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The Integration of Biology With Chemistry and Physics: An Anecdote
The Integration of Biology With Chemistry and Physics: An Anecdote

The Integration of Biology With Chemistry and Physics: An Anecdote

Isaac Asimov writes, in A Short History of Biology:
Meanwhile, those steps in the breakdown of glycogen that lay beyond lactic acid and that did require oxygen could be studied by means of a new technique developed by a German biochemist, Otto Heinrich Warburg (1883- ). In 1923, he devised a method for preparing thin slices of tissue (still alive and absorbing oxygen) and measuring their oxygen uptake. He used a small flask attached to a thin U-shaped tube. In the bottom of the tube was a colored solution. Carbon dioxide produced by the tissue was absorbed by a small well of alkaline solution within the flask. As oxygen was absorbed without being replaced in the air by carbon dioxide, a partial vacuum was produced in the flask and the liquid in the U-tube was sucked upward toward the flask. The rate of level change of the fluid, measured under carefully controlled conditions, yielded the rate of oxygen uptake. The influence of different compounds on this rate of uptake could then be studied. If a particular compound restored the rate after it had fallen off, it might be taken to be an intermediate in the series of reactions involved in oxygen uptake. The Hungarian biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1893- ) and the German-British biochemist, Hans Adolf Krebs (1900- ), were active in this respect. Krebs had, indeed, by 1940, worked out all the main steps in the conversion of lactic acid to carbon dioxide and water, and this sequence of reactions is often called the “Krebs cycle.” Earlier, during the 1930s, Krebs had also worked out the main steps in the formation of the waste product, urea, from the amino acid building blocks of proteins. This removed the nitrogen and the remainder of the amino acid molecules could, as Rubner had shown almost a half-century earlier (see page 89), be broken down to yield energy. Hand in hand with this increase of knowledge concerning the internal chemistry of the cell came in increase of knowledge concerning the fine structure of the cell. New techniques for the purpose were developed. In the early 1930s, the first “electron microscope” was built. … Particles no larger than very large molecules could be made out and the protoplasm of the cell was found to be an almost bewildering complex of small but highly organized structures called “organelles” or “particulates.” pp. 146-148, A Short History of Biology by Isaac Asimov, American Museum Science Books, the Natural History Press, Garden City, New York, (c) 1964 Isaac Asimov.
This work depended on the work of prior scientists in, for example, the discovery, isolation, and characterization of oxygen and carbon dioxide by Van Helmont and Priestley; the work in chemistry of Lavoisier and Cavendish and others; Lavoisier’s idea that the process of life was the same as that of combustion; the study of “vacuum” above a fluid; the laws of gases as developed by Boyle, Charles’, and others; the fundamental work of Galileo and Newton. The way biology is presented by Mr. Asimov is close to how science should be taught. As science is taught today, ideas come out of nowhere, like flotsam and jetsam, with no induction, integration, rationale, or cause-effect relationships. It is no wonder that the state of science education and people’s knowledge of science is impoverished. And it is no wonder that they have the idea that science is detached from everyday life and thought! Update (4:15 PM): FYI, Mr. Asimov, writing a “short” history, does not discuss physics, or at least not much. He focuses mainly on the history of biology as such, with some discussion of chemistry. Update (9-4-09, 8:15 AM):  And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the development of mathematics, Aristotle’s development of logic, and the integration of mathematics and the physical and biological sciences.

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