Wednesday, September 14, 2005

how I get my ends and my beginnings mixed up too

A few things that puzzle me:
  • If you’re the second person to arrive in a classroom, why would you choose to sit right next to the only other person in the room? WTF? Am I the only antisocial misanthrope around here? What ever happened to personal space, and trying your best to leave at least one chair between you and the next person until there are no other options?
  • Likewise, if you’re already in a cramped setting, need you edge in even closer into my personal space? Is it necessary to look at my handout, when yours is exactly identical? I promise you, the meaning of life is not scribbled onto the margins of my handout- that’s just my way of processing information.
  • If you openly admit that you’re taking a class to improve your GPA, immediately upon graduating, would it not behoove you to take notes during class? I mean, at least pretend to be taking notes? Write love letters to your girlfriend or something, but at least write something down. If I were the professor, I would have kicked you out for that alone.
  • Speaking of the professor, hey, have you heard of this new invention? It’s this great version of the computer, making it brilliantly transportable… maybe you’ve heard the buzz? Laptop?!? Seriously, watching you behind what looks like a mainframe from the early 1980s is not conducive to learning.
Hey, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to go all nerdy on you (sorry, oodles). On most Tuesdays and Wednesdays of the next several weeks, I’m likely to be blogging about science-related stuff. This is just a warning for the few people that mercifully read this blog regularly. Assuming such people actually exist, that is.

With that preamble, both the Roberts’ confirmation hearings today and class last night started me thinking about life and death, embryos and cadavers. Here’s the thing- from the very moment that a fertilized egg decides it wants to be something other than a mass of identical cells, from the moment that cells commit to what they want to be when they grow up, existence becomes a careful balance of life and death. During embryonic development, we’re growing where we need to grow, and dying where we need to die. For example, during fetal development, a fetus has webbed fingers, vestiges of our ancestry. But as the fetus develops, it kills off the cells that contribute to the webbing. When it doesn’t, when the cells our unfaithful to their commitment, you have birth defects like fused or webbed fingers. Or maybe you have two thumbs.

Whenever anyone takes a basic biology course, one is banged over the head with the concept of cell growth, mitosis, yada yada yada. But cell death gets short shrift. That is a shame, since it’s just as crucial to our survival. Cells die through two mechanisms- necrosis and apoptosis.

Necrosis basically means that a cell has died before its time. It’s unplanned. The cell is badly injured, infected, or otherwise traumatized by some external force. The cell can’t live, so it dies. And it does not go gently. It’s a messy death, and the signs of decay permeate the surrounding areas. Not pretty.

Apoptosis is cell suicide. It’s pre-meditated. The cell was born to die in this way. The cell could keep living, but it’s decided against it. The writing is on the wall. Maybe it’s no longer serving its purpose. Maybe it’s just tired. Maybe it wants to give the new kids the spotlight. Apoptosis is discrete. The cell starts carefully dismantling itself, packaging itself away, putting itself out on the curb for the trash collectors to pick up. The apoptotic cell bids adieu with dignity.

As always, I carry these things too far. The idea that bad traumas cause necrosis, but little faults we find with ourselves cause apoptosis- it’s a tempting idea. If you’ve been badly hurt, physically or emotionally, it leaves an ugly scar that might never fully recover. It’s unplanned, and you have to deal with it, and truly, doesn’t that stink? Correcting those little things about ourselves is more complex, requires a lot more work, but it’s what we were meant to do. Maybe we’re always meant to be growing where we need to grow, and dying where we need to die.

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