Friday, July 29, 2011

Weird works in so many ways

Odd is an attention-grabber. If something is off-kilter, out of the ordinary, or contrary to accepted dogma, it is more interesting. I’m a fan of the weird as much as the next guy, but I am also a scientist, so I like odd science, especially things that break the scientific rules.

Science is built on rules. Some rules are called laws - descriptions of natural phenomena that invariably hold true under specific conditions. Some rules are called theories – explanations for sets of observations that have been tested repeatedly and accurately predict results of future tests. Finally, some rules are called models. Models are similar to theories; they propose a solution to a situation and make predictions that can be tested. As knowledge is added, the models and theories are adjusted or discarded- each movement brings us closer to the truth.

Exceptions probably exist for every rule. While the law of gravitation states that two bodies attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, the theory of what gravity is and how it works is constantly being adjusted as exceptions to the current rules are found. In biology, exceptions abound; the diversity of life guarantees that that weirdness will rule the day. Life just seems to find a way to circumvent the rules. If an environment exists, life will find a way to exploit it –if it has to break the rules to succeed, so be it.

In the back of our minds, deep down where the dangerous things live, we like the rule breakers (used in the most socially acceptable sense). They do all the things we can’t do; they defy authority, they show us not to accept the limits placed on us. We respect offenders for their audacity and tenacity. In a small way, we want to be them.

I want others to be as fascinated by biology as I am. Using oddities and exceptions to achieve this seems to be a no-brainer. Students can be engaged by the weird or the unexpected, and this is a population that is just now learning about rule breaking. Pre-teens and teens are expanding their own worlds; envelope pushers are important to them. If you wish to teach students, the topic must be personal to them, it must be important to them at the time. So, to teach them biological rules, show them that there are also rule breakers. By pointing out the exceptions, you also help define and ingrain the core concepts of biology – in order to appreciate how weird something is, you have to understand how the rule followers work as well. This strategy may seem geared just toward students, but aren’t we all supposed to remain students our whole lives?

In the posts to come, I will introduce some biological odd balls, some rule breakers, and maybe suggest that we look at some common items in a new way. I want to build awe and respect for the biological world, and at the same time reinforce those basic themes important for biology. Each subject discussed will include definitions, explanations of essential elements, and a list of additional resources, lesson plans, experiments, and web-based activities for teachers. If I do my job well, we can all learn something and help pass it on to others, both young and old.