Stamp of History

by James Morris

November 24, 2014 marks the 155th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Anniversaries are an opportunity to look back – in this case, way back. The Origin changed the way we look at the world and gave us a new window on the past. This essay is a celebration of our remarkable history.

In golf, we are told to focus on the next shot, to just look ahead. Don’t worry about past mistakes: a shot in the bunker, a slice that spins the ball out of bounds, a missed hit that causes the ball to enter the water with a loud and emphatic splash. Perhaps this is why many see golf as a lesson for life: Don’t dwell on the past. Move on. No “what if’s” or “if only’s.”

GolfballIn biology, however, there is no such forgetting the past. Continue reading

Monster’s Ink

by James Morris

 With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to share some of the “scarier” sides of biology. This is not for the faint of heart, so only read on if you are prepared…

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 9.28.54 AMWe often go to the movies for a good scare. Sometimes we read horror stories. But you don’t have to look far to find all kinds of monsters lurking among us. And it turns out that they are not monsters at all. They are instead quite common and familiar.

Consider dinosaurs. You don’t need a scientist to take DNA from a mosquito entombed in amber whose last blood meal was from a dinosaur to create Jurassic Park. Instead, simply look out your window at a bird feeder. Continue reading

Syzygy

by James Morris

For George Buckley, who first introduced me to the word Syzygy.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear everyday. Apart from its usefulness in Scrabble and perhaps crossword puzzles, you might wonder what else it’s good for, or even what it means.

It turns out that “syzygy” is used in many different fields. In astronomy, it describes three planets lined up in a row. This occurs, for example, during solar and lunar eclipses, when the sun, Earth, and moon are all aligned. In biology, it describes pairing of chromosomes that occurs, for example, in a specialized type of cell division called meiosis that produces gametes (eggs and sperm).

The term also describes two closely paired joints in the arm of a crinoid, which is a marine organism more commonly known as a sea lily. Evidently, “Syzygy” is also the name of a Japanese band and an episode of The X-files, according to Wikipedia. And it has other meanings in fields as diverse as poetry and mathematics.

I’ve been a biologist for over 20 years, and I’ve never heard the term before. Continue reading

Laundry List

by James Morris

I’m a list-maker. I keep all kinds of lists. I have lists of books I want to read, movies I want to see, things I need to do, projects that are unfinished, things I don’t want to forget to tell someone, ideas for classes I am teaching.

I am not alone. Many people keep lists, from shopping lists to bucket lists. Students memorize spelling and vocabulary lists. David Letterman is well known for his Top Ten lists. There are even apps these days to help you manage your lists: keep track of tasks, prioritize them, or be reminded of them.

Charles Darwin too was a list maker. Continue reading

Why?

by James Morris

Over the summer, I read an article called “Teaching that Sticks” by Chip and Dan Heath. Why do some lessons stick and others don’t? The authors identify several characteristics that describe what they call “sticky teaching.” One of these is curiosity. If students are curious, they engage more and tend to remember what they learn years later.

The authors caution about jumping too quickly to the answer when teaching. We all want students to reach the “Aha!” moment, the Heaths explain. But they suggest that this only works if there is a “Huh?” moment that comes first, a time when students are confused, even puzzled. Out of this confusion, curiosity arises.

They refer to a behavioral economist named George Lowenstein, who writes that curiosity comes from what he calls “gaps” in what we know. According to Lowenstein, we feel these gaps when we watch sports and read mystery novels – in both cases, we are curious to see what happens, how it will end, or who did it.

So, I decided to apply this approach to my own teaching. I began a college-level class in evolution not with what we are covering or by going over what to expect, but instead by simply asking questions. No answers, just questions. Continue reading