Thursday, December 16, 2004

How Things Affect Other Things

As I've noted elsewhere, scientists are increasingly willing to consider the possibility that things may, in some cases, affect other things:

Welcome to the new science of ecotoxicology in which scientists try to understand how the synthetic chemicals we're pouring into our environment affect the way earthly life goes about its business.

Recent research about musk fragrances and mussels illustrates this point. When gills from live mussels were exposed to water with low concentrations of six commercial musks, they were not poisoned....That was expected.

But after two hours, the researchers washed the gills and put them in musk-free water that also contained a red dye. Cells in the gill tissue took up the dye. That was not expected.

Those cells have a mechanism to detect a foreign substance...and keep it out. That worked for cells not exposed to the musk in the first place. Cells that had been exposed lost this natural defense.

That finding has a disturbing global implication....Cells in many animal species, including humans, use the same protective mechanism to ward off foreign substances.


Laboratory research that leads to wider study is a hallmark of ecotoxicology. Scientists wouldn't know what to look for in the field without it.

Yet, "it is a virtual certainty that other effects are occurring in the field that we are presently overlooking in the lab," note the editors of Environmental Science & Technology, an American Chemical Society journal, which devoted a special issue to this new science.
Well, thank goodness that we have a "new science" upon this tired earth - a science based on "laboratory research that leads to wider study," which has already revolutionized our thinking by suggesting that things may happen in the world that are overlooked in the laboratory.

Science, to me, has always been about the investigation of relationships: how things affect other things. Forgive me for harping on this yet again, but the shelves of our bookstores are groaning under the weight of pop-science books about chaos theory. At this point, the concept that you can't necessarily ignore even the most minute aspects of a dynamic system should be pretty well understood.


Anonymous said...

I think I've missed the whole chaos theory fad, somehow. What the heck is that?

I'm such a geek that the mussels absorbing the dye after exposure to musk fascinated me more than the rah-rah p.r. stuff about ecotoxicology. All I could think about was, hm, if humans responded in a similar fashion, then being exposed to toxic chemicals might make us immune to...

LJ Where's my pocket protector and slide rule? Yikes. I just revealed how old I am!

Phila said...

Chaos theory...long story. Has to do with plotting the course of nonlinear dynamic systems, and the sensitivity of such systems to miniscule fluctuations. The gist of it is that such systems usually have to be looked at as irreducible wholes; assuming context independence is really not an option. Even the tiniest component of these systems can affect where the system ends up, which is why they tend to be unpredictable (e.g., the weather). Doesn't mean they're not strictly deterministic, mind just means that computing their future state tends to be way too difficult after a certain point.

Anonymous said...

Ah. Okay. I did a bit of Googling on it. I read about this a long time ago, but I didn't make the connection between the brand name and the theory. Fractals. Coolness. So I guess now I'm out of the loop with the pop-science stuff.

I don't follow physics all that much. After prolonged exposure, it makes my brain start dripping out of my ears, especially when math shows up. Numbers and I don't get along.