I should have loved biology

James Somers:

For instance I never learned that a man named Oswald Avery, in the 1940s, puzzled over two cultures of Streptococcus bacteria. One had a rough texture when grown in a dish; the other was smooth, and glistened. Avery noticed that when he mixed the smooth strain with the rough strain, every generation after was smooth, too. Heredity in a dish. What made it work? This was one of the most exciting mysteries of the time—in fact of all time.

Most experts thought that protein was somehow responsible, that traits were encoded soupily, via differing concentrations of chemicals. Avery suspected a role for nucleic acid. So, he did an experiment, one we could have replicated on our benches in school. Using just a centrifuge, water, detergent, and acid, he purified nucleic acid from his smooth strep culture. Precipitated with alcohol, it became fibrous. He added a tiny bit of it to the rough culture, and lo, that culture became smooth in the following generations. This fibrous stuff, then, was “the transforming principle”—the long-sought agent of heredity. Avery’s experiment set off a frenzy of work that, a decade later, ended in the discovery of the double helix.

In his “Mathematician’s Lament,” Paul Lockhart describes how school cheapens mathematics by robbing us of the questions. We’re not just asked, hey, how much of the triangle takes up the box?