Saturday, May 2, 2015

DNA, Penicillin & Phenology : what great works A H MacKay hath wroth

Pioneering DNA and Penicillin scientist Dr Martin Henry Dawson (1896-1945) was undoubtably Nova Scotia Superintendent of Education A H Mackay's most illustrious student.

Dawson's pioneering investigating of the hidden complexities of microbial life (HGT, quorum sensing, molecular mimicry, biofilms, natural penicillin) flew in the face of all the 'modern' wisdom of the scientists and educated public of his day.

But in the end, it paved the way for our current post modern ways of wisdom.

Dawson grew up right across the street from the Hub of Nova Scotia's public education system in downtown Truro and with his mother a teacher and his father on the school board, he could not help but do well in school, regardless of the level of his genetically given intelligence resources.

At at time (High Modernity), when all the high schools of the world were leaders among Jacob Burkhardt's "terrible simplifers", reducing all the newly uncovered complexities of reality back into a few simple Laws of Nature, Superintendent MacKay dared bucked this educational and societal trend.

Instead MacKay saw to it that all of the province's schools allowed their students to see for themselves just how complicated and varied the world really was.

He himself was a noted natural historian, publishing articles in scientific journals , despite natural history being dismissed as fit only for an an amateur hobby for under occupied rural parsons.

So he boldly supplemented the worldwide trend to spend most of the spare school tax money on equipping all high schools with shiny new white indoor laboratories.

(Dawson's own High School, being the Model High School for an entire, albeit a small and relatively poor, province, had far better - newer - scientific equipment than most of Canada and America's universities provided to their undergraduates.)

MacKay commanded that all children and teachers throughout the province had to collect datum on the timing of the seasons' naturally cyclical events, as noted on their to and from walks to school each day.

He made all these little ankle biters junior participants in the grown up science of phenology.

This science studies the interaction between a basically fixed genetic timetable for Nature to do things versus the interaction with an ever varying climate as well as other such variables such as elevation, shade and wind cover.

MacKay's very impressive data set, from almost thirty years of recording, collected by upwards of a hundred thousand students each year, is still being used to help us gauge the change in the climate over the last hundred or so years.

But that is at the macro level.

At the classroom level, down at the micro level of timing when each returning bird and plant was first seen by each school kid in the Spring, what the kids collectively saw was a constant complex variety of possibilities of timings and locations.

The program basically ran from the year of Dawson's birth (1896)to the year (1926) that he permanently departed the province for New York City and began his pioneering research at Rockefeller and Columbia Universities.

He had bathed in this natural Historical way of seeing the contingencies of reality for thirty years and when he grew up, he became a clinical investigator - constantly balancing the simplicities of artificial lab experiments against the unpredictable complexities of actual real life human patients.

At those universities,not unexpectedly, Dawson's research results revealing the overwhelming complexity of reality rather than demonstrating its supposed ability to all be reduced to a few simple laws governing the motion of atoms, were wildly unfashionable.

But today they all just seem perfectly normal.

I can't help thinking that old L.H. would be grinning from ear to ear if he woke from the dead and was suddenly dropped into any current biology conference .

'Believed at last, believed at last, Great God Almighty, believed at last' !!!!

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