By: Tony Kulesa
In 48BC the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground, and with it, the extent of all human knowledge. Or so the legend goes. If all our knowledge burned today, where would we start rebuilding? What is the one fact worth tattooing on our forearms, such that even as our servers and notebooks are purged of all thought, all history, we will never lose?
Richard Feynman once said if he had one fact with which he would start science over again with, it would be the atomic theory of matter. I think I’d be hard pressed to disagree. At least for molecular biologists, the fact we might most hang onto is what’s going on far below where our eyes can see: this picture of molecules chaotically vibrating, but forming complex structures of the crystals in my watch, the grayness of the clouds, the grain of the wood.
Perhaps the more practical question is, not what knowledge we might save, but what we would hope to do with it. How would we imagine the generations after us rebuilding science? Contrast the vision of the last paragraph with the current progression of science education in K-12. In these formative childhood years, we are also attempting to start with a few facts accepted as truths, plus some limited years of experience in the world, and rebuild much of the extent of human knowledge.
Are we starting with the wrong facts? Why is high school physics about skateboards and rockets, magnets and batteries? Why is biology about nephrons and tundras?
Are we building knowledge in the wrong direction? Why do we save the most fundamental, physics, for post-calculus, when even without it Archimedes and Galileo gained superior understandings of our world.
To serve different interests, we may have different answers. But what our government has deemed our most worthwhile interest via the language of funding dollars, is poorly served by the current paradigm of K12 science education. Perhaps we can use this exercise to think about and discuss the skills, experience, and intuition that we deem most essential to biology (ical engineering). In my experience working the lab, this is the molecular, statistical thermodynamic intuition about biomolecules and larger biological systems.
Students are missing this molecular intuition for these systems until years after an undergraduate degree. To them, DNA is the white goop in strawberries, or abstract, lego models of double helices. Unlike electrical engineering, where one can lick a 9V battery and feel the force electrons that powers their lightbulb, how can we give students the same intuition for proteins vibrating, the squishiness of membranes, the fractal structure of the human genome, or the grip and pull that cells exert on substrates?
If we start with the fundamentals of the what the microscopic world “feels” like, we might find the answer.