The way we teach science misses something key: Human context
Why do we deprive students of the historical and cultural context of science?
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- The teaching of science must and can be humanized at all levels, from nonscience courses to technical advanced courses.
- By teaching science only as a technical endeavor, we deprive students and future scientists of a more inclusive worldview where science is seen as part of our human need to make sense of the world.
- The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential aspect of the public sphere.
We've all heard this before, and many of us have experienced it firsthand: Science class is boring. It's too hard. It's not fun. It's all about memorizing a bunch of formulas. The teacher is too tough. Homework is stupid and pointless. The list goes on. Of course, there are spectacular exceptions, truly motivating and inspiring science teachers across the world. One or two of these mentors were essential to many of us who became professional scientists. What do they have that other teachers don't? What makes a good science teacher? There is pedagogy, of course. How you present the material, how you relate to your students. But first and foremost, it is passion that makes a science teacher stand out, or any teacher for that matter. Passion for the subject matter, passion for teaching, passion for making a difference and becoming someone unique in the lives of the many young people the teacher meets in the classroom. A successful teacher never steps outside of his own humanity as he steps into the classroom. Quite the opposite, the act of teaching should be a celebration of our shared humanity, of our mission to pass on knowledge from generation to generation so as to keep the appetite for discovery and invention burning.
...the act of teaching should be a celebration of our shared humanity, of our mission to pass on knowledge from generation to generation so as to keep the appetite for discovery and invention burning.
There is a side to science teaching that is formulaic; there is material that needs to be covered, facts that must be introduced, there is repetition, there is frustration. No profession is different. Like in acting, however, it is the delivery that makes the difference. You can explain Newton's laws of motion by simply writing them on the blackboard (or the whiteboard or a tablet that is projected onto a big screen) and working through a few examples. This is done across the world in thousands of classrooms every day. But if this is all you do when teaching Newton's laws, you are leaving out the best part of the story, the story itself. Who was Isaac Newton? Why was he thinking about the laws of motion and gravity in his early twenties? What was going on in Europe in the mid 1600s? Was science at war with religion after Galileo's affair with the Vatican? Where was Newton when he came up with his first insights into a formulation of mechanics that would change the world forever? (Answer: hiding from a plague pandemic in his mother's farm.) What inspired him? Was he just a hardened rationalist who only cared about describing the world through formulas? (Answer: absolutely not! Yes, Newton was a weirdo, socially detached, quiet, and probably died a virgin. Still, he was far from a cold machine, only interested in calculations. What moved him was a deep religiosity, a conviction that the rationality of the world reflected God's rationality and that the task of the natural philosopher was to unveil the cosmic blueprint so as to understand better the "mind of God.") To Newton, the practice of science was an act of religious devotion.
Why deprive students of this humanistic side of science? The usual excuse is time, as in "we don't have enough time to cover the material and delve into such stories." Nonsense. I've been teaching physics courses for over 30 years at all different levels, from non-science majors to quantum field theory to graduate students, and I can guarantee that there is always time when there is the will.
The true reason why the overwhelming majority of science classes excludes the humanistic aspects inherent in the practice of science is that most scientists don't know any of this story. And they don't know it because these topics are not part of their scientific education. Those who do know, look for this knowledge largely on their own. A typical scientific education doesn't include the historical and cultural context from which the science emerged, or the spiritual and religious inspiration behind the thoughts of many of the "heroes" of science, from Johannes Kepler and Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. And if they do know, they've been trained not to mention it. "Don't mention philosophy, don't mention history of science, and surely don't mention religion in a science class."
Carl Sagan, one the most loved science teachers and communicators, speaks at Cornell University circa 1987.
Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel by CC 4.0
Over the past two centuries, and largely influenced by the profound and immediate impact of technological applications of scientific thinking in industry and society, the teaching of science was mostly reduced to the instruction of technicians, a specialized guild focused on very specific tasks. We became incredibly efficient at handling abstruse mathematics and computer programming, of modeling specific systems and handling laboratory demands within narrow subdisciplines: plasma physics, condensed-matter physics, high-energy physics, astrophysics, and so on. The walls erected between the sciences and the humanities after the Enlightenment have multiplied into walls erected between the countless subdisciplines within each scientific field, from physics and chemistry to biology and computer science. Reductionism took over education and we lost sight of the whole.
True, the vast amount of knowledge accumulated over the centuries, and that continues to grow at an unrelenting pace in all scientific fields, unavoidably precludes anyone from having a global understanding of a whole subject, be it astronomy or cognitive psychology. That is not what worries me, as I am, as are all my colleagues, one of the specialists. What does worry me is the enormous distancing between a scientific education and a humanistic approach to knowledge. From teaching Dartmouth's Physics for Poets for most of my career, I have witnessed the excitement of nonscience majors when they understand not the formulas of physics but the ideas of physics, the historical context from which they emerged, their philosophical and religious implications, the humanity of science itself, as an expression of our human need to make sense of who we are and of the world in which we live. (For those curious, I created a similar online course free and open to the public, Question Reality! Science, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning )
As students learn about changing worldviews, about the importance of observational rigor and methodological discipline, of the devotion and passion that feeds the search for knowledge and the fundamental relevance of science education in our times, they reconnect with a science they had deemed unwieldy and grow as thinkers and citizens. The challenges we face in the modern world call for an engagement of the sciences and the humanities that starts in the classroom and becomes an essential conversation in the public sphere.
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Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
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