Thursday, August 5, 2010

Yes, but how many ATP are produced by the Krebs cycle?

The intro Bio class is finally over; grades are handed in, email from students wondering if 69% is good enough for a C has dwindled to a trickle, and I am not obligated to do a lick of work for the class today. It is a relief. However, as it has dominated my life for the last 5 weeks, I am still churning it over.

There was a question I almost asked the students for the final, but I shied away from it. It was something like this:

“You are made mainly of atoms of Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Oxygen. You are an organoheterotrophic animal; before that, you were a plant. Before that, you were atmospheric gases and water. Before that, you were a star. Explain the processes behind each of these transitions.”

Way too poetic for a final. The ESL students would be utterly lost, and those students who hate Hate HATE to use their own imagination would not be able to figure it out. But it’s a question I wish my students would want to answer. On a practical level, it requires understanding energetics, autotrophy, some chemistry and the history of the Earth and the Universe. But what I really wish is that my students would get the poetry of life.

I’ve heard a religious experience described as seeing beyond the visible world. The curtain is lifted, so that you can see the cogs and gears and mechanics that actually move the world, and there’s no more mystery. You understand the miracle of day-to-day life, and you know how things connect. This is what I wish I could lead all of my students to see.

With religious experience, the curtain is lifted for you—whether by the divine or by a fluctuation of neurochemicals, I won’t say. However, with biology, the student has to put in some hard work to part the curtains. But if the student is on top of it, they’ll consciously breathe an atmosphere that is literally the result of a single genetic boo-boo some three and a half billion years ago. They’ll feel their bodies and feel atoms that were snatched out of the atmosphere by plants. They’ll feel atoms made of hydrogen fused into heavier elements in long-dead stars. Science is necessary to part the curtain of “ordinary” life, but behind that curtain there is delicious poetry.

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