Point of View

by James Morris

In Dead Poet’s Society, the late Robin Williams urged his students to stand on their desks to look at the world in a different way. This is a fitting message for this week, as November 24, 2015 marks the 156th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This book challenged us all to do just that.

Photo credit: Ella Daniels-Koch

Photo credit: Ella Daniels-Koch

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How Science Really Works

by Daniel Hartl
Guest contributor

This month, Dan Hartl, the Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard University, shares his thoughts on the scientific method, explaining how it is more complex (and more interesting) than it is commonly portrayed.

The “scientific method” taught in most textbooks begins with observations carried out in the real world, the formulation of an explanatory hypothesis to explain these observations, and the deduction of ideally unique predictions from ErlenmeyerFlasksthis hypothesis. The predictions are tested by experiments or further observations, and the outcomes of these activities either validate the predictions or else falsify them. Validation affords evidence favoring the hypothesis, and falsification causes the hypothesis to be modified or rejected.

This modern description of the scientific method is often credited to Charles Sanders Peirce (1878) and Karl Popper (1935). The approach itself is exemplified in the work of some of the greatest scientists in history, including Galileo, Newton, Priestly, Lavoisier, Mendel, and Darwin. The progression from observation to hypothesis to prediction to experiment is logical and yet simple enough that we can teach it to sixth graders.

We also teach the scientific method in high school and college, but at this level we should be more realistic about how science works. Scientists are human beings with the same foibles and failings as everyone else. Ideally scientists ought to be objective and ignore their own personal feelings and preferences, but true objectivity is about as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker. Continue reading

Moon River

by James Morris

Last night, many of us viewed a rare spectacle – a total eclipse of a “supermoon.” And this morning, Facebook was abuzz as we woke up to friends and family sharing photos of the fully eclipsed, blood-red moon.

From the time I was 12, I have been trying to capture something a little different – the moon slowly going into eclipse, getting smaller and smaller, dimmer and dimmer.

Last night gave me one more try:

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A False Start

by James Morris

This week was the start of the semester at Brandeis and many other colleges. On the first day of a class on evolution, I began by asking the students a series of questions to try to get them curious about what we will be studying together. Then I shifted gears and asked the students to close their notebooks, take out a pencil and sheet of paper, and answer seven true-false questions about evolution.

This had a chilling effect in the classroom – a pop-quiz on the first day? But I had something entirely else in mind. Continue reading

Uncommon Knowledge

by James Morris

On the first anniversary of this blog, I thought it would be interesting to look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know. Enjoy.

We walk around with all kinds of knowledge. Most of us can name the first president – George Washington. Around New England, and certainly elsewhere, we all know that Boston is the capital of Massachusetts. Most of us realize that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

And then there are shared, common sayings: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Everyone knows that. Or, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Whatever that means.

Most of us probably know that DNA is the “blueprint of life.” Its structure is iconic – a double helix, like a spiral staircase. Those of us who recall high school biology might even be able to remember DNA’s four bases – A, C, T, and G.

That’s all common knowledge.

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Speed Limit

by James Morris

Infinity is a hard concept to wrap our heads around. It’s difficult to imagine anything stretching on forever and ever. And yet, when we think about common aspects of our world – time, space, temperature – there is a general thought that these go on and on, that there are no real limits in nature. We might create all kinds of boundaries – fences, walls, borders – but nature, it seems, does not.

But that’s not the case. Nature is full of limits and boundaries, in places where we might not expect them. Continue reading

Packing Puzzle

by Ariana Boltax
Guest Contributor


This month, guest blogger Ari Boltax shares her thoughts about various kinds of packing and folding problems. Ari is a recent graduate of Brandeis University and is currently a student at Cornell Veterinary School.

After our winter break, my housemate brought home a packing puzzle. It consists of eighteen blocks in three different shapes. The challenge is to fit all eighteen pieces into a cube. Such a seemingly simple task like “make a cube out of this” kept me at the kitchen table at least an hour every day for five days piling blocks into the box, only to be sorely disappointed when I couldn’t make order from the disorder. One night I was trying the puzzle with a friend, and she joked that maybe if we randomly play around with it enough, we’ll just happen upon the solution. “Sounds like a plan,” I joked, “proteins do it all the time when they fold up, so why can’t we?” Continue reading

Fair Trades

by James Morris
Illustrations by Hannah King

Last week was the NBA trade deadline. Many teams had to decide between building for the future by acquiring young players and draft picks, or making a run for the playoffs this year by acquiring more experienced players in their prime. So what we see are trade-offs, which turn out to be all over the place, even in biology. Continue reading