Eat, Pray . . . Scientist?

I learned a surprising thing from an unusual source the other day.

The unusual source was Elizabeth Gilbert, in her novel The Signature of All Things, about a fictional 19th century woman who studied moss. Gilbert is best known for her blockbuster romantic breakup and resurrection memoir Eat, Pray, Love (but for her most extraordinary writing try the lesser-known but phenomenal The Last American Man http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/books/the-last-american-man/).

The surprising thing I learned from her novel was that the word scientist has not existed for long. It was coined in 1834, and its origins reflected one of the most significant trends in human curiosity: a fracturing of knowledge into what can be proven and what cannot.

The inventor of the word was William Whewell, a 19th century English thinker notable for his breadth rather than any specialized accomplishment.

He was successful as a philosopher, mathematician, and Anglican priest, and most known scientifically for his research on ocean tides. He also published in the fields of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy and economics,  as well as composing poetry, translating Goethe and writing sermons and other theological articles and books.

Whewell wrote two prominent books on the history of science, invented the terms physicist, ion, diode, anode and cathode, and also is attributed with the first use of the word scientist, although it did not come into common use until the end of the 19th and early into the 20th centuries.

Whewell was being critical in coining the new term scientist, condemning the emerging disciplines of science as representing “an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment . . . the mathematician turns away from the chemist, the chemist from the naturalist; the mathematician, left to himself, divides himself into a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician, who soon part company . . . and thus science loses all traces of unity.”

Whewell used the term scientist to comment on how society in his day was changing the nature of inquiry. Prior to Whewell, those who inquired were referred to as natural philosophers, whose seeking of knowledge was not restricted to any one sphere.

The new term reflected an emerging division in human thought, in which scientists conducted research to better understand nature, while philosophers were those who pondered intangibles that couldn’t be proven by data.

Science was moving towards strict hypothesis testing, narrowing its activity to encompass only that which could be tested, recorded, observed and measured, constricting the breadth of inquiry.

We’ve gained and lost something by becoming scientists rather than natural philosophers. The gain is in rigor, the scientific way of knowing that requires proof, in which ideas can be tested and rejected or accepted.

But we’ve also lost that broader capacity to embrace that which cannot be proven through experiment. The terminological division between scientist and natural philosopher, and the narrowing of science to each practitioner’s narrow discipline, diminishes the scope of wonder we can bring to the mysteries of the universe around us.

Whewell’s naming of what was an incipient phenomenon in his time only recognized what has become a signature element of modern life: a diminished capacity to accept that which we cannot know.

Call it religion, spirituality, nature loving or just plain awe: life is richest when the unknown seamlessly mingles with fact, when science and unsubstantiated reverence are held comfortably together.

If you’d like to read more about Whewell and the etymology of scientist, see:

Sydney Ross B.Sc. Ph.D. (1962) Scientist: The story of a word, Annals of Science,

18:2, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/00033796200202722

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033796200202722

Reconciling Injustices in a Pluralistic Canada

The Centre for Dialogue organized an event last week, “Reconciling Injustices in a Pluralistic Canada,” that focused on how we’re all affected by the legacy of injustice, even generations later. For more, see an op-ed piece in today’s (28 January) Vancouver Sun that I wrote:

http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Opinion+Reconciling+injustices+pluralistic+Canada/9441206/story.html

 

Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive

We finally have a title for my upcoming book: “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive.”

Authors, unless they are considerably more famous than I, don’t get to choose their book titles. You can suggest, and I have, but it’s the marketing wing of your publishing house that gets the final say.

Until now I’ve been lucky. My submitted titles for previous books were approved by my editor and the marketing mavens at my regular publisher, Harvard University Press.

“Nature Wars: People vs. Pests” was the easiest, emerging from a quote in the newspaper by an anti-pesticide activist. He called an upcoming spray against gypsy moths in the city of Vancouver “a war against nature that will go on forever.” I hadn’t been thinking of writing a book at that point but the title “Nature Wars” popped into my head, and with a title as good as that, it seemed a shame not to write a book.

“Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone” also came easily. I was already committed to writing a book about genetically modified crops, and was travelling quite a bit to conduct research and interviews. Once the idea of “travels” popped into my head, the rest flowed easily.

This time, I bonded with a title right from the start: “Dialogue in Bee Time: Lessons Learned from the Bees.” But the title was for a different book, one that focused on dialogue and teaching. I wrote close to 30,000 words before realizing it just wasn’t working, and put it aside for a year or so.

I then realized the book I wanted to write was about bees, not teaching, focused on what bees can teach us about our human environmental impacts, agricultural practices, sustainability, spirituality, collaborating, communication styles, and more. Still, in spite of the changed focus I hung on to the title “Dialogue in Bee Time.”

My rationale was that in writing I was very much engaged in an imaginary conversation with readers, and a few of the chapters do touch on bees and dialogue in ways that reflect the practices we’ve cultivated at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.

“Bee time” refers to how time slows down in the apiary, alluding to that sense of presence and focus that beekeepers adopt when working their colonies. To me, that mood is identical to the deep listening and profound engagement that happens while dialoguing.

The only problem was no one but me liked the title. “Dialogue” doesn’t mean much to a public reader, “lessons learned” was pedagogical overkill, and the title/subtitle used the word “bee” twice, a non-starter with the publisher.

My editor suggested “Sweet Spot: How Bees Sustain Us,” which I quite liked, but it was immediately rejected by the marketing department. No explanation, it just rubbed them the wrong way. We then tried innumerable combinations of “Bee Time” and subtitles like: “Insights from the Hive,” “Reflections from the Hive,” and “Learning from the Hive.”

We even thought of no subtitle, just “Bee Time,” but that seemed too stark.

Finally, we came back to the original title, shortened it, and voila: a title that I’m happy with, my editor is happy with, and most importantly: it’s a title the press thinks will sell books.

“Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive” is due out 1 October 2014. And the title reflects exactly what the book is about: there is much to learn from bees. When we enter bee time, we find that bees are an extraordinary lens through which to view ourselves.

What’s in a Name?

Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue recognized Chief Robert Joseph of Vancouver Island’s Gwawaenuk First Nation this week with our most prestigious award, the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue (http://www.sfu.ca/dialogue/programs/blaney-award.html)

It’s presented every other year to an individual who has demonstrated, internationally, excellence in the use of dialogue to further the understanding of complex and profound public issues. Chief Joseph is a residential school survivor, who in his own words left the school “broken,” but he gradually emerged from the personal damage to grow into a man of great dignity and courage.

He has done what so many of us struggle with: putting aside anger and working for reconciliation. The award to Chief Joseph recognizes his tireless work to renew relationships among Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, built on a foundation of openness, dignity, understanding and hope.

Listening to Chief Joseph at the award ceremony, I was reminded of one signature outcome that characterizes successful reconciliation: achieving the capacity to fully express who you are without fear of retribution or consequences.

For example, it’s not always been advisable for Jews to be public about our Judaism. My father changed his name from “Weinstein” to “Winston” because when he was a young man in the 1940’s, it was difficult with a Jewish last name to get a job in his chosen field of engineering.

Jews were particularly traumatized after the Holocaust, and the names parents gave their children were designed to disguise our identity, either deliberately or unconsciously. I was named Mark Leslie Winston, and my brother Scott Elliott; most Jewish friends of my age have similarly anglicized names: Richard, Paul, Edward, Frank, John, Linda, Susan, Harriett and Lynn.

But anti-Semitism has receded in North America over the last many decades, allowing a proud blossoming of identity through names. My daughter is Devora Sheina, and the children of our friends have names like Sarah, Shira, Rachel, Jacob, Lavi, Aviva, Jordana, Talya, and Nirit, carrying those names openly and with confidence.

This is one of the healthy outcomes of reconciliation: the capacity to move from the consequences of prejudice and fear to confidence and comfort in expressing every aspect of identity.

We see this happening in many indigenous communities today. It was a stellar moment of reconciliation when British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed to their ancestral name Haida Gwaii, a terminological moment reflecting the brighter future emerging from the recovery of aboriginal identity.

Chief Joseph is fond of a word in his native Gwawaenuk language, ‘namwayut, which means “we are all one.” But ‘namwayut doesn’t mean being the same. One of the key steps in reconciling past injustice is to say that we can be many, each valued for their unique identity.

Canada’s indigenous peoples experienced a grave injustice, denial of their culture and identity, but that is changing. We’ll all be richer as the ancestral names of native Canadians, and the ancient names of the places they inhabited, return.

I look forward to Chief Joseph’s ancestral name, Kwun Kwun Wha Lee Gei Gee (Big Thunderbird) rolling easily on all our tongues.

Difficult choices

Honeybees are known for their collective capacity to make good choices. For example, when faced with a decision about whether to forage on flowers yielding copious amounts of nectar vs. those that are weak nectar producers, colonies learn quickly to focus on the more productive resource.

But what happens when their decisions are less clear-cut, and their choices more difficult?

A fascinating new study out of Australia shows that, when faced with insufficient information to make an informed choice, honeybees opt out of making any decision.

The researchers used an experimental model first developed with dolphins, that rewards an animal for a good choice, punishes for a bad one, but provides a third option where the test animal can decide not to choose at all. In the honeybee experiment, the authors trained bees to targets associated with either a sugar reward or a foul-tasting quinine punishment.

Bees trained easily when the targets were distinctly shaped or clearly located relative to the reward/punishment, soon learning to imbibe the sugar and ignore the quinine. However, when targets were only slightly different in shape or location, and difficult to tell apart, bees soon gave up sampling either one, opting out of making any decision. That is, uncertainty led to withdrawal of the bees’ interest in making any choice, at least until the options clarified.

Swarms have a similar opting-out mechanism when faced with more than one choice for a new nest site. A swarm that’s issued from a hive and is suspended from a tree branch or other overhang must find a new nest quickly if it is to survive. The swarm sends out worker bees to search, return and do a dance communicating the distance, direction and quality of potential sites, attracting additional scouts to examine prospective cavities.

A number of sites are scouted, but eventually the swarm reaches agreement and dances to only one superior site before lifting off, all the bees flying to the new nest together. Occasionally, though, two sites are equally valued, and the swarm lifts, splits, each half flies 20 to 30 feet in one of the two nest directions and then the bees in both groups return to the overhang, recognizing that their choice isn’t as clear as it needs to be.

Additional scouting and dance conversation ensues until the best choice clarifies. Just as in the reward/punishment experiment, swarms opt out of making a decision when faced with uncertainty.

There’s a lesson to ponder here for we humans as well. When choices are not obvious and we are faced with difficult decisions around highly nuanced issues, perhaps we would benefit by waiting.

For example, regulators often approve pesticides with insufficient research prior to licensing. I wish there had been more extensive information on neonicitinoid impact on bees before these controversial chemicals became the globe’s most ubiquitous agricultural pesticide.

And bees would be in much better shape today if field trials about the impacts of genetically modified, herbicide tolerant crops had asked whether these crops might be too efficient. While not directly toxic to bees, they are harmful by eliminating the diverse forage that honeybees and wild bees depend on for adequate nutrition.

It’s the precautionary principle: if there is a suspected risk of harm, slow down implementation of new technology until safety is proven.

Bees get it; perhaps we should too.

The decision-making study was published in the Proceeding of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2013, 110:19155-19159, Clint J. Perry and Andrew B. Barron, “Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices”), available on the web at http://www.pnas.org/content/110/47/19155.full. For more on swarm choice, see Tom Seeley’s excellent book Honeybee Democracy (2010, Princeton University Press)

Experience your education

I was a seriously underperforming undergraduate student at Boston University in 1970, bored by classes and distracted by, well, all the things that distract a young man of 20. But I needed a summer job, and as a Biology major I got it into my head to knock on faculty members’ doors to see if I could find a research position. I had a dim understanding that’s what biologists, at least the real ones, did for employment: they were paid to study things.

I began knocking, wearing my usual overalls, long and unkempt hair and beard, with only my pathetic transcript loaded with C’s and D’s to offer prospective employers. After being quickly refused and dismissed at every door, I finally found myself at Lynn Margulis’s office door. I had no idea that Lynn was among the most stellar evolutionary biologists of the last 100 years, and Boston University’s most famous scientist at the time. To me, she was just another door to knock on and face what I had come to expect as inevitable rejection.

But instead, she dragged me into her office, and spent most of that afternoon passionately and enthusiastically introducing me to primitive one-celled organisms. She pulled out old articles by LR Cleveland about the magnificent termite gut symbionts, and the work of then-obscure Russian protozoologists describing the most bizarre organisms imaginable. I didn’t understand more than 5% of what she was saying, but was hooked on her passion. And to my great surprise she gave me a summer job, and let me loose in her lab to do real research.

In spite of her stratospheric accomplishments and huge reputation, Lynn had little in the way of grant money, due to her reputation as a maverick and an outspoken critic of how mainstream science was funded and conducted. And, being a strong-minded woman in 1970’s science with what were then radical scientific ideas was not endearing to granting bodies.

But oddly she did have some funds to develop a new screening method for anti-cancer drugs. The idea was to examine how the potential drugs interfered with the growth of tiny hairs (cilia) that make up the mouthparts of one-celled organisms. These hairs are made of the same proteins that create the push-and-pull structures that divide cells. If a drug interfered with the mouthpart hairs, it might also interfere with the out-of-control cell division that characterizes cancer.

My first task was to do a 24-hr. experiment in which I shocked the cilia hairs to shed with chemicals, then followed their regeneration every 2 hours in the presence of various doses of potential anti-cancer drugs. Control cells would take about 8 hours to regenerate, and our hope was that the anti-cancer drugs would slow or prevent regeneration until at least the next day.

I began at 8 AM, checking the dishes of pond water in which the cells were swimming every two hours, recording the state of the hairs. It got to be dinnertime, then later, and it occurred to me that I would be up all night with this experiment doing my two-hour checks.

Fortunately I had friends in the neighborhood near the laboratory who habitually stayed up late imbibing various things and partying. I joined in, but returned to the lab faithfully every two hours to collect the data.

By the next morning I was over-tired and in a somewhat altered state, but dying to know whether the results meant anything. After the last 8 AM check, I took out a piece of graph paper and recorded each 2-hr. data point, and to my amazement the data formed a perfect straight line; the dose of drug was exactly related to how long it took the cilia to regenerate.

A perfect fit. Exactly related. Unusual in science, but a life changer for me. For the first time I understood that a well-conceived experiment could reveal something about the world no one had known before, unpeeling the tiniest, tiniest piece of the great mystery posed by the universe around us.

It was also my first experience in school with personal agency. It was a revelation that  even as a student I could make things happen, find things to study that made a difference in the world outside of what, until then, had been the boring classroom. It made me want to pay attention in lectures, to learn what I needed to know so that I, too, could be a scientist.

I’m often asked why I started an experiential learning program, Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue (www.sfu.ca/dialogue/semester), and Lynn Margulis comes to mind. Lynn passed away recently, after an illustrious career replete with almost every award imaginable, but it’s her faith in what students could accomplish that remains to me as her most lasting legacy.

I had the pleasure of introducing Lynn at a lecture once, and called her my fairy godmother. I think that’s about it: she reached out and touched so many of us with her magic wand, turning what looked like toads into princes with her unwavering confidence and support that we could be more, way more, than we thought we could be.

Isn’t that what teaching should be about?