When What We Know Changes

We go to school and get an education. Some of us learn fast and some of us struggle. But as students I think we all start out with a basic assumption. That is that facts are facts, and they don’t change.
As a student of biology I have found on quite a few occasions that the facts can change. I can think of dozens of examples, but three in particular left a huge impression on me.

Insect thermoregulation:

Insects are cold blooded. They may heat up in the sunlight but the only animals that are truly warm blooded are birds and mammals. That is what I learned.
But that is not really right. Scientists like Bernd Heinrich showed that some insects (initially in a sphinx moth) can heat up their muscles, particularly those in the thorax. He also showed that they can cool those muscles down when they get too hot. Later, Heinrich and others showed that active thermoregulation was present in many insects, including many moths, bees and wasps, and flies. Learning that there could be such a sea-change in knowledge about life was something that totally amazed me. Learning about active thermoregulation in other groups—fish, even plants, and possibly dinosaurs–did not carry the impact that my initial exposure to the concept did.
Check out his many books, including Bumblebee Economics and The Thermal Warriors.

Hydrothermal vents:

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, and the ecosystems that surround them were discovered in 1977, and the habitats were photographed and described scientifically in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The life living among these seeps do not rely much on sunlight, but rely on food produced by chemosynthetic organisms. This may seem like ancient history to some of you, but this discovery was made while I was still in college, and it made a huge impression on me. What I knew (and what we all knew) about biology was turned upside down.

Bacterial flagella:

The notion that the flagellum of a bacteria moves in a rotary pattern was proposed in 1974, which was the year I started college with a major in biology. I don’t remember hearing about that in any of my classes, and although I was a fairly mediocre student I would have remembered that. I remember reading about how the flagellum worked sometime in the early 1980s and I was blown away by the idea.
I consider myself a student of life. I have always had a deep interest in biology, and at that time I was especially tuned in to the life sciences. I was young, probably a little too socially isolated for my own good, and spent a lot of my time reading about science and nature. This was a revolutionary change in biology.
I soaked it in.


About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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