Sunday, December 6, 2009

UCD Fish on ESPN

I am going to resist the urge to turn this into a biology blog (or even a science blog) now that much of my reflective/study time is spent on Carbon based organisms and systems, but as I continue to sit on some partially written philosophical/theological pieces, I thought I’d do a video post[1] on my biological brain crush…fish.

The biodiversity class at UCD broke the class down into 3 parts with 3 professors: One for prokaryotes, one for plants and one for metazoans (animals). The ‘animal’ Prof[2]studies fish feeding and showed us the following video in class.

The Prokaryote prof[3] twittered this link and in 48 hours it had gone viral with > 200,00 views, culminating in it ending up on ESPN’s SportsNation.

Four things interest me about this anecdote:

1. This story about disseminating academic research on fish feeding included three media forms: television, YouTube and Twitter. I have thought a lot about what the scientific community owes the society that funds it in return for that investment (particularly for those forms of science that do not translate into technology). I feel like this is precisely the sort of result I would hope for. In addition to the formal contributions to the journals, these professors have leveraged technology to produce cultural value from the result of (admittedly obscure) work. [4]

2. Some of you may recall my very early post about content and community. I argued that the model of the lonely preacher producing compelling content week after week is fundamentally flawed and is an expectation unmatched by any other professional field. Even the academy is going to this model of producing content in community. It is not a coincidence that a class this good had three world class minds contributing to it.

3. Prof Wainwright liked to say human[5] jaw structure is relatively boring, having a single hinge. All our specialization is in our teeth. But there is incredibly rich and gorgeous diversity in the jaw structures of fish. I feel like there is a Tolkein-esque insight here about unexpected reservoirs of transcendence[6].

4. I love the confluence of science and sports as the punch line of this anecdote precisely because I counter-intuitively have the same existential reaction to theses seemingly disparate spheres. I enjoy descriptive science and sports because they are both windows into transcendence. One could say that Chris Johnson and the slingjaw wrasse are both just curious because they are tails of statistical distributions and therefore appeal to our voyeurism. But I choose to believe that there is something more than that going on. I think that both of these exceptional organisms tap into our desire to experience something qualitatively different[7]. Our fascination with them is a symptom of a spiritual hunger…an appetite for otherness...a conduit for worship.[8]

But mainly this post is just an excuse to post a series of Professor Wainwright’s stunning videos. So here are a few more[9]:

This post was prepared while listening to the Charlie Darwin Pandora Station

(Note: Listening to a station based on a hauntingly beautiful song called 'Charlie Darwin' seemed appropriate for this post, even before it brought up this song.)
[1] This is the kind of thing that would normally end up in one of my fragment’s posts, but between wrapping up my PhD, finals, family, work and a pretty rigorous preaching schedule this blog has been quieter than I like. So it became its own post.
[2] Peter Wainwright – a fantastic and energetic lecturer.
[3] World renowned Jonathan Eisen, also a fantastic professor, who maintains a very good blog on evolutionary biology. And Martin Doyle, the undisputed Angiosperm expert handled plants…lets just say to call the class thrilling is an understatement. Sadly, the brilliance was lost on many of the pre-med undergrads who simply saw it as a difficult obstacle between them and becoming a cutter.
[4] In light of my perspective on this I have distilled my dissertation into 10 - 3 minute videos and will have a nerdy YouTube channel of my own once my third paper is accepted.
[5] Actually, all Tetrapods.
[6] One of the comments on his youtoube channel asks “are you a scientist or an artist or both?” – I do enjoy the blurred distinction. Anyone who has read this blog for a while will recognize that I think the distinction between those categories is all together too rigid.
[7] Prof Wainwright himself appears to also experience some sort of beauty in both of these enterprises since his first lecture included a discussion of natural selection, ecological specialization and phenotpypic variation by examining NFL combine stats for various positions in three different decades. It was a bit of a non-sequiter, but thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually profitable.
[8] Incidentally, this gets at the root of the most prevalent of all spiritual disorders: idolatry. 'Idolatry' tends to invoke the anachronistic image of ancient Mesopotamians bowing down before great bovine statues. But it is every bit as prevalent and insidious in our milieu, as idolatry is simply confusing an awe inspiring object/organism/experience as a source of transcendence rather than a conduit.
[9] You can link to his Youtube channel here.

1 comment:

Joel said...

I don't think there always needs to be a line between "scientist" and "artist". Anyone's craft, done well, becomes an art, and in the case of science it's hard to say that something like Audubon's hand-drawn bird illustrations or those gorgeous pictures of viruses and pollen and stuff blown up and colored in "National Geographic" are not art as well as science.