Experimental Biology 2011: The Biochemistry of Lewis Carroll

[Alice:] ‘How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink—’

-Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll.

When I was looking through the Abstracts for this year's Experimental Biology meeting, I stopped immediately at this one. It's so unexpected, and it's also such an interesting idea!

Most people might think (even people that go to scientific meetings!) that the entire meeting consists only of the latest, and hopefully hottest, science, with maybe a dash of science policy and information on outreach. But in fact there's a section of Experimental Biology devoted entirely to education, new theories on how to improve science education and tips on putting those theories in to practice.

We're all used to didactic lecture and to powerpoint slides. Maybe people have started using Dipity or more discussion groups to create a more modern and interactive experience. But there are options for engaging and interesting classes that aren't necessarily modern...and this one dates back to 1865!

Shende and Benore. "Lessons learned through literary classics: the biochemistry found in Alice in Wonderland." Work from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, presented at Experimental Biology, 2011.

(The flamingo looked at Alice and said "Let me tell you about chirality". Via Wikipedia)

There are plenty of examples for works of classic literature being used to educate. What is English class for, after all? But even in classes outside of those focused on reading, fictional literature is sometimes employed to to help facilitate learning. I know I got to read Harry Potter in Latin, for example (not to mention Winne Ille Pu). But using fictional literature to teach people about SCIENCE, that's not so common.

Shende and Benore decided to work with Alice in Wonderland, the children's classic published in 1865, for help in teaching some of the concepts found in biochemistry. When you think about it, the choice makes a lot of sense. In the book, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and into a world where nothing is the same, people cannot seem to stay the same size, and everyone is apparently crazy. While the book seems like nothing but pure fantasy, it, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, contain many concepts which might help students understand basics of biochemistry and pharmacology.

To start out, they did an informal survey asking students if they had read Alice in Wonderland, if they knew who the Mad Hatter was, and if they knew...why the Mad Hatter was mad (in this case, "mad" refers to mental instability). While a majority knew Alice in Wonderland and about half remembered the Mad Hatter, almost none knew why he might be Mad.

This is just one of the concepts which can be used to illustrate chemical concepts, both those of the past and those that are relevant today. In the case of the Mad Hatter, the answer is mercury. The industry of hatting in the 19th century and before was a very dangerous one. Hats in those times were often made out of felt, and felting required large amounts of mercury. Hatters and other people who worked with felt often ended up suffering from mercury poisoning, which is a condition which can cause skin peeling and itching, insomnia, memory less, and swelling of the lips and nose.

While mercury poisoning due to hats isn't at all common today, there are still things that students can learn today about the dangers of mercury. For example, coal power plants can release mercury, which is usually captured by special filters. And mercury is present in fish such as tuna, where mercury accumulates as it goes up the seafood food chain. This is why pregnanct women are not encouraged to eat large amounts of tuna.

The example of mercury is only one of the examples that can be found in Alice and Wonderland. The caterpillar smoking a hookah while sitting on a mushroom can open up lots of opportunities for discussion on the chemicals found in tobacco smoke and the damage they cause, while the mushroom the caterpillar is sitting on and start the topic of hallucinogens.

Even the quote I used to open this post canillustrate something basic about chemistry, the question of CHIRALITY. When Alice asks her kitten if she would like to live in a looking-glass (mirror) house and whether the milk there would be good to drink, she asks a question which opens up a discussion of chiral molecules, an idea very important to chemistry, in which a molecule has a mirror image that is not super-imposable on itself. Using the image of the mirror and the idea of looking glass milk, Shende and Benore hope to be able to increase interest and memory retention of chirality in their students.

The study is only just beginning, and soon the authors will begin to use Alice in Wonderland in the classroom, and see how it affects learning in chemistry. If it works, they hope to use other ideas in literature and movies to give people a starting point for an interest in chemistry and help in learning basic concepts. Who knows? Maybe someday you will be able to encounter something similar in a class. Or you can start using it now, and tell all your friends that you know why the Mad Hatter is mad.

2 responses so far

  • Kees says:

    Interesting, how quickly new scientific ideas find their way into fiction: Louis Pasteur published the optical resolution of tartaric acid in 1848, just 17 years before the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

  • Liz says:

    Huh. One of my old Chemistry Professors has been using Alice through the Looking Glass to teach chirality to first year chemists for at least ten years. It works well - that's the only lecture I remember from those early days!

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