Friday, March 27, 2009

Scientific Selections

February 12, 2009 marked the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. After the intellectual dishonesty of the Bush administration (especially its attempts to rewrite science in order to suit its ideology), I was particularly grateful to hear these comments from President Obama.

The educational environment in which I grew up celebrated math, science, and the scientific technique. Thus, when I finally got around to watching a PBS documentary I had recorded several months ago, I was startled to hear the narrator's voice solemnly state that "This documentary was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities -- because democracy demands wisdom." 

That's a pretty heady thought. 

Famed Darwin scholar Richard Milner was in town this week for two appearances at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. His first offering, Charles Darwin's Top Ten Choices, proved to be a delightful retelling of the strange course of Darwin's life. Not only was Darwin forced to drop out of medical school (he couldn't stand the sight of blood), he was a sailor who suffered horribly from seasickness and a theologian who was actually a creationist long before he came up with his theories about the origin of the species. 

Darwin's acute powers of observations led him to predict the discovery of a moth with a 12-inch tongue capable of drinking the nectar from a Comet orchid. Although he did not live to see the discovery of the Xanthopan morgani praedicta, the creature was, indeed, found on the island of Madagascar.

Darwin also spent several years studying barnacles (which, for those who care, have the largest ratio of penis size to total body size in nature). Perhaps his accursed seasickness (combined with his fascination for barnacles) had something to do with Barnacle Bill The Sailor

In any event, Milner's second program (which I was unable to attend) was his one-man songfest: Charles Darwin, Live and in Concert. Here he is, explaining his life-long fascination with Darwin:

As you can probably tell from this video clip, Milner is very much the lovable grandpa bear who delights in telling great stories to an audience. His keen interest in a few of the children who attended the lecture was remarkable, not only for his patience, but for his advice to them. He urged them to get out into nature and look at the original, live beings rather than just reading about them or learning from someone else's third opinion. He explained how he became fascinated with research as a lifelong path of discovery -- and how he learned that the Declaration of Independence was written by very ordinary people whose mistakes can be seen scribbled in the margins of the original drafts of the document. 

Milner's latest book (Darwin's Universe: Evolution From A To Z) is being published this spring by the University of California Press.   Thus, it was especially fascinating to hear him describe why someone interested in learning about Darwin should read Darwin's first book, The Voyage of the Beagle (so that they can hear the excitement and enthusiasm of a young naturalist and explorer) instead of The Origin of Species which is, by necessity, a boring catalogue of life forms. One of the best stories Milner shared with the audience at the JCCSF is a historic gem:
"In a legendary confrontation at the public 1860 Oxford evolution debate during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, though not opposed to transmutation of species, argued against Darwin's explanation. In the ensuing debate Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Darwin, and Thomas Huxley established himself as “Darwin’s bulldog”. Both sides came away feeling victorious, with Huxley claiming that on being asked by Wilberforce whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side, Huxley muttered: “The Lord has delivered him into my hands” and replied that he “would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood”
Happily, Milner didn't end the story there. He continued on to explain that, after Wilberforce died as a result of being thrown from a horse on July 19, 1873, Huxley wrote to Darwin explaining that Wilberforce's brains had finally come into contact with reality -- and that the result had been fatal!

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As President Obama gears up to do battle for healthcare reform, Lorie Conway's beautiful documentary entitled Forgotten Ellis Island offers some stunning insights into the earliest days of public healthcare in America. When massive waves of immigrants started heading for the New World at the beginning of the 20th century, the hospital built on Ellis Island to screen immigrants for possible diseases often had to cope with 5,000 new arrivals per day.

This was at a time when nearly every disease imaginable passed through the hospital facilities at Ellis Island, at a time when there were no antibiotics, no painkillers, and if anything like an amputation had to be performed it was done without anesthesia. The hospital at Ellis Island became a huge medical teaching facility, the forerunner of many state and county hospitals which are now aligned with medical schools.

While many families successfully made the transition from the ship which carried them across the Atlantic Ocean to solid ground on the island of Manhattan, others were torn apart by the failing health of a relative, or the news that a child, parent, or relative would not be allowed into the country and would end up being deported. The documentary also shows how some fields of medicine which we now take for granted (genetics, psychiatry, and mental health) were in their infancy.

As Americans grapple with the issue of whether healthcare is a right or a privilege, a glance back at the beginnings of New York's public healthcare system nearly a century ago is quite an eye opener. Whether you read Conway's book or order the DVD from PBS, this amazing piece of American medical history is well worth your attention.

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