Friday, December 30, 2016

Constant Reinvention

We know that things like the human skin are in a constant state of regeneration. Old cells die and are sloughed off and new cells arise in their place. This is the case with organs, bones, and many other tissue systems in our bodies. Reinvention is part of biology. The past couple of decades have brought a focus on a locus of reinvention in animals--stem cells, which are omnipotent regions that can regenerate and differentiate into other kinds of cells. As a plant biologist I've been greatly interested in meristem cells, which are analogous to stem cells in animals. Botanists have studied meristem cells and meristematic regions of plants for well over 100 years. The question of reinvention and regeneration in the plant body is, if not fully understood, at least very well researched. 

What's less well researched I think is the question of molecular and cellular space in both biotic and abiotic systems. Looking at molecular structure and its attendant electron cloud, one is struck by the idea that the electrons are not actually "in place." They are present statistically but never for long enough to be detected in any physical location. It follows that the "surface" of a molecule is an environment that's in a state of constant reinvention and regeneration. As its electrons orbit there are slight changes that occur on this "surface." They occur constantly and they affect more than the physical shape of the molecule. They influence its chemistry and electromagnetic state as well. They make this solid idea of a bit of matter something malleable and ever-changing. Further complicating the matter, a molecular surface doesn't actually exist in a physical sense. It is an ambiguously defined region of unambiguous interaction with other molecules. This issue, which overflows with uncertainty, is indeed, an idea that was named the uncertainty principle. It was introduced in 1927 by Heisenberg, and perhaps not coincidentally it is a product as well as a driving force of modern thought. If matter is not "real" in some familiar physical sense, can it be considered real in the perspective of a non-conventional physicality? Or must we encounter matter in a different sense altogether? 

I wonder whether these kinds of questions of ambiguity are worth posing to my undergraduates. They like the cold hard facts from their professors. So are these the kinds of intellectual concerns that young people want to be involved with? Do they matter? I think they do. The past few days and weeks in this tumultuous historic moment have stood convention, in its social and political sense, on its head. perhaps more than 1927, these are times of huge uncertainty. Social and political norms, even the nature of information itself, seem to be reinventing themselves whether we like it or not. And I know how deeply this affects my students. Their response on the day after the election was momentous and heartfelt. So maybe addressing questions of regeneration, reinvention, and uncertainty, all of which lie at the heart of scientific thought will resonate with my students next semester. 

One thing I'm sure of. As they go out into the world and start to work and function as adults they will find themselves reinventing their identities, their behaviors, and their ways of thinking as they move forward through life. For a long time now I've wanted to teach a science course that involves the exercise of reinvention. While the scientific facts themselves are interesting, it's the abstractness of them and the cognitive innovations that can arise from them that may be of great utility to my students in the future. 

No comments:

Post a Comment