Field of Science


What's with microbiologists and ecology?

As a member of a biological sciences faculty, I regularly get to interact with colleagues with very different expertises. What a joy! Among this biological diversity, no greater rift in understanding and mutual appreciation exists than between microbiologists and organimal biologists. Even worse is that it's a very one-sided bigotry born of a narrow, biomedical, reductionist approach to the study of bacteria.

Twenty years ago our microbiologists complained about biological diversity and evolution as required courses. Apparently systematics and evolution where not subjects with any apparent importance to microbiology. The same was said about educating pre-medical students who had no need to understand the basic concepts of biology.

Well, thanks to Carl Woese enough progress has been made in the study of prokaryote phylogeny that these objections became pretty ridiculous. Now they object to the inclusion of ecology in the core curriculum of biology. Wow! Another subject without any relevance to microorganisms.

However, more than anything this simply demonstrates the remarkably narrow perspective of my microbial colleagues who cannot see beyond their reductionist approach to biomedicine. This is particularly amusing, or dismaying, because the worst offender studies resistance to antibiotics. What does he think is happening when antibiotics are used? Apparently he thinks antibiotics do not exert a selective force on bacteria and that the community structure of microorganisms is unaffected. More and more studies are finding that interactions among bacteria form communities that can be disturbed and cause severe health problems. My own daughter was given the wrong antibiotic for a C-diff infection (test gave a false negative) and it made matters much worse! C-diff is a natural part of our gut's bacterial flora and is held in check by interactions with other members of this community.

Fortunately not all members of this field are so narrow in their perspective. Microbiologists exist who have discovered evolution and ecology, and their relevance to research, even biomedicine. A google search on "bacterial ecology" generated 2,600,000 hits, and a great many of these were journal articles. A similar result was obtained by googling "microbial ecology" (3,480,000 hits), and of course there are journals that specialize in these fields.

Such ignorance would be quite amusing except that the education of our students suffers from these narrow-minded views.

The real meaning of Baccalaureate

As part of a totally bizarre rant about masonic conspiracy and the control of higher education by the occult elite, David Flynn demonstrates a level of scholarship and understanding that makes the rest of his conclusions more understandable. In other words he’s so wrong about these simple things that you can readily understand how he made a hash out of more complex issues.

This accomplishment [completion of a bachelor’s degree] earns the student a Bacchus laurel, for this is really what “bachelor” means. Bacchus is the Roman version of Dionysus, Greek god of wine revelry and facades, lies, and drunkenness.”

Correcting this in reverse order the baccalaureate degree was nicknamed the “bachelor’s degree” because at that time virtually all university students were unmarried men, bachelors, and of course, many people still think the B in B.A. or B.S. stands for bachelor’s, but of course, b stands for baccalaureate, the fruit of the laurel. Some college catalogues even make this mistake, all the more shameful for a scholarly institution. It was the custom in ancient Greece to crown champions with wreaths of laurel leaves, the noble laurel, Laurus nobilis, which is also found in your cupboard as bay leaves. And this custom gave rise to titles such as poet laureate. So you receive a degree as the fruits of your academic labors, and the fruit of the laurel, unlike the fruit of the grape, has no connection Dionysus. But then this author was intent on taking something traditional and noble and casting it as tawdry, but in the process Flynn reveals himself to be either a poor scholar and/or one who deliberately misleads. Me, a member of the occult educational elite, I’m betting on the combination of the two.

Letting foxes run the hen house - the Republican war on science and the environment continues

On Monday last the AP reported on new draft rules being proposed by the Bush administration to gut the Endangered Species Act. This would be the biggest change to the groundbreaking legislation since 1988, and would not require the approval of Congress. Currently, federal agencies are required to consult with an independent agency — the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service — to determine whether a project would harm an endangered species. The AP reports that under the new rules, agencies would simply be able to “decide for themselves”.

Wow! Let's not drag any inconvenient scientific data into the discussion, let's just let government agencies, run by political appointees acting under super, double secret orders to make sure everything conforms to official ideological policy. More than any previous administration, the Bush administration has tried to create their own reality. And woe be to anything that stands in their way. If you don't like the results of studies by government sciences, well, just edit the final report to reflect your wishes.

The way the Bush administration has operated in other arenas, I'm surprised they didn't just define species out of existence. All of this shows the contempt this adminstration has for the American public, a majority of which actually support environmental protections. Congress won't pass such legislation, then find a way to change things such that congressinal approval is not needed.

Until Sen. McCain condems the Bush approach to governing this country, he doesn't stand of chance of getting my vote.

Do you teach here at the university?

It's that time of year when lots of strangers, all very conspicuous, are appearing around the campus here in Lincolnland. They mostly readily identify me as a campus native probably because I'm usually reading a book, manuscript, or paper, which isn't seen that often off campus, and they often want to ask some questions. Also I always offer to assist anyone who looks like they are a bit lost. In either instance, they often ask "Do you teach here at the university?"

I usually answer, "Yes, teaching is among the many duties of my job as a professor." I do not find teaching demeaning, but I do get annoyed by how many people fail to understand that university faculty are far more than teachers. We're experts and scholars, learned intellectuals, authors and researchers; we're more student (in a professional sense) than teacher.

I try to tell myself that many of our students are still first generation college students, but many of the people who ask are clearly college graduates if not alumni. The problem is that many of these people, as well as current students, attend and graduate from college without ever doing anything scholarly themselves. Their only interaction with faculty was the usual classroom student-teacher dichotomy. If they weren't worried about an exam or pissed at a grade, they never sought out a faculty member.

Since we (the university, which is us) allow this to happen, in a way, I am responsible for creating the very situation that annoys me. As best I can judge, we in the sciences do a fairly good job of engaging and involving our students in our scholarly enterprises, but then we work in our offices and laboratories so we are accessible. Many of my colleagues in the humanities are only in their offices for office hours; they work at home. I understand the problem of interruptions, but at home they are inaccessible to students. So I wonder about the level of interaction on a day to day basis. Maybe science just has more low level things for students to do that provide them with regular contact with faculty.

So I'm not a teacher like your high school teachers. I'm the guy who teaches the high school teachers, and writes their textbooks, and does the research they should occasionally teach about.

Bad line karma

I'm not an overly impatient person. I'm not pushy, impolite, or discourteous when waiting in lines. I don't cut in, jump ahead, cut off, or act to someone else's disadvantage. So where did my bad line karma come from?

I ask this after 1 hour of waiting at the Canadian-USA border. The official border is right there, I can almost touch it, but the customs booth is still a couple of hundred yard, and probably close to another hour ahead. Across the expanse of carefully groomed grass and gardens in the median, the backup for entering Canada is barely 10 minutes. Five days ago the line to enter Canada stretched back a kilometer or more and I was an hour and 10 minutes in line, and of the two lanes, the slowest one (right) to boot. So today I decided to stay in the left lane, and the right lane is outpacing the left by a factor of about 1.5 even with merging cars from the duty free shop.

If I pick a grocery store checkout lane, no matter how short it looks, it will immediately bog down. That one little lady buying a single can of food for her little dog will take forever looking for two loose pennies in the bottom of her handbag to make exact change. And then the register will run out of paper tape and have to be replaced before printing her receipt, and then a new checkout person will come with their drawer before it is my turn.

Over and over this happens. If a hell exists, something I think remarkably unlikely, but if mind you it does, it will consist of endless lines, a cue from hell so to speak, an exquisite form of torment.

Even worse I can think of no way to improve my karma. The guy in front of me just changed lanes by cutting off another car that was a tad slow to inch forward. And now he is already 3 cars ahead. My wife says that if I'm so annoyed to do the same thing, but that would require rapt attention and quick reflexes, so I stay resigned to my fate. I hope they strip search the bastard.