UGC 302: Great Discoveries in Science: The Microworld
Robert Noble teaches energy metabolism to his graduate students in terms of integral calculus, so they'll understand steps in which the entire energetic term is an entropy term. He teaches energy metabolism to his undergrads-his non-science major undergrads-in terms of air molecules bouncing into and away from each another as they seek maximum randomness, or entropy.
So why is Noble-a full professor of medicine and biochemistry since 1977 and principal investigator of hemoglobin structure and blood substitutes with more than $1,000,000 of funding-teaching UGC 302 Great Discoveries in Science: The Microworld, in a section called The Physics of Life?
"It started with a problem that the university had," Noble explains. "The faculty, in their wisdom, decided that non-science majors should have some exposure to science, just as science majors should have exposure to the humanities and the arts. The problem is that there was a shortage of people who were available or willing-or both-to teach the courses."
Teaching undergrads involves a different set of issues than teaching med students or graduate students in the health sciences.
"It's the only class I've ever had," Noble says, "where I can talk about issues like 'What is life?' 'How do we define a living system?'-what, for me at least, are almost magical concepts: the idea that we can actually talk about how we get energy from the sun, turn it into glucose in plants, or into glycogen, and eat the plant and get the energy.
"When I started out as a student, we didn't know the structure of DNA. The genetic code, that was sort of a pie-in-the-sky concept, that someday we would know the genetic code; now we know the whole thing. I think it's incredibly exciting, in its own way it's just as beautiful as a Van Gogh painting. And we don't discuss those things in the medical school."
The Physics of Life is organized around three 20th-century discoveries that have revolutionized biology, physics, and physical chemistry by integrating them: the energetics of living systems, an exploration of living systems as machines and the laws of thermodynamics that govern their energy metabolism; biological membranes, the boundaries of living systems and the basis for biological compartmentalization; and the mechanisms of information transfer between generations of living systems.
"I decided that the biggest issue to teaching this course was to take the fear out of it," Noble says. "I think a lot of these students don't know much science because they've been afraid of it, because they assume that if they'd take a course in science they'd be shown to be stupid. They're not stupid; these are very bright students. In fact, they're a pleasure to teach. It's fun to teach non-science majors because they think about things differently; they ask questions I don't expect them to ask. They look at the problem from the other side, as it were. I find it very gratifying."
Bernadette O'Donoghue, a psychology major, was registered but uncertain on the first day of class. "I fully intended to drop it. Then when that class was over I thought, 'this was my most interesting class all day, why am I going to drop it?'" What's so interesting about it? "Dr. Noble relates this to things that you deal with every day; for example, today he used the nails, the hair, and the wool. He does that quite a bit."
By way of illustration, Noble explains why wool shrinks but silk doesn't; that horn and fingernails have the same protein structure as hair (with the addition of a few disulfide bonds); that some actors learn to consciously control their metabolisms to produce emotions on cue. Later, he pauses to explain that protein molecules don't really exist in nature as contrasting blue, yellow, and red spheres, as shown on his slides; that's just one way of representing them for study.
"I want them to understand a little bit about what science is," he says.
"We've talked about making DNA, the replication of DNA, making RNA from DNA, and making proteins from RNA, and then the question is, why do proteins fold up on their own to make the right structures? We know there's no machinery.
"And the answer is, we don't know. We in fact cannot take a structure of a protein in its linear form and then calculate what it's going to fold up to.
"I always try to make the point with them that everything I'm presenting to them is the best of the knowledge that we have available right now, but with science, it's all subject to change.
"I want [students] to understand that science is something where, if it's done properly, there's constant criticism and constant reexamination. What would be wonderful is if they came out of it learning that one should ask questions and be critical of information; that's the business of science."
Christian Miller, M.B.A. '94 & B.A. '92, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.