Thursday, April 18, 2013

Happy Reaping, Talmudic Questions, Zen Philosophy, and the Value of Reasoning From First Principles.

This semester, I am teaching a freshman biology course called "The Unity of Life."  It's really an introductory cell and molecular biology course that covers an awful lot of thematic ground.  Because of the large amount of information covered quickly, I sometimes becomed labeled by students as the "bad guy" with the red pen.  I really enjoy working with students, and I have never confused the quality of human being with a score on a quiz or exam.  Fairness and clarity are very important to me as a professor in the classroom.  Still, I learned a while back that some freshmen came up with a nickname for me.  That's right:  I'm the Happy Reaper™.  It made my wife laugh and she designed a T-shirt with an image she created to celebrate.  Sigh.

The "F" business makes me a little sad, but I suppose I should just embrace some aspects of it.  The students at least say I am pleasant in the classroom when I hand back graded exams (hence the "happy" part of being a Reaper, I guess).  I really do want to help students see how the new information fits together and is relevant to our everyday world.

The class I teach is a bit large for a small liberal arts institution:  I have 48 students (lecture three days a week, three lab sections of 16 students each), so it is easy for students to, um, not obtain clarity.  It's very difficult to create rapport with students under these conditions (though I know very well that friends of mine teach gigantic classes---my class is simply large for this institution).  Thus, I work hard to reinforce overarching concepts, bring up topical examples of materials presented, and I actively encourage questions from my students.

There is a saying that there is no such thing as a "dumb" question.  Fair enough.  But there are "thoughtless" or "ill-considered" questions a plenty.  You can tell, because as the student asks the question, she or he will exclaim "Oh!" and often answer the question for themselves.  It's a great moment for the student, and the class as a whole. 

There are also questions that come up in lecture or lab which are seemingly simple, yet hard to answer---and cannot be easily answered by running to Google or Wikipedia.  The great Elio Schaechter calls them "Talmudic Questions" on his fine ASM-sponsored blog relating to matters microbial, "Small Things Considered."  When I teach microbiology next Fall, I will be using many of Elio's great Talmudic Questions as "jumping off" points for student discussion and creativity.

I would like add another category of extremely useful and thought-provoking, yet seemingly simple inquiries:  Zen Questions.  I came up with the label in my classroom from reading the 1970 book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by the great Shunryu Suzuki many years ago.  It is characterized by the Zen concept of Shoshin.  Here is a wonderful quotation illustrating my point:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

I have long said that the three most important words in science are "I don't know."  No, we shouldn't celebrate not knowing things, but false knowledge becomes an intellectual prison, and closes down the mind.  There is a nice essay related to this here.  "I don't know" allows you to sit back, and look at a problem with new, fresh eyes, without preconceived notions.  That is what Suzuki meant, and I contend it is an important part of science.  When I do this exercise, I often come up with new and valuable insights.

How best to illustrate this idea?  I would like to share the following story, from 1987 or so.  I had been working as a postdoctoral student in San Diego, and had fallen in intellectual love with bacterial bioluminescence.  Many microbiologists have the same fondness for blue-green light at 490 nanometers, and that affection sometimes leads to photographs like this, where I illuminate my own face with microbial light!

There are many photographs like this one, taken by microbiologists with similar interests; I am by no means claiming originality here.

So I was giving a seminar, my first serious talk since earning my PhD the year before.  Consequently,  I was a bit nervous.  But the subject matter was so wonderful!  As part of my talk, I prepared a large Fernbach flask with marine nutrient broth, inoculated it in the early morning with a brightly luminous microbe, and let it grow a bit.  By the time I began my seminar, the culture was glowing quite well.

During my talk, as an illustration of bioluminescence, I held the flask up to my face so that (in the darkened lecture hall) the audience could see something like the spooky image above.  A nice "stunt" to illustrate a point.

Except a high school student, visiting, raised his hand.  Interestingly, he didn't know that it was unusual to ask question during a seminar.  But he was clearly excited by something.  So I called on him, in the middle of my seminar.

"I can't see through the culture in that big flask," he said.

There are huge numbers of bacteria in every milliliter of that broth, I replied, and they scatter and block the light.

"Yeah," he replied, squinting.  "So how does the light the bacteria make get out?'

I stopped cold. 

I had never, ever thought about that.  It was a nearly perfect question, from someone who didn't know about mixed function oxidases, fatty acid recycling, and the physics of emitted light.  I thought it was a lovely, lovely question and I was not in the least disturbed by it.

I stood there in the lecture hall and thought for a few moments (which yes, seemed like many decades).  And then I suggested to the high school student that he might think of the cell wall of a bacterium like the diffuser on a lamp...thus the light that was produced inside the cell was similar to a light bulb in a lamp, with the shade diffusing and spreading out the light.

And I suspect I am right (though I am no physicist).  The student seemed fine with that answer, as was the audience.

So the student's question was one of the first examples I experienced of Zen Beginner's Questions.  It would not be the last.  Embrace that high school student's enthusiasm and ask questions often!  Many times, students fear to ask questions, believing that they will be thought of being "stupid" for asking a question. Not so! As an educator, I have learned that if one student has a question, there are other students who wonder the same thing, but are nervous about speaking. Science is beautiful and complex and wonderful beyond words.  Share it, and don't be afraid find the enthusiasm of that inner child. 

Readers, please keep in mind that "I don't know" is where wisdom and learning begin.  It reminds me a little of the famed Socrates quote, that he claimed to be both the wisest and stupidest of men---stupidest for there was so much he did not know, and wisest because he was aware of the fact.  Taking a clear look with "new" eyes always helps.  The late science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, famously pointed out that:

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but 'That’s funny...'”

So embrace the beginnings of learning with enthusiasm.  Put aside ego (which, though it costs nothing, is among the most expensive of bad habits).  Become excited about how science uncovers the universe around us.

Saadat A. Khan noted the following about this ideal of the Beginner's Mind:

"Beginner's mind embodies the highest emotional qualities such as enthusiasm, creativity, zeal, and optimism. If the reader reflects briefly on the opposites of these qualities, it is clear to see that quality of life requires living with beginner's mind. With beginner's mind, there is boundlessness, limitlessness, an infinite wealth"

And embrace Shoshin with your classroom, your professors, and your family and friends.  You will be the wiser for it.  Students, ask away...with enthusiasm and joy!


  1. Oh, what a wonderful question. Sometimes I struggle to formulate my questions in the "heat of the moment"; I'm getting better, but you have to be pretty fast to recognize a problem, formulate a question, double check the question to make sure you're not asking something confusing or confused, and then get it in before the speaker moves on.

  2. There should always be time for questions. Sometimes it is tough, but I have done some of my best thinking during office hours, when students come ask me questions without fear and without a lecture clock thinking. I find that many students are nervous about questions; I guess I understand that in the classroom. But office hours? Thank you for your comment. Ask away!


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!