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Bio 103, week 4

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum for Biology 103.  This is a place for thoughts in progress, a place to leave thoughts and questions that others may find useful and find ones that you might find useful, a place for conversation.  Join in, and let's see what we can make of life together.  If you're registered for the course, be sure to sign in before posting.  Others are welcome to join in as well but posting of comments will be delayed to check for spam.  You're free to write about whatever has struck you.  If you need something to get you started though what do think our kinship not only with fish but with bacteria?  of life elsewhere in the universe?  of life as improbable assemblies at multiple spatial scales?  of life as always changing exploration, like science? 

c.k.koech's picture


(I realized how ridiculous I was sounding but thats what happens sometimes when I think out loud...these are my pure unrehearsed thoughts sorry in advance)

I was really excited about our class on friday. this whole idea that space has limitations kinda blew my mind. i imagined that the universe looks like this book or piece of paper just randomly placed on the floor, is there anyway to know what is like outside of our universe. if it has limitations doesnt that make it possible that there can be other universes like ours??? maybe its like this big "room" with a bunch of clothes and stuff strewn about at random (the clothes and stuff being the universes) I wonder if thats where god comes in, like maybe "he" has a messy room  where he keeps all his universe  experiments....

I think this is sooo much fun like whats really out there???? we can go down to our atoms here and see what our universe looks like out there but can we go farther??? like drichard asked what really is an atom? whats it made up of can there be anything smaller than that, if not on earth maybe somewhere else...what about on the reverese end idk but I reeeeeealllly want to know whats out there!! i want to go to different galaxies or even universes, can we PLEASE be able to do that! I really hope its possible


ED's picture

scale and bodies

I also enjoyed last week's classes. From a visual perspective/as a visual artist, it was fun to look at life abstractly; to be able to see all these seemingly random, painted lines and colors and patterns, and then realizing the significance of the subject I was looking at (the earth, a bee's eye, an atom etc). Wouldn't you be surprised to, after admiring a blue and green abstract canvas, find out that you were looking at a photograph of the earth, or a close up of something else that was important to you (like part of your iris (eye) or something)? Okay maybe this is just an artist thing. I really like seeing.

More than anything though, thinking about scale and the breakdown of life in last week's classes made me return to an issue that haunted me for awhile. Our bodies are made up of all these other pieces (macro molecules, atoms) that constitute life--they compose us-- but the atoms that make us are not actually ours. The issue is attachment and the whole idea of durability... everything is temporary. So what does it mean to "own" something? Even your hand is not the hand you were born with-- the atoms have all been replaced with new ones over time. Does that throw anyone else off as much as it did me? I took a creative writing class in my last semester of high school for which I wrote a piece in the style of NPR's "This I Believe" series. I sent it along to Prof Grobstein and he said I should post it on Serendip... of course it has a personal story enmeshed in it, but the observations and questions I ask via the story I tell are relevant to the way we think in this class. It's a piece I'm proud of, and it means a lot to me, but I am happy to share it.

If you go to my blog, you will find it there.

Terrible2s's picture

How do we know??

Okay, so week 4 was really interesting and I feel like we learned a lot of new material which was exciting. But, I guess it's being in this class that has made me a skeptic, because during most of the classes I kept thinking "how do we know?" I mean, especially when it comes to atoms and other really tiny things, we basically just have to trust that all the "tests" and microscopic observations of these scientists are correct. It so tiny! We can't observe that! I thought about atoms in particular when it came to talking about how they are comprised of mostly blank space. How do we know? I know we have Rutherford's test and all of the other "proof" but what IS "blank space?" Air? No. Water? No. What is it? I began to think about that when we zoomed out of our spectrum and started talking about space. SPACE. What is this space? I just don't buy it. I think that it has got to be some other material that we haven't figured out how to process or identify yet. I guess with things past 10 to the -7 and things past 10 to the 2, I don't completely trust the information given to us about them. Maybe my next webpaper will be on this...

drichard's picture

connectedness, space, infinity, life lessons. you know, biology.

I've been thinking about how this week's discussion applies to real life. Our look into classification could be a model for how we look at other issues outside of the classroom. For example, our decision of scale is extremely important; it dictates how similar two different objects/bodies will appear. If we look at living things at the scale of an angstrom, they all appear the same: a bunch of atoms... carbon, nitrogen, etc. If we look at living things from a great distance, say from the stratosphere, then the living beings we can see will again all look the same [for example, a human and a giraffe will both appear to us as a dot]. In the same way, outside of the classroom, if we examine an issue too closely we lose the context of the issue and practicality goes out of the window. If we examine an issue from too great a distance we tend to generalize and, once again, our observations are skewed and our conclusions potentially invalidated. There seems to be an important balance to be struck; our decision of scale proves a very important task. We must ask ourselves what exactly we are looking for and which scale will likely get us the "most right" obseravtions.

I've also been thinking about the idea of connectedness. It has been said in the classroom and in the forum that we are more related to bacteria than plants. Isn't this entirely dependent on what classification system you are using? For example, if I looked solely at the size of all three organisms (plants, bacteria, and humans) humans and plants would be more closely related than humans with bacteria. It all depends, again, on our decision of scale, on what we are looking for. Like everything, it is all relative.

Finally, I was glad we spent so much time on scale and space and the like. The size and complexity of our lives keeps me in constant amazement. I am particularly interested in the idea of following physical objects all the way "up" or "down." For example, we can follow humans all the way down through skin and bones and hair and muscle fibers and stomach acids and macromolecules and molecules all the way down to the carbon atoms that compose our bodies. But what is the atom made out of? Is our physicality an infinite regress? The idea is a bit tautological, maybe even elementary, but it holds my attention every time I think about physical space.

Terrible2s's picture

Bacteria as our brothers?

The whole "connectness" conversation didn't shock me in the least. I think that's because we're taking everything to be so subjective in this class, and it's getting easier to frame things in my mind in a different way because I'm starting to question the rigid Facts I've been taught.

Either way it is very bizarre to think of.

jmstuart's picture

raisin bread. yum.

 I particularly enjoyed the discussion on the "Big Bang" theory on Friday. I feel like it's an abstract concept that everyone hears about, but it was interesting to put it into the context of our scientific method. (as in, here's the observations we have, what story could possibly explain these events?) However, I think it's interesting to note that there's just as much to be discovered at the smallest levels of life (inside and atom) and in the greatest scale of the entire universe. Also, the improbability of all of these things even existing is absolutely astounding. Everything is so incredibly complex, it's absolutely impossible to imagine how it all fits together. I love the idea of the tree of life, because it's a visual representation of the relationships between living organisms. Also, I think it's incredible how the classification system put in place much before evolutionary theory actually corresponds very well to evolutionary clads. 

Yashaswini's picture

Week 4

The past week was a particularly interesting one. It amazed me to learn that we actually share a closer kinship with bacteria than with plants, as both (humans and bacteria) are heterotrophs! It would never have occured to me, otherwise. I always felt a stronger relation with plants, as they are larger and closer to our spatial scale. This also made me think of how we've established a sort of heirarchy in the classification system. Despite the heirarchy, however, I believe the classification system is more of a.. horizontal platform, where all creatures are placed at the same level and given the same amount of importance: no creature is superior to another. A few might be more "developed" (humans vs bacteria) but this should not give them undue privelleges (eg, humans killing animals/trees because they are "superior", placed higher up in the heirarchy and have the apparent right to do so). The horizontal set up dwells more on chronological appearance and development.

Also, the degree of complexity of unlikely assemblies at different levels really fascinated me! I was inititally confused by the zooming in and zooming out of the lily pond in class, but I later understood it's significance. To my naked eye, the surface of a table-top looks smooth. However, on zooming in a few hundred times, I wouldn't be surprised to find the same table top with a rocky, mountain-like terrain, filled with jagged edges and dust particles that were not visible before. This furthur made me think about the importance of an individual's perspective and perception.

achiles's picture

 I'm curious about the notion

 I'm curious about the notion that there could be life on earth still undiscovered due to our inability to see small organisms beyond a certain magnification. This raises important questions regarding our search for life on other planets. How are we supposed to find life if we don't really know what we're looking for? 

JPierre's picture


I agree with your comment concerning life on other planets that we're unable to see. If we can't see it, it will make it that much harder to search for these organisms. However, if life does exist on other planets, then hopefully these same organisms will evolve into something that the human eye can see just as humans evolved in the same manner millions of years before. But who knows maybe we'll never be able to see or discover life on other planets because these living organisms will remain in their same state that is invisible to the human eye.

ED's picture

 Jpierre, you make me

 Jpierre, you make me optimistic. I just thought "humans can only sense what they can sense!" But why shouldn't we be able to evolve to see or sense other life forms if our survival calls for it? I'd like to think the human body is robust and adaptable enough to do so! 

Karina G's picture

Week 4

I'm relieved that we finally have a limitation. While looking at a living organism in different scales we discovered that in order to be alive you need to be at least 1 micron. When we kept going down in the scale 10-8, 10-9... We began to see atoms and electrons. At this point there was no longer an improbable assembly since we weren't  able to differentiate different organisms (we looked the same). Same idea when we began to go up the scale. There was a point where we just saw dots in space and couldn't distinguish us (Earth) from other planets or stars and so on.

Talking about space raises a lot of questions regarding our definition of life. Like other classmates have mention if there is life elsewhere we would probably share similarities (one or more categories).
Professor Grobstein mention how carbon atoms where made from the explosion of the end of a star's life(supernova) and how there hasn't been a supernova near our galaxy in a long time. Now I wonder has there been a supernova in other galaxies? Can we track it?


dchin's picture

Week 4

Given our discussion on the characteristics of life and how vast the universe is, I wonder what characteristics non Earth based life forms, assuming they exist, use to define life. What characteristics could they possibly use?

Visualizing our significance in relation to the other planets, stars, suns, galaxies, etc. out there is disorienting. They are to us as we are to extremely small organisms like bacteria. This reminds me of our discussion about how categories are human constructions that are subject to change and created for a purpose. The subjectivity in creating categories makes me wonder about how categorization might change in the future as technology progresses and we are able to discover more about life on Earth and other planets.

cejensen's picture

Thinking Big

The discussion of scale again got me thinking about the relatedness of life, especially life on earth. The fact that all life is made of carbon atoms, and that carbon atoms are the product of supernova explosions, made me realize that perhaps extraterrestrial life might be made of carbon atoms as well. I had been thinking of life on earth as completely different from and unrelated to life elsewhere, but now I think that if we were to find life elsewhere in the universe, it might at the very least have that in common with us. Thinking big makes me feel small, but also very connected, if you catch my drift. However, we still have not found life elsewhere, and so for now we must focus on the circumstances that allowed for life on our tiny earth. Perhaps this will help us identify life somewhere else.

dchin's picture

If we share qualities with

If we share qualities with life outside of Earth then either whoever or whatever created us, created everything or the creation of life everywhere was one big coincidence.

JPierre's picture

Monday's discussion

The idea of classification by way of context makes classiying organisms/peoples/things less daunting. Classification by context removes the "anything goes" method in this class. More specifially, knowing that I share a kinship to bacteria because of our abilities to store DNA is more reassuring than saying that I am related to bacteria just because everything in this world is related somehow.  Having a context in which to classify organisms or living things reassures me that in this class, I won't be learning that I'm actually related to a wooden table without ample reasoning to support that claim.

Moreover, this mode of thinking is pretty exciting. Thinking about classification in these terms increases my ambitions as I see myself wanting to find or observe the link between me and other organisms. Now that I can see a link between myself and bacteria, an organism that is so anesthetically different from me, I wonder with what I will find a connection to next.

JJ's picture

life in perspective

What stuck with me about today's discussion was one of the final comments, about how our relation to every living thing is much more evident when you look at it from a bigger perspective. When we look at the small area in which we live or even at our country, it is hard to relate ourselves to the simplest little organisms (like bacteria). From such a close view of life, all the species seem so different and distinctive. On the other hand, when you look at the Earth as a planet in the much larger universe, that may or may not contain other "life", we seem much more related to other living things. It is much easier to see a kinship to something we'd normally view as having no connection to us when we look at living things from a universal perspective. Again, its all relative, but living things are much easier (for me) to clump together and relate to when I look at our planet in perspective of the other planets and universe.  

cejensen's picture


I agree that thinking big allows us to see the relatedness of life much more easily.  For our purposes of defining "life," I think thinking on a larger scale will prove to be extremely important. As we saw from lab this week, thinking small is important as well. Thinking in a different scale than the one we're used to is what we need to do to see similarities.