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.

Continue reading

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

blocks

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

Snow Daze

by James Morris
Illustrations by Hannah King

Watch Factory, Waltham, MA

Watch Factory after Winter Storm Juno, Waltham, MA, 1/27/15

What is snow?
We do not know.
But snow is lots of fun,
We know.
~P. D. Eastman

What is snow? That’s a simple question. Everyone knows what snow is. But when I asked my teenage son, he wasn’t sure. He of course knew it’s kind of like ice, but when I asked why it doesn’t look like frozen rain (sleet), he wasn’t sure. I then asked several other people, both kids and adults, and they were also unsure.

This is one of those everyday questions that is harder to answer than we think. Snow is something familiar and at the same time unfamiliar. Continue reading

Nature’s Medicine Cabinet

Last week, scientists reported the discovery of a new antibiotic in the journal Nature. The antibiotic was isolated from bacteria growing in the soil right here in New England. This got me thinking about all of the various medicines that come from nature, which you can read about in WBUR’s Commonhealth blog.

Continue reading