Blow their minds…

Sometimes you just have to amaze them. Go in and say, “have you seen the news today???? They’ve only gone and detected gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars!!!! Isn’t that amazing???? What? Neutron stars? Oh, stars that collapsed but didn’t quite become black holes. All the space in atoms crushed down so that a teaspoon of star has the same mass as all of humanity…. And two of them collided! Caused a kilo-nova! Equivalent of 1000 supernovas!!!!! Isn’t that mindblowing?!?!?!? And that’s where all the gold and platinum in the universe is made!!!!! So my wedding ring is made from stuff formed by two colliding neutron stars!!!!”

Of course, being biological burblings, I prefer, where possible, to use biological examples.

Such as some of the experiments emerging from epidemiology.

Heard the one about the mouse?

Conditioned with cherry blossom and electric shocks (almost sounds like a treatment for hair – wonder if it would help it re-grow?). So it learns to associate the smell of cherry blossom with an electric shock, and starts trembling with fear just with the smell of the blossom. Pure Pavlov.

But then let it breed – a nice break from electric shock therapy. And then expose the offspring to the scent of cherry blossom….

The offspring tremble with fear even though they have a)never been exposed to cherry blossom before and b)never had an electric shock in their lives.

That’s incredible. How does it work? We don’t know! But that’s where and why science is exciting, pushing at the frontiers of knowledge and trying to understand the universe better.

Heard the one about the other mouse?

Stick it in a cage with a bigger mouse where there’s nowhere to hide. The smaller mouse gets bullied. Becomes fearful and runty. Doesn’t grow. Stressed and pathetic.

But then pop it in a cage with a female and let it breed. Again, makes a nice change for it.

The offspring are all fearful, runty, stunted, stressed pathetic mice.

Seems like more evidence of epigenetic effects.

BUT!!!! – now you can talk about the importance of experimental design and rigorous controls.

Repeat the experiment, but instead of letting the bullied mouse breed, extract its sperm (don’t ask how) and artificially inseminate the female.

Guess what – when not exposed to Mr Runty himself, the offspring are all perfectly normal. So not epigenetic, but still pretty bloody amazing – the female can somehow adjust her level of maternal investment based on the apparent quality of the male.


I think this kind of thing is so important. Because if you can’t get excited about your subject, why on earth should you expect your students to? And keeping up to date with the latest developments provides a constant supply of amazing stories to inspire them with.


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