeline of life. Bacteria, on the other hand, has been here since the beginning of living organisms on our planet. That brings the study of how life first appeared on Earth down to the microcosmic level.
Susan Milius’s article, “No Brainer Behavior,” takes a light-hearted look about the serious topic of plant neurobiology: plant brains. It was catchy to describe the cuscuta pentagona “five-angled dodder” as a vampire. “Plants behave and misbehave as dramatically as animals” (Milius p. 16). I wasn’t quite buying the personification of the plants as described by Milius until I read her description of behavior: “Behavior is not the same as intent. Behavior can be observed, intent cannot” (Milius p. 17). Milius’s article contained intriguing information that I think would be interesting to follow up on, especially when doing research on plant life.
In  Paul Patton’s “One World, Many Minds,” what stays with me is that science theories are popular for a while and then become questionable when a new scientific discovery pokes a hole in the theory, no matter how small the hole. Even when there is no replacement theory, the original theory is no longer popular. During times when there is no popular theory, science seems to stall. Funding drops off, fewer researchers enter in the field, until a new discovery is made that once again raises interest, or fresh minds bring fresh ideas. It’s like that in my job. We create a product, there’s lots of excitement in selling it. The first year, advertisements support 32 pages which drops down to 8 pages after four years. The product has become lackluster and new ideas have to reinvigorate the product so that advertisers will support it again. The article by Patton starts out with common misperceptions on brain evolution  and how it took 30 years “for research in comparative neuroanatomy to show that complex brains … evolved from simpler brains multiple times independently” (Patton p. 2). It was fascinating to read about Alex the parrot who learned to name various items. I had two parakeets a long time ago and I would start each day trying to get them to talk, but they never did, or at least while I was around.
Edward Wilson’s “Protect biodiversity hot spots and the rest will follow,” bolsters my feelings that everything in the universe exists in a convoluted balance. He believes that focusing on saving our physical world will not save the living organisms, but if we first focus on saving living organisms, the physical world gets saved at the same time. I think that idea stresses the precarious balance we experience. He further states that there is an imbalance among people, with poor people losing out, yet there are enough resources to save everyone: “The poor … have little chance to improve their lives in a devastated environment. Conversely, the natural environment where most of the biodiversity hangs on cannot survive the press of land-hungry people who have nowhere else to go.…” (ScienceNews). That’s an excellent point to remember, that there are enough resources to go around. We need a better distribution system. Wilson stated, “Could we come up with one part in 1,000, to save upwards of half a percent of the endangered species living on the Earth’s surface? That’s the kind of political solution and economic solution which would be impressive.…” (ScienceNews).

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