For a book on the history of modern biology -- as modern as it can be (William S. Beck's book Modern Science and the Nature of Life was written in 1961) -- there is one surprisingly unconventional aspect about it. The book seems to have been influenced by Charles Fort.
Charles Fort, author of the Book of the Damned, was a man against the exclusionism rampant in science. Fort believed that a number of phenomena, experiences that people all over the world, at a number of different time periods, had, were outside the bounds of recognized science. Because they were outside of these bounds, they were either explained away or ignored. Fort called these phenomena "damned," because they were excluded from the rest of the world of phenomena.
Now, Charles Fort had his own ideas on how to explain these anomalous phenomena. Most of the phenomena that he mentioned were falls from the sky of strange objects -- long rains of red material, for instance, or rains of frogs. Fort mainly attempted to explain these objects by saying that they came from another world or another dimension, or that spaceships brought them.
Fort's main idea was that he took phenomena as he saw them and then tried to tailor explanations to meet them. A new phenomenon would often get a new explanation. Often, this new explanation could be a completely new world, a completely new dimension, and so forth.
I was surprised, then, that a book by a Michigan University educated Medical Doctor who was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, Tutor of Biochemistry at Harvard College, and Chief of Hematology at Massachusetts General Hospital, seemed to espouse some of the ideas that formed the philosophical foundation for Charles Fort's system of thought.
Yet these ideas seem to spring up all through the book. They begin at a "fable" that Beck gives us regarding a man named Sigmund whose one aim in life is to find, with absolute certainty, the secret of life. For everything Sigmund does to ensure that his experiments will have absolute certainty, he finds himself backed into what seems like an even tighter corner of uncertainty.
But finally, Sigmund is determined, with what he feels will be his greatest experiment of all, to finally capture data about the secret of life with complete certainty. The only problem is, as he starts the experiment, something wrong with the electrical wiring in the experiment causes a big fire. Sigmund and the entire laboratory are burnt to the ground. And a physics laboratory, with a brand new cyclotron (!), is built up in its place.
Charles Fort would call the story of Sigmund a legend of translation into the Positive Absolute. When a scientist fights, in the face of increasing odds, for absolute certainty, even though he knows it's likely a losing battle, he will, Fort says, through all his audacity, be translated into the Positive Absolute, or the place where absolute certainty does exist -- though it exists kind of clumped together with everything else.
Fort even says that this translation will occur, for many people who attempt it, in a great fire. For instance, Fort guesses that Elijah, instead of having been driven up to Heaven in a fiery chariot, like the Bible says he was, was actually translated into the Positive Absolute in a fireball that ascended into the sky.
This may be the most obvious insance in Beck's book of coming up with ideas along the lines of Fortean principles. But others follow. For instance, Beck mentions the work of Louis Pasteur to prove that spontaneous generation of living organisms wasn't necessarily the truth of the origin of life.
Beck makes a strong effort to point out that Pasteur did not actually say that spontaneous generation couldn't happen. But by Beck's time, the story of Pasteur's research against spontaneous generation was so well known that even little schoolkids thought the scientists who had believed in spontaneous generation were superstitious and a little silly. So why would Beck make such a point of defending at least the bare possibility of spontaneous generation?
I believe it's because Beck was thinking, at least a little bit, of a science that could include Fortean principles. Now -- I don't know of anything in Fort that mentions spontaneous generation.
In fact, Fort would be much happier to think, for instance, that a nail in a rock had fallen from the sky and had a rock grow around it, than he would be to think that a nail spontaneously generated itself in a rock. But I believe that Fort would rather believe that something spontaneously generated than believe that a scientist's paltry explanation solved matters.
But, later on in Modern Science, Beck mentions the argument of William of Occam, and later, through a more modern re-phrasing, of Bertrand Russell, that correct science does not tend to multiply causes -- or that the simpler an argument is, the better it is. Fort argues the opposite. He argues that the more phenomena there are, the more causes there should be. And Beck, while not disagreeing with the scientific point of view, also makes the point that just because simple looks better, it doesn't always mean that it is better.
Beck seems to have been extremely influenced by Bertrand Russell. A lot of his theoretical or philosophical arguments seem to have been lifted right out of the pages of Russell. But one argument he uses is expressly changed.
Russell has said in one of his books -- I think it might be The Problems of Philosophy, though I wouldn't stand by that for sure -- that everything a human being would do throughout his life could be predicted, step by step, if we had machines that could perform every last necessary computation regarding that person's body and environment.
Beck may have a bit afraid of edging that close to saying men are automata, because he didn't use this argument of Russell's. Now, Russell did not think men were automata, but that the non-material, non-automatic portion of the human psyche was just incredibly small. Nevertheless, Beck shifted this idea from human activity in general to the phenomena of car crashes.
Using car crashes as his subject, Beck said basically the same thing as Russell did: that if there were a machine that could monitor and perform computations about every single car on the road, as well as every single road, with all the surrounding conditions, that this machine could conceivably predict every single car crash that would occur in the United States in a single year.
Only -- Beck warns us -- this isn't the case. Because there would still be anomalous car crashes. For instance, a car crash could occur because -- a meteor fell from the sky and smashed it! Now, that's an absolutely Fortean argument. It assumes a system, with a high degree of internal predictability, interfered with by an external cause. External causes are exactly what Fort is trying to integrate into the system of science. But the fact that in Beck's illustration, the external cause falls from the sky -- well, Fort would be pleased.
And then, toward the end of his book, Beck mentions an effort he believes is worthy: trying to bring the integrative character back into science. Beck says that science has become too segregative, and now science must become more integrated. This would be the same argument Fort uses. Except Fort would say that science has become too exclusionist, rather than too segregative, and that science should become more inclusive, rather than integrated.
Perhaps Beck never read any Fort. Perhaps he only arrived at Fortean ideas after thinking reasonably about the subject of science on his own. Beck had written his Modern Science about fifteen years after becoming an M.D. He'd had plenty of time to see science -- and scientists -- in action. And he often talks, with approval and disapproval, of the religious rite of science: the scientific conference.
But Beck's train of argument regarding science isn't too far removed from his own "fable" of the scientist Sigmund, who was so baffled at every turn with new uncertainties uncovered by his attempts at certainty.
Beck seems to believe, as I understand him, that the real driving force behind science is the hypothesis. The hypothesis is a directing idea. Without the hypothesis, there is no science. Without the hypothesis, there is only observation and classification.
But the hypothesis has a double function, as far as I can tell: it's both creative and limiting. The hypothesis is creative because it takes a series of observations and thinks of a way in which those observations could be tied together. But it's limiting in that it eliminates from the picture of the observations other factors of existence that don't have anything to do with the hypothesis.
Beck goes even farther toward limiting the scope of science. He says that the realm of science is the experiment. But the experiment isolates conditions even more than the hypothesis. The experiment even separates conditions into variables and controls.
The experiment doesn't even attempt to get at the truth of nature, but at what the conditions induced in the environment of variables and controls might imply about nature. If the scientist has developed the conditions of variables and controls so that he might predict the outcome of a situation in that environment, and if the prediction is in line with his hypothesis, then he has achieved his goal. And the matching up of his goal with some natural situation is only of secondary concern.
But the world of science seems to shrink more and more for Beck. Beck, like most philosophers in the Age of Analysis, doesn't believe that definition is definite. Definition is a kind of habit. As we get used to being around certain material while we are ingrained with certain concepts, we begin to define that material in terms of those concepts. And because there is no clear-cut way of making experience universal to everybody, there's no clear-cut way of making a definition universal, absolute, or completely certain.
Beck argues, along these lines, that Einstein's big contribution to science wasn't necessarily the Theory of Relativity, but the implication it made of the importance of "operational analysis," as Beck calls it, or always thinking of scientific ideas in terms of the physical operations by which they've been carried out.
Thus it is the individual operations, the measurements, that are made, that are of the utmost importance to science. How these operations and measurements are made are also of importance. And how well measuring devices are calibrated is important. Nothing in science can be truly explained. But everything that can't be explained measurably in terms of a kind of third-party or well-calibrated frame of reference, shouldn't be thought of as having been explained.
Science has been incredibly reduced through these ideas. It is boggled-over with the need for calibration and external referencing. And this shrinks its actual material for study.
But, at the same time, it makes everything about science so law-oriented, so legalistic, that the language, the terminology, the jargon of science virtually explodes! Every different kind of scientist, it seems, needs a whole new dictionary, just to learn the terminology of his own specific field!
Beck seems to think that expanded language implies the expanded culture of humanity. I disagree. Language in many of the sciences is double-speak, mystification, rather than clarification. It's the language of exclusion and hierarchy, the codes of a corrupt priesthood, rather than the symbols of knowledge.
Nevertheless, there's an interesting parallel here. Beck's subversive line of argument, based on Fortean theories (either through Beck's own thoughts or his own actual reading of Fort), moves from uncertainty, to spontaneous generation, to the occasional need for multiplicity of causes, to external events affecting a system, to the overall goal of an integrative character of science.
At the same time, Beck's main argument runs from a hypothesis, or directing idea, to experiment and isolation, to inferred effects, to the haziness of definition, to operational analysis, to the bounding off of ideas, and finally to the explosion of language and terminology.
So Fort's ideas lead to a multiplicity of causes, while conventional science's ideas lead to a duplicity of language. I think that Beck is trying to find a way to reconcile these two systems. Science needs a creative mind that can come up with original hypotheses. The creative mind may have tendencies more like the mind of Fort, sometimes. But to focus that kind of mind, and limit the spiralling out of control brought on by a multiplicity of causes, the isolation, control, and operational analysis of conventional science are necessary.
Modern Science and the Nature of Life was written, as I said, in 1961. It was written as part of the American Museum of Natural History's Natural History Library series. And Beck himself describes the book as no more than a history of the developments leading up to and constituting modern biology as he knew it.
So the book is really a kind of compendium of ideas. It's easily digestible. It's relatively short -- about 311 pages. But it's full of information. That being said, I'm going to devote the remainder of this post to a quick summary of the contents of the book. I felt that a lot of it was useful.
In fact, I thought the most useful thing about this particular compendium of ideas is that it included Information Theory. I don't think I've read a book from this time period that included Information Theory, especially as a theory important to biology.
However, the book, interestingly, while it mentions a ton of other scientists, historical and modern, by name, does not mention Claude E. Shannon in conjunction with Information Theory. It only mentions Bell Labs. This is odd. Claude E. Shannon did his doctoral work at MIT. Beck was a Bostonian as well. You'd think Beck would have known Shannon. But he only mentions Bell Labs.
The other thing that struck me as interesting was that Beck doesn't mention D'Arcy Wentworth Thomson's idea of linking Brownian motion with the origins of life. Beck mentions so many other scientists. Thomson's Growth and Form is seminal. But Beck doesn't mention it. Why? Well... maybe it wasn't written yet. And, besides, you can't expect a guy to know everything.
I, in particular, can't expect a guy to know everything! I'm as innocent as a premature baby!
Beck begins his book by saying that some people think the world of his day is in a situation of crisis. Beck then defines crisis as a state of misery in the face of cultural potentiality. Beck says that the world could also be thought of as in a state of scientific crisis. Culture is ruled by science. But science is grotesquely ambivalent.
Beck emphasizes the idea that science and culture are not separate. Science is a product of culture, and the subjects of science are the elements of existence which influence culture. In addition, scientists are human beings -- ruled by reason, yes, but also by nature and their own emotions.
Nevertheless, citizens are estranged from science. They feel they are walled off from science because it requires too much specialization to understand. In addition, the scientific information they do get is often oversimplified. There needs to be a re-unification of culture and science.
Every age of history seems to have had a body of science that it focused on. Each age seems to determine what questions a scientist will ask of nature. But individuals themselves may also ask questions of nature, independent of the current of their times.
Individual ideas may have a harder time being accepted than ideas accepted by the whole age. But if the individual scientist's idea is forceful and correct enough, it may eventually find sympathy with the times, either the scientist's times, or a later age.
Beck says that we have achieved a great deal technologically in a short time. So, Beck believes, a question many people might ask is, "Why haven't we got it all figured out yet?" Why don't we just know everything there is to know about life? Beck doesn't give an outright answer to this question. The following arguments of the book seem to be the answer.
Beck sees the history of biology beginning with the first cultivation of land for growing food. The next stage in the development of the sciences, including biology, was the Classical Greek age, where thought was highly developed. This development was brought to a halt in the Middle Ages. Beck argues that the dogmatic influence of the priestly hierarchy stifled the intellectual freedom and growth that would have led to a further development in the sciences.
Beck steps aside from history for a moment to lay the groundwork for the age of modern science. He mainly discusses cumulative versus non-cumulative knowledge. Cumulative knowledge is the basis of science, while non-cumulative knowledge is the basis of art. This is a silly idea, in my opinion. But the idea is that cumulative knowledge is up off of previous knowledge and data -- right or wrong, or thought right and later proven wrong -- and can be tied in with a theoretical system, which may also develop.
Non-cumulative knowledge is the same through all ages. Beck give a really dull example of this, by saying that in Greek times people wrote about emotions, ethics, and the universals of life, and that today people write about emotions, ethics, and the universals of life. So nothing's changed. But -- in my opinion, you *can* make the same argument about science. It's just that our technology's developed.
Beck then begins his discussion of the birth of modern science by explaining rationalism and deduction. Deduction is, according to Beck, the process of logical proof. If all A's are B's and all B'c are C's, then all A's are C's. In this kind of argument, as long as the form is correct, the argument is correct. Deduction is the basis of rationalism.
Rationalism influenced thinkers very heavily at the beginning of the Renaissance, when people were finally breaking free of the dogmatic rule of the church. But thinkers invested the same power in rationalism that they had invested in the dogmatic rule of the church. And rationalism, unfortunately, became all-powerful.
John Locke brought in the idea of empiricism, or making rational arguments from experience. This was called arguing by analogy. Now, deduction wasn't empty and formal. It wasn't A's and B's and C's. It began with nature and experience. But as long as an idea could formally fit one end of the proposition, the other end of the proposition could be just about anything. So people came up with some pretty wild theories of the universe.
But people then tried to work from self-evident axioms, moving back toward the idea of a formal deductive principle. Spinoza and Leibniz tried to build up systems of ethics based on mathematics, for instance.
Descartes was the greatest of all these philosophers. He worked on a principle of doubt. He tried to doubt everything. But the one thing he couldn't doubt was the fact that he thought. So he came up with his axiom, "cogito ergo sum," or, "I think, therefore I am." And he built up a system of philosophy from there.
Galileo seems to have been the first thinker of these times, however, to put a system of thought together based on experience and experiment. Galileo was followed up by Francis Bacon, whose work, the Novum Organon, was a refutation of what he thought was the overly rational system of Aristotle, the Organon.
Bacon's system was really a system of classification of nature, based on "sense impressions." Bacon also used inductive logic instead of deductive logic. Inductive logic is like empiricism, in that it uses actual experience as its basis, instead of a formal argument. But it differs from the deductive empiricism that followed Locke, in that the implications made from experience only relate to those specific elements of experience.
However, this kind of logic can only point to probability of truth, never to absolute certainty. Bacon thought that his system did lead to absolute certainty. And so he stopped with inductive logic and classification of sense impressions, thinking that was all there was to science.
But science, and the scientific method, were further developed, especially with the help of some of the members of Britain's fledgling Royal Society of science. Robert Boyle is thought of as the father of chemistry, since he was the first person really to have done work on the mechanism underlying chemistry.
But the greatest contribution of this time was made by Sir Isaac Newton, who, of course, discovered the three laws of thermodynamics. Newton's discoveries were largely made from a combination of observation, hypothesis, calculation, and testing. He observed things, made generalizations about them, formed hypotheses, made deductions, and proved his ideas. He explained and predicted. These were the basic processes of science, laid out for the first time.
At this point, Beck begins to discuss the history of biology itself. Beck claims that William Harvey is the father of modern biology.
Harvey was around a little bit before Newton, in the early 1600s. He discovered the circulation of the blood, and he largely did this through his own observations. He discovered a number of hitherto unknown facts about the circulation of blood in the body. But he depended too much on Aristotilean theories such as the perfection of a circle being the reason for the seemingly circular flowing of blood through the body.
Andreas Vesalius was also a major figure in biology. He was, Beck claims, the first really detailed anatomist of the human body. He produced a work on anatomy which is still astounding in its craftsmanship, even today.
Robert Hooke, who actually worked a lot with the theory of springs and tension, also did a little work on observing things through magnifying glasses. Hooke was the first person to discover evidence of cells. He saw little dead cells in cork.
Later on, a scientist named Leeuwenhoek expanded on Hooke's observations, using a microscope. But Leeuwenhoek, like a scientist naturally would be, was interested in bodily tissues and fluids. And his experiments, for instance, with semen, were too repulsive for his age to stomach. Microscopic biology died away for a while.
From this point in the book, Beck works back to some broader philosophical issues. He states that Newton's ideas put people back on the road to thinking that everything about nature could be determined with absolute certainty.
Then, however, the philosopher David Hume came along. He said there was no necessary reason to believe in cause and effect. Events were spatially contiguous, and perhaps certain events were repetitively spatially contiguous. But that didn't necessarily mean that one of those events caused the other event.
Beck himself seems to react to this point by giving the idea that science is not about determining truths in nature. It is actually about determining the probability of something happening, and determining this probability through the use of statistical analysis.
But the probabilities determined are not about processes in nature. They are about isolated situations. Experiments are based on observations. But they isolate elements of those observations. They then vary certain other elements to try and produce different conditions in the isolated elements. They attempt to predict, or determine the probability of, those conditions, based on hypothesis, calculated in the form of statistical analysis.
After this detour, Beck skips to the year 1838. He talks about Schleiden and Schwann, who, people claim, first expressed a cell-theory. The cell theory was basically that living structures are formed entirely of cells; that cells are independent living beings, but that they live as a part of a higher organism; and that cells have some kind of mechanism for reproduction.
Beck finds cell-theory (as a hypothesis, I think) is interesting because it came before solid observations of cells. In previous cases in science, observation came before hypothesis. Hypothesis didn't come until there had been a lot of observation.
Beck moves through a discussion of histology, which, I guess, is the practice of observing cells through a process of crystallizing and then dyeing them. I didn't really understand it.
Then Beck talks a bit about the controversy of spontaneous generation. People used to believe that insects, vermin, germs, and other forms of life could come to life spontaneously under certain circumstances.
Spontaneous generation was first disproved by a man named Spallanzani. But it was then proved with much more powerful arguments and instruments by Louis Pasteur. Pasteur made water filters so effective that they filtered out bacteria. He made, basically, purified water. Nothing could grow in it. This proved that the bacteria came from somewhere else, the air, etc. It didn't generate itself spontaneously.
Beck then moves on to discuss evolution. He talks about how Linnaeus invented the first really workable system of classifiation of living organisms. His system used the ideas of genus and species. Beck then talks a bit about Buffon, who, for a few years, anyway, believed in the idea of evolution, and so became its first proponent. He also mentions Lamarck, whose system of evolution was one that almost depended on the "will" of the animal to evolve.
Beck then discusses Charles Darwin, whose theory was not actually one of evolution, but of natural selection. Darwin made a lot of observations of nature. He also observed biology in domestic settings. He noticed that people bred animals. They "selected" characteristics in animals and bred animals to retain those characteristics. Darwin inferred that nature did the same thing.
Darwin then formulated a hypothesis of natural selection. Animals reproduce more than they need to. Numbers will remain constant only if a certain amount of these animals do not survive. There is, then, a struggle for existence, between species and within a species. Animals vary, and animals inherit variations. And animals may survive, in the struggle for existence, due to the variations they've inherited.
Beck believes that Darwin's theory is a great example of stepping from observation to inductive conclusions, to logical, or deductive conclusions.
Beck records a number of resistances to Darwin's theory. But he also records a number of developments upon the theory. He mentions Haeckl's idea that common ancestry plus change equals evolution. He then discusses how the geological record was used to trace the evolution of life on earth. He also discusses the fraud of the Piltdown Man, which taught archaeologists to be more careful in their assumptions.
Beck then discusses Julian Huxley's evolution studies, which, Beck believes, are the zenith of studies on evolution. Huxley asserts the importance of adaptation in evolution. He says that adaptation is the interplay of the organism and the environment.
Huxley also gives a number of different kinds of adaptation. He talks about pre-adaptation, or the change in an organism which permits it to travel into an adjacent environment. And he talks about adaptive radiation, or the way that animals spread out across the world as they evolve. Beck believes that adaptation is the "leitmotif" of the organism.
Beck then digresses into a chapter asking what the meaning of life is. He says that "living" versus "non-living" is a really hazy subject. I agree. I also don't like any of the arguments he uses. I think that from this point, as well, until the point where Beck gets back to talking about cell biology, the book, while sometimes interesting, is generally pretty hazy.
What irks me a little about this chapter is that, while Beck seems to be pretty comfortable saying that the line between "life" and "non-life" is very hazy, he doesn't seem to be so worried about making a division between "matter" and "non-matter." But I think if he were familiar enough with Russell, as he seems to be (given his arguments on definition), he'd at least mention this argument.
Beck starts the next section of the book by talking about the Greeks' "horror infinit," or horror of the infinite, and how it stopped them from making the next step in scientific development. If it hadn't been for the "horror infiniti," Beck seems to assert, we'd have had 20th century technology in Ancient Athens.
Beck also talks about Euclid's idea of parallel lines never touching. Beck mentions that non-Euclidean geometry has disproved this idea.
From this point, Beck moves on into a discussion of Einstein and Relativity. But Beck says that Einstein's real contribution to science was the idea of "operational analysis," or only expressing scientific ideas in terms of the operations or measurements by which they are carried out.
In contrast to Einstein's contribution, Beck mentions a quote by Alfred North Whitehead, where Whitehead says that people think, with the advent of Einstein's theories, that man's imagination has expanded. Whitehead says that the changes in our society, and in our scientific theories, didn't come from an expanded imagination, but from better instrumentation.
Nevertheless, Beck doesn't seem to think much of Whitehead, and this kind of gets to me. If you consider that Whitehead and Russell made the Principia Mathematica, which, with Boole's Laws of Thought and Claude E. Shannon's Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, form the logical basis of all twentieth century thought, it's kind of disturbing that Beck seems to think of Whitehead as a crotchety, old mystic who was afraid of machines.
But Beck then dives into a series of arguments based, I believe, very much on Russell's arguments on language. He proposes that words are "defined" only by habit, and how we connect the sounds or sights of words with the physical or conceptual correlates only through a process of familiarization.
Beck then speaks about propositions and meaning. A meaningful proposition, according to Beck, is one that could potentially be proven true. All other propositions are meaningless.
Beck then discusses the expansion of language in the sciences, which Beck believes is parallel with the expansion of culture. Beck also discusses models in science -- how models serve as a means conceptually to isolate the essentials of a situation so that they can be made more workable. The pitfall to this, Beck says, is that if a model becomes stale, overused, it can become circular, kind of revolve on itself.
Beck then talks about description and definition. Things can only be described, or defined, Beck says, in terms of something external, a kind of third-party. For instance, if one were to define "east," Beck says, one couldn't say, "the place from which the sun rises." Because "the place from which the sun rises" is "east." The definition is circular.
There needs to be a third-party, an outside element, for the two terms of the definition to relate to. Thus Beck says that if one were to say that "east" is the point on the horizon which is 90 degrees to our right as we face toward the north, that would be a correct definition.
This, of course, is baloney.
This baloney is followed up by further baloney, such as how people settled on the word "dog," and a description of "how" polar bears became white which Beck somehow thinks is an explanation of "why" polar bears became white.
Beck is more reasonable when he discusses the laws of science, and remembers the statement of J.B.S. Haldane, that when a law of science doesn't work, the scientists don't say that nature is breaking the law, but that the law has been incorrectly stated.
Beck then mention's Occam's Law and Russell's re-phrasing of it, that simplicity is better than multiplicity in science.
Beck discusses causal determinism, which, unlike fate, which is a kind of anthropomorphic concept implying some kind of cosmic "will," is more based on physical laws and overall probability.
But, Beck says, just because there is such a thing as causal determinism, doesn't make overall probability a matter of complete certainty. Any system we work with is, in some ways, and internal system. And there will always be external influences on the internal system. We probably won't be able to predidt those things.
Beck then gives us another serving of baloney sandwiches when he talks about "universal design" not implying a "universal designer." Of course, I agree that "design" doesn't imply a "designer." But nobody ever seems to give good arguments regarding that point.
Beck then moves on to a discussion of order, which he illustrates by using the information theory. In Information Theory, Beck says, there is a signal of information which is trying to reach us. But it comes through random "noise." The signal-to-noise ratio determines how likely we are to receive the information.
Energy is needed to maintain the integrity of information, because it is constantly fighting against the background randomness, or "noise" of the universe. However, signals often develop energy-saving tricks, such as packing very constant bits of information together. These constant bits of information have low value. Energy is saved for higher-value information, which uses more energy, but provides rare and more important information.
One way this theory manifests itself, Beck seems to believe, is in instruments of measurement. Instruments of measurement are usually calibrated, so that their accuracy is assured. However, as instruments deteriorate, they become less accurate. The best instrument is the one that stays accurate for the longest time.
The best way to calibrate an instrument is by using some "first" unit of measurement that cannot deteriorate under almost any circumstance -- such as the "meter," which is now determined by measuring the emission of a mercury-198 wavelength, as the mercury-198 isotope escapes from gold which has been subjected to neutron bombardment.
Beck gives a short discussion of genius, discovery, and the mind of the scientist. He reiterates the fact that a scientist is a human being, subject to all the same emotional factors as any other human being.
Beck now returns to a discussion of cells. He begins by quickly discussing the gene. He says that all organisms have two processes: reproduction and regulation. In reproduction, an organism creates. In regulation, an organism limits itself.
Organisms also, Beck says, have certain traits, or characteristics. Different species may have certain pronounced characteristics. But within species, these characteristics may vary. Variations can be carried through from the organism's parents. These variations are called genotypes. Or variations can occur through the effects of the environment. These variations are called phenotypes.
Gregor Mendel was the first person to conduct research on heredity and variation. In the 1850s, Mendel investigated how traits carry through from generation to generation. Mendel's research led Mendel to believe that the traits are passed on from one generation to the next by something physical. This physical thing, though it was unknown, was, in 1902, named a "gene" by Wilhelm Johannsen.
Scientists then discovered chromosomes. The idea mutation was also proposed: the factor that could alter the "permanence" of the traits passed on in genes.
A better understanding of genes, Beck claims, was achieved through the study of viruses. In 1876, the scientist named Robert Koch, developed four postulates on viruses. These were postulates for working with viruses in experiments. Koch's postulates were that the virus had to be always associated with a disease; that it had to be kept in a pure culture; that it had to be injected into a healthy creature susceptible to the disease; and that it had to be taken back out of the creature and isolated in a pure culture again.
Louis Pasteur tried to find the cause of rabies by working along Koch's guidelines. But he couldn't. He was trying to see the cause of rabies inside the pure culture dish. It wasn't going to happen. Rabies needed to act on living tissue. In this way it was discovered that one could only see viruses' cause by seeing them acting on living tissue.
As microscopic biology became a part of science again, and as the technology of microscopy developed, scientists could see viruses at work. Scientists watched as viruses entered the nuclei of healthy cells. Twenty-four minutes would elapse. The cell-nuclei would suddenly explode, and huge amounts of new viruses would burst out from the nuclei, moving on and attacking other cells.
Scientists did more work on this, especially with work on viruses that attacked bacteria -- bacterial viruses, or bacteriophages.
From this work, scientists determined that during the twenty-four-minute "eclipse" period, when the bacteria were inside the cell-nuclei, the viruses were actually re-combining with something inside the nuclei. Through this combination, the viruses were reproducing. Once they hit a certain number, they'd explode from the nuclei. Thus the scientists determined that viruses were discrete recombinable genetic units.
Beck moves to a discussion of enzymes, which are chemicals which control the production of chemicals in the body, and basically determine all of the body's structure. Scientists discovered that radiation can affect genes. Genes affect enzymes. Certain radiation effects on single genes affect only certain single enzymes. So scientists developed the "one-gene one-enzyme" theory.
But the new question was, what is the chemical of a gene? Scientists had known about the chemical inside a nucleus, DNA, for a while. But they hadn't thought it was important. However, now that they saw the effects the nucleic chemicals had on viruses, they thought DNA might be of some importance.
It was eventually postulated that DNA is the chemical that provides traits, as well as the transformative principle of the traits, to an organism. Watson and Crick developed their double-helix theory of DNA.
DNA was then also assumed to be a major part in protein production. DNA, residing in the nucleus, was like a master copy of the body's information. DNA would unzip, RNA would attach to one side of DNA, then leave the nucleus. RNA would find protein and enzymes, which it would imprint with its information. The protein and enzymes would then go off and create more building blocks -- cells or cell parts or cell nutrients, I guess -- for the body.
From here Beck moves on to discussions of the origin of life. Most of this is Beck trying to imagine the creation of life in the primordial earth of billions of years ago. Beck starts with the simple chemical elements of earth. He says that somehow the simple chemical elements must have combined to create more complex chemical elements.
The development of complex chemical elements, along with some sort of extremely improbable, but probably unknowable, events, such as some sort of radiation, led to some sort of organization that was like a living organism. This continued to develop and form a living organism.
How did the improbabilities beat out the massive probabilities that, it would seem to Beck, would dictate that life couldn't be created? Well, Beck says, there were one billion years for it to happen. So maybe that was enough time for one improbability to beat all the improbabilities.
Beck then discusses the ideas of complex forms of life. How do complex organisms come to exist? How do smaller forms of life relinquish, it would seem, their control to the larger, singular form of life of which they are a part? How do all these life-forms function together? How do they maintain their homeostasis? How do they remain stable? And how does it come about that one part of the body (the brain, perhaps) seems to control all the other parts of the body?
Beck thankfully doesn't delve too deeply into answering these questions. I'm pretty sure he feels like these are the questions future generations of biologists will either answer or, like him, puzzle over.
However, Beck does give indications of future areas of interest. For interest, the cell-fusion, which seems to complement cell-fission. Cell-fission is the reproductive process of cells. Cells reproduce by splitting. But what makes cells come together? What makes them fuse into a more complex organism?
Beck also seems to be very interested in embryology. Embryology seems to indicate the different phases of evolution which have led up to man in the present. But at certain moments in its development, the embryo is made up of very basic cells, "precursor" cells, which don't seem to be divided into, say, bone cells, blood cells, etc.
These cells could say a lot about how these various types of cells come into being. A cause should come before an effect. And, Beck seems to say, if you study a bone cell once it's a bone cell, you really won't see what caused it to become a bone cell.
Beck discusses a few other areas of possible interest for biology, such as cell duplication, differentiation, and regeneration, as well as a seeming geometrical orientation of the cell. He also seems to think that the purposiveness, or goal-oriented behavior, of simple and complex organisms is of interest.
Beck spends about twelve pages discussing the problems behind the search of modern science for a cure to cancer. He then spends about seven pages discussing the reasons that "mind" as a concept is still an interesting question for the biologist.
Beck ends his book with a discussion of the future of science. He describes how science is looked to nowadays as a performer of all kinds of miracles. People seem to believe science can do anything, Beck says, from making fertilizer or televisions, to ensuring the nation's military security. Beck talks about how various military and government agencies, as well as industrial and corporate entities, have enormous resources devoted to scientific research.
Beck speaks for a while about the possibility of extending human life infinitely. He says it seems like it is possible. If you take all the destructive elements out of life, especially the bacteria, Beck says, you can probably remove a lot of what ages people. Then you would need to find the genes that age people and get rid of those. Then people could probably live a long time, if not forever.
Beck then spends a few pages discussing what the new frontiers for biology are. He finally winds up the book by saying that science is not a parent, and that men are not infants. Man is still a man, and science is still man's creation. Men cannot act like infants in need of care. They will have to care for themselves.
As an adult baby, of course, I find this to be a hell of a note to end a book on.