Cornell biology majors are required to fulfill many requirements outside of standard biology, from organic chemistry to physics. However, according to Prof. Randy Wayne, plant biology, that is not enough. Students of many majors do not understand the underlying processes that tie these subjects together, Wayne said.
That is why his book Plant Cell Biology — From Astronomy to Zoology aims to combine aspects of biology, chemistry and physics to the study without defining boundaries. His book is for, as he says, “People who want to understand who they are and their relationship to the world, and how to learn techniques to discover that without making divisions.”
At his book talk in Mann Library Thursday, Wayne used countless examples to show crossovers between what he considers to be “convenient” divisions that solved major biological mysteries. For this biologist, no one scientific discipline is enough — Wayne’s book instructs students to keep both big and little questions in mind simultaneously. It is important to know the value and limitations of experiments, Wayne said.
For example, Wayne related the movement of ions through channels, vesicles, and cytoplasm in relationship to movement as a whole. As a charged particle moves through space, at any temperature above absolute zero, it is bombarded by light particles called photons. As a result of the Doppler Effect, the photons colliding with the front of the moving particle are blue-shifted, while the ones colliding with the back are red-shifted. From the wave perspective, as an electron moves through the photons, in a given time period, more waves hit the front and fewer hit it the back.
Since blue-shifted photons have more momentum than red-shifted photons, the blue-shifted photons push the electron back more than the red-shifted photons push the electron forward; and consequently, light provides a resistance to movement. (When we walk through a room, photons hit us with shorter wavelengths from the front, and fewer from the back, so it actually takes more force to walk through the room in the light than the dark.) The faster charged particles go, the greater the difference in momentum between the light hitting the front and back of the electron. As a result of the Doppler shift, light itself prevents charged particles from going no faster than the speed of light.
According to Wayne, the average biology student will only read up on relativity or quantum mechanics, for example, until it goes out of their range of knowledge. However, Wayne’s goal is to have students break down material into understandable and relatable pieces to go beyond mere memorization. Wayne urges students to understand which questions brought about the answers we accept today.
The Krebs Cycle was discovered in order to understand how pyruvate, an end product of anaerobic glycolysis, was being oxidized. Krebs found that organic acids from plants, including malic acid found in apples and succinic acid found in amber, stimulated oxygen uptake when added to pigeon muscle suspensions. Given that radioactive tracers had not yet been invented, Krebs used the techniques of organic chemistry to isolate the products of pyruvate oxidation. These turned out to be the same organic acids that stimulated oxygen uptake. From these and other experiments detailed in Wayne’s book, Krebs elucidated the energy producing cycle that bears his name, which allows us to move our muscles to perform at our will, whether the fuel be protein, fat or carbohydrate. Despite the fact that organic chemistry is a required course for biology majors, many majors do not understand its significance to their own field of study.
Wayne does not stop with multidisciplinary and historical reflections. With something for everyone, he also features literary, poetic and philosophical arguments to further enhance the topics in his book beyond plant cell biology.
Above all, he values the ability to question science. “Science is always progressing. Everyone in science is scared to question authority and accepted fact. That should not be the case if we want to find out the truth. After all, that is what science is truly about.”