Saturday 7 December 2013

Critical attention

Dem bones dem bones dem loonngg bones.  I have two lab-sections for 1st Yr Sport Health which meet every other week on Weds afternoons. The students have spent some time looking down microscopes at cells and drawing what they see rather than what they know from their school biology text-book.  That's been difficult and the results have been not-so-good.  I want them to be able to draw a bunch of cells, with as much interior detail (but not more!) as the instrument and their eye is capable of discerning.  I want to be able to point to a particular cell in the drawing and for them to be able put a needle point on that cell under the 'scope.  It's been a struggle to achieve this, but nobody who has attempted this task with any real engagement will claim that it is easy.

Earlier this term we moved on and up in scale and were drawing a longitudinal section of a sheep humerus.  Longitudinal section means that the butcher has been asked to saw through the bone along its length to expose the interior marrow and the different elements of the internal structure.  There was a bit of a cock-up in the supply chain and for the Mon and Tues classes, fresh bones weren't available and they had to deal with last weeks cast-offs which, despite the fridge, were getting a little rank.  So I was very much relieved when I found a small bag of new bones new bones ready for us. I find it best to start by pulling out a random bone from the bag and talking briefly about the engineering.  How that humerus has to support a whole sheep's weigh for at least part of the time when it is galloping up the field, so it must be strong, but that a solid bone would be weight-inefficient.  Casting the bone as a hollow tube sorts out this compromise.  A brief aside asking how many lab books can be supported on a single vertical toilet roll compared to the number on a single horizontal toilet roll is useful here.  We also look at a section cut through the bone under the microscope which reveals (mirabile visu!) how a hollow cylindrical structure is repeated in the osteons that make up the compact bone's anatomical structure.

Clearly long-bone structure is more directly relevant, and therefore engaging, to sport-scientists than the cells of a layer in an onion.

That evening I came across an inspiring talk on the blogosphere that, despite a provenance from the Arts Block, was directly relevant to what we'd spent the afternoon doing.  Jennifer Roberts, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, teaches Art History. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz was the wife of The Agassiz, and no mean scientist herself.  One of the substantive tasks that Professor Roberts sets her students is to write an essay on a single picture of the student's choice.  Because the students are Harvard students they could knock off such a task in a week of solid book learning and submit their 5000 words a week before the deadline - and have time to party.  But Roberts insists that the first element of the task if for each student to sit in front of the picture itself (neither wikimedia nor a postcard will do) for THREE HOURS to get sucked into the details. It's a bit like deep-listening (you can do a 4 days course in that) with your eyes.  You can see what picture Roberts chose - Copley's Boy with a (flying) squirrel - and the extraordinary things that were revealed by her contemplation.  Or for the video-generation, a filum. A quote:
"And that’s why, for me, this lesson about art, vision, and time goes far beyond art history. It serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and skepticism about immediate surface appearances. I can think of few skills that are more important in academic or civic life in the twenty-first century."  Amen, amen, sister, hear her, hear her, hallelujah.  

We are all in a rush nowadays, flicking from soundbyte to youtube to tweet.  This affects our whole lives in a "medium is the massage" way.  We have been insidiously trained to have little patience to sit for a couple of hours minutely examining and recording our impressions of a mutton bone.  I know a couple of our most succesful Irish scientists, professors both, who are passionate about fishing.  The ability to sit still and think like a fish for a few hours is one way of honing the 'critical attention' which is so important in science. Cripes if Barbara McClintock can think like a transposable element of maize DNA, surely thinking like a fish is possible/useful. It's not the only way to progress science, however, and I know other equally successful professors whose view of fishing is "sometimes I sets and thinks and sometimes I jest sets" and who would rather tonk themselves on the head with a mallet until ideas come.

1 comment:

  1. here's a link to another conundrum, perhaps not worthy of too much contemplation, but at least the second time this week an empty toilet roll has crossed my path. Hopefully this link will work