The poetics of Heidegger’s Enframing within current science and technology

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We cannot adequately contemplate the meaning or context of the deepest metaphysical questions, questions about the nature of reality or truth itself, without giving proper consideration to modern science.[i] This “we,” from whom proper consideration is due, extends far beyond those who practice science: physicists, biologists, engineers, physicians, and others. On the most practical score, those responsible for making policy changes on global issues of concern—such as stem cell biology, neurocomputing, or climate science—the wider communities that charge them with this responsibility—will not largely be scientists.[ii] On a deeper but still very real note, our relationship to science and technology has altered and accelerated human evolution in ways that Charles Darwin would not have predicted, even by analogy. Does Heidegger’s understanding of technology have anything to offer us today?

In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” (retitled from the 1949 lecture called “Enframing”), Martin Heidegger writes that humans have a desire to question technology “in order to bring to light our relationship with its essence” (23). He was especially concerned with man’s relationship to Being (“what is given to thinking to think”), since Being presences and is known through man—and technology is a mode of presencing, productive like Being of beings and therefore of their finite realities. It is never the case that Heidegger sees technology as a presencing that is only damaging or destructive of life, including human life. As he reminds us, technology comes from the Greek word technē, a skill that includes both art and science, but from often benign beginnings, we have emerged through history to an historical time when technē, through man’s calculative engineering, created such enormities as Hiroshima and Nagaski, gas chambers, and mass starvation (often by design) in the name of mechanized agriculture. Despite these catastrophes, Heidegger would nevertheless argue that fear (here, of technology) drives humans to meditative thinking (see Heidegger, “The Memorial Address”), and however marginal its manifestation, however its enlightenments, this at least is a very good thing.

Just as Heidegger invents language to fit his own philosophical project, modern science now reimagines the possible in a language of zero/one (i.e., computer programming). This system of on/off switches is now paradigmatic, what Plato might call “idea of the ideas,” for how scientists model and understand thinking as neuronal signaling in the brain—a paradigm because neuronal signaling (as the “action potential”) is also an all-or-nothing event. This does not imply that overall signaling cannot be graded or refined; inhibitory potentials smooth and shape information flow. Nevertheless, binary code is at the frontier of brain science, and is engaged in by scientists and non-scientists through “crowdsourcing” events[iii]—together forming a modern-day Greek chorus, or collective.

If we are simply our neurons, as Francis Crick hypothesizes in the Astonishing Hypothesis, then what reasonable objection do we have to full-body transplants, which Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has announced is on the horizon for as early as 2017. But, if human Being is indeed reducible to human brains, what then happens when the human brain is matched or surpassed by computing technology itself? After all, the human brain as cultural archive has been surpassed by computer code and technology.[iv] Although still largely technological, “memory” preservation has in return coopted biology: digital data can now be stored and retrieved by means of sequencing DNA bases.[v] Contemporary data science is rewriting the language of code, so that the notion of “everywhere we look we see only ourselves” has become quantitative.

Along with the benefit of storing large quantities of memory, or data, it is telling that this technology has been called “apocalypse proof”—promising that we may “faithfully store” Shakespeare’s words well after we have seen the end of days.[vi] What is the use of a message, even in this sand, if it is only left for life from other planets? How is this question of technology related to the question of consciousness and self-consciousness even when applied to the neurons that may be all we are?

As Heidegger tells us, the danger of technology is not technology itself, but rather the essence of technology, for which he invents/discovers the term “Enframing” (Das Gestell). That the essence of technology is not technological is difficult to understand, but nevertheless reveals something true about the relationship created between ourselves and Being in the world. We tend to think of technology as instrumental, as something that helps us get something done, but this is an error in our understanding of causality Heidegger tells us—we are not masters when we “make it better,” but are rather the mastered. The danger of the essence of technology (i.e., of Enframing) is that it inhibits genuine thinking—which in turn blocks poiēsis, and obscures truth (alēthia)—hidden, not unhidden—by silencing every other possibility of revealing (27).

From the start of the essay, it is clear that “the question” concerning technology is not actually in question. In other words, he does not ask, “Was ist das?” (as he does of philosophy). Instead, he presents and shapes an understanding of Enframing and suggests that a “saving power”—an idea taken from the poet Höderlin—exists alongside the danger of Enframing. This saving power is technē. While it is not a logical necessity that a saving power exists just because a danger exists, as an instance of the technē, of poiēsis, it is nevertheless a satisfying denouement, and in its swerve toward satisfaction, clarifies what Heidegger understands to be the relationship of art and science within technology.

Enframing endangers man “in relationship to himself and to everything that is,” making it the case that “it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” as through technology he imagines that he is—an engineered being (Heidegger 27). The source of this idea comes from the physicist Heisenberg, from his book, The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (Heisenberg 22).[vii] But Heidegger takes this narcissism further to mean that man cannot separate himself from Nature or other things. Thus he cannot engineer Nature without also engineering himself. Enframing “demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve,” but when everything in man’s world becomes a standing reserve for engineered presence, man becomes a standing reserve as well. As Heidegger says, this is akin to a river being made a standing reserve of energy by a hydroelectric plant (23).

That Heidegger’s Enframing renders everything as standing reserve is a useful metric to analyze whether science of the Information Age is a decisive change from previous technology, or just “an extension of old handicrafts” (Heisenberg 17). Heidegger doesn’t state explicitly what is special about modern physics, but, Heisenberg does; he writes, “atomic technology is exclusively concerned with the exploitation of natural forces to which there is no entry at all from the world of natural experience” (18). There has been increasing comfort (or at least imperceptible discomfort) with increased abstraction, with the lack of entry from the world of natural experience. In this regard, we might see current science as “just an extension” of what modern physics heralded. It is still the case that science is instrumental—that it is good not in and of itself, but rather good for something else (which is also reflected in the name, “standing reserve”).

Both Heidegger and Heisenberg write of the intereffect of technology and science. The physicist writes, “technology has always been both the starting point and consequence of natural science” (17). Yes, this is still true, but the time between the starting point and the consequence has shrunk to practically no time at all; the feedback is now engaged in what we would deem “a runaway process” or infinite loop. Symptomatic of this change is the language we now use to speak of science and technology, which is one of increasing intimacy: I am thinking of the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, who uses the word technoscience as an evolution of “technology and science” or even of “technology-science,” whose intermediary hyphen was a short-lived chaperone that delayed, only temporarily, real intimacy between partners. The reciprocity between technology and science, especially as it stands today, influences our language, our thinking, and I would also argue, our compassion. Despite the recent scientific discovery of mirror neurons, which fire an action potential when an animal acts, as well as when it sees the same action “mirrored” by another,[viii] compassion is still yet a type of poetry, is not zero/one. Like myth, the poetry of this science tells us something true, and is revealing.

If the question concerning technology is not marked as a question, then what is? Many of the questions in Heidegger’s essay are rhetorical or are in some way in service of commentary. Some of the more charming questions he asks are, “Can anything be more strange?”—in reference to using the word Enframing—as well as the extremely thoughtful, “What does it mean ‘to save’?”—a question that stays with this reader long past its articulation (28).

Within Heidegger’s technology essay, I see two major shifts that shape the argument in palpable ways. The first turn occurs after a type of prelude, where early in the essay he asks another wonderfully cheeky question, “But where have we strayed to?” (12). We have strayed or swerved to alethēia, truth, by talking about the ways in which technology reveals. This question, posed as a question, gets us directly to the heart of his thesis, that the danger of technology is, at its core, a blocking of the revealing of truth. The second reframing or repositioning I see happens through the words of the poet Höderlin: “But where danger is, grows/The saving power also” (Heidegger 28). Heidegger uses poetry in this very direct way, through citation, to have us appreciate poetry itself is a revealing of truth. The question concerning technology (i.e., “What is the danger?”) demands of us to inquire whether there are any solutions. What this reframing seems to reveal is how saving power grows as a poetic turn.

These two shifts in the essay are points of entry that lead us to situating poetry as the reframing of the essay’s search for truth. We see the fullness of his argument embodied in this final turn: In response to the question of technology, truth reveals itself, as it did for the ancient Greeks, only by combining methods found in both the arts and sciences.

For obvious historical reasons having to do with the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, the “herald of Enframing” is said to be modern physics (Heidegger 22). One of my questions in studying Heidegger’s essay has been to ask whether a new era of science—science of the Information Age—offers new insight into the danger of Heidegger’s Enframing. Overall, I see his essay as a core text that can be used to engage in dialogue with both the arts and sciences.

But, beyond this initial cosmetic assemblage, the poetics of Heidegger reveal that human beings, themselves something technological and something poetical, dance with both the danger and the saving power, and I see this as a message of a certain type of responsibility. We have the responsibility to think meditatively.

Heidegger’s saving power is taken from the poet-thinker Höderlin’s poem “Patmos” (1808). Both Heidegger and Höderlin were enthusiastic admirers of ancient Greece. The poem is notoriously long and difficult, and has as its ostensible subject the Apocalypse of John (Huddlestone “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin”). As Höderlin became a worsening schizophrenic in his thirties, he overturned “every eschatological implication” of his earlier poems (Haverkamp 5). In “Patmos,” the poet takes us through an imaginative landscape that finds its way through Asia, the Greek Islands, and the Holy Land; past, present, and future are encapsulated in a moment. This conflation of time is also present in Heidegger, where what is chronologically first is not necessarily that which is historically first, and this is how we might envision a saving power as coexisting with the danger of Enframing.

The good news, here, according to science, is that biology is responsive to its environment: neurons and their synapses are “plastic” so that neuronal activity reshapes and reconnects in response to experiences like learning. Yet, the saving power, art, is also becoming more technological/scientific,[ix] which was not addressed or perhaps anticipated by Heidegger—does this delimit the utility of the saving power, if it is less artful? To answer this, I think we must (logically) answer poetry with poetry to understand that it does not. As long as we have an uncertainty, we have a desire to question. There is perhaps a parallel to be drawn between the dual core of Enframing (a danger alongside a saving power) and a technē that embodies science and poetry. These pairs only appear to oppose one another.

Notes

[i] All science tests through observation and conceptualizes, attempting to be both objective and reproducible. It is generally appreciated, although argued against by more recent historians of science, that ancient science starts from concepts, whereas modern science starts from facts.

[ii] Beyond these implications, it is now possible that in the near future those of us who are scientists may not be able to contribute in meaningful ways to inform governmental policy changes. See: http://inhabitat.com/house-passes-bill-that-prohibits-expert-scientific-advice-to-the-epa/

[iii] I am thinking of the computer game EyeWire (eyewire.org), which comes from Sebastian Seung’s lab at MIT. By 3D mapping neurons in a retina, users help researchers understand how neurons connect and communicate.

[iv] It may also be fruitful to consider in parallel the devaluation of cultural elders in society (many examples are possible), as a commentary on a seemingly higher valuation for “faithful” data retention rather than human relationships.

[v] Every byte (an 8-sequence string of ones and zeroes) is represented by a word of five letters that are each A, C, G, or T. First accomplished in 2012 by the George Church laboratory at Harvard University; long-term stability of DNA-encoded data reported in 2015 by ETH Zürich.

[vi] Perhaps we might also choose to store what humans have thought about Shakespeare’s sonnets over the ages, lest that magic be lost.

[vii] Heisenberg writes, “Modern man confronts only himself…in previous times man felt that he confronted nature alone….we are always meeting man-made creations, so that in a sense we meet only ourselves” (22-23).

[viii] Interestingly, this is not something that is distinctly human, but has been found in several primates.

[ix] The artist Oron Catts of the University of Western Australia comes to mind: He uses living cell culture tissue in sculptures to present not-moving “aliveness” in living. (http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/residents/catts)

***

Works Cited

Haverkamp, Anselm. Leaves of Mourning: Höderlin’s Late Work. Trans. Vernon Chadwick. New York: SUNY, 1996. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. and Ed. William Lovitt. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Print.

Heisenberg, Werner. The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik) Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958. Print.

Höderlin, Friedrich. “Patmos” in “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin.” Trans. Robert Huddleston Likestarlings, June 2012. Web. 20 March 2015.

Huddlestone, Robert. “On ‘Translating’ Höderlin” Likestarlings, June 2012. Web. 20 March 2015. http://www.likestarlings.com/on-translating-holderlin/

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Thomson, Helen. “First human head transplant could happen in two years” NewScientist, 25 February 2015. Web. 25 February 2015.

Yong, Ed. “Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare’s sonnets” Nature News, 23 January 2013. Web. 15 January 2015.

The Scientific Article: Fact Construction

“When we go from ‘daily life’ to scientific activity, from the man in the street to the men in the laboratory, from politics to expert opinion, we do not go from noise to quiet, from passion to reason, from heat to cold. We go from controversies to fiercer controversies.”

–Bruno Latour, Science in Action

Have you tried reading a scientific article? If you came away thinking that scientific writing is impenetrable or unreadable, your impression is probably a fair one. Whether intentional or not, scientists create walls around their work by using jargon that has become standard to their field or by embedding the text with excessive references. I recently read Science in Action by Bruno Latour, a French philosopher and sociologist of science. He describes scientific writing as, “an array of successive defense lines.” Although convention in scientific writing is to use passive voice, the author is actively present in the work through his or her use of rhetoric and framing.

There is a real cost to the “folding and stacking” of a scientific text through the use of references: it ends up leaving the reader-as-dissenter isolated and weak. It takes courage to approach the text. How can one isolated reader stand up against an army of references? As any good piece of rhetoric, the scientific narrative anticipates its readers’ objections in advance. “Don’t take my word for it,” the text seems to say, “take the word of my 50 references.” It is worth mentioning, as Latour does, that these referenced papers are not the work of a single author, but of a list of people; the reader is left to defend for herself in the face of a hundred others.

Were we to have sufficient interest and also sufficient time, we might be inclined to read all the references in a scientific paper. But unlike other kinds of academic writing, scientific references beget more papers with scientific references, as these references exist in a complicated web that somehow connects, at least in theory, to a first paper—what an evolution! In the humanities, we are taught that a careful reader shouldn’t miss a footnote. Read everything! (A great example: Rousseau’s Second Discourse makes fuller sense by consulting a lengthy footnote in which he distinguishes amour-propre from amour de soi-meme.) But in science, the message is a different kind of challenge: “Go ahead, just try to check me.” The option is to take the word of the author, or to consult a pile of references.

Is this problem getting better or worse?

As evidence of the trend toward folding and stacking, Latour asks us to consider an example in the field of primate biology (primatology), having us consider the number of references over a period of time. Curious about how this evolution might have played out in one of my own fields (I have a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology [Toxicology], and am a Neuroscience postdoctoral fellow), I compared the number of references in the first 100 papers of the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology (1959-60) to a complementary group in 2013; results are displayed in the graph below.

TAAP references graph1
A comparison of the number of references for the first 100 papers published in two different years for the journal TAAP. This graph and the statistical test was run in R, a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics.

In this graph, there is an obvious visual difference in the average number of references from these two samples; this difference was confirmed by a statistical test called a t-test. This test tells me that there is only a 5% chance that the difference in the means for these groups is the product of chance. In plainer English, this indicates that we have dramatically increased the number of references used in scientific papers in recent years. Over time, we seem to rely more and more on authority, possibly reflecting our tendency to obfuscate rather than make clear.

The next hurdle that we meet is the publishers’  paywall. Want to see the referenced papers? You can pay upwards of $30 US for a single paper. As you can see from the graph, in my field there were on average 50 references in a published paper. It’s easy math: $1500 in exchange to see behind the paywall. This system is in place to serve the publisher, not science writ large. We are more and more becoming less and less able to check the references that construct our scientific facts. In this context, the pushback on behalf of citizens and scientists for “open-access” publishing is one I can’t endorse highly enough.

But, we should also ask whether or not the number of citations over a span of a given period of time is really a good proxy for how closed off a field has become. I can think of another reason why there would be more references in more recent years: there are simply more papers over time. While it was possible in the year 1959 to publish a paper with zero references, perhaps because it really was the first experiment of its kind, this is not the reality of today because science necessarily builds on itself. History has provided us with more evidence.

Yet, the problem of references is even more strange if we consider the following: We cannot assume that authors who cite papers have actually read the papers they reference.

In a 2002 article “Read before you cite!” Simkin and Roychowdhury, two researchers at UCLA, approximated the number of articles that are actually read by authors who are citing them. Using as their proxy the number of repeated misprints in scientific citations, they estimated that only ~20% of scientific article citations are taken from original sources. As Simkin and Roychowdhury comment, “[This] can give insight into the process of scientific writing.”

If scientists are not reading all of their own references, it would appear that the number of references used in papers is excessive rather than necessary. If so, we should ask ourselves who we are serving when we build the walls higher.

science_puppet

OPENING THE BLACK BOX

“You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

–Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix

The human brain is not the largest organ in the body—it takes up less than 2.5% of total body weight—but scientists believe it to be the source of all human behavior and emotion. For this reason, it’s really, really important to understand, yet some argue that our understanding of the brain is in the Middle (i.e., Dark) Ages. As such, the brain has often been seen as some kind of black box, with knowledge of its inner-workings unknowable. But we humans are a curious ilk, and we’ve always wanted to shine just a little more light on this box. Alzheimer’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Anxiety and depression are just a few reasons why it’s so important.

black box

Since the days of Leonardo da Vinci, we have used autopsy to help us understand human disease (e.g., currently used to study the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease). As humans, we’ve performed autopsies to learn something about what it means to be human even when it was illegal, by, say, Roman law. And we’ve remained intensely curious about the mind-body connection. (The Catholic church is known to have ordered an autopsy on conjoined twins in 1533 to see if they shared a soul.)

In present day, we use non-invasive, live-imaging techniques to study brain structure and function. We look at brain activity in response to activities like listening to music, and identify which areas respond. (“Where is music appreciation housed?”) We are still indebted to studies on the brain injured, as well as the use of animals as models for human brain function. If you lose part of your ability to speak, and we’ve found a tumor sitting on a specific location in your brain, we might conclude that the ability to speak comes from this area. From studies like these, we now appreciate that brain location is a code for function. In other words, where you are firing signals in the brain matters, and is indicative of a certain type of behavioral response. For example, we know language is processed in humans in the left hemisphere (in Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area) in 97% of people. The remaining 3% of people still have language, it’s just found elsewhere.

One of the most important tools for studying brain activity has been the ability to monitor the brain’s energy consumption. After all, the brain may not be the largest organ, but it uses a lot of our energy resources. In fact, the resting brain will use oxygen and glucose, a simple carbohydrate, at a rate that is ten times the rate of the rest of the body. Why? For one thing, our brain has no way to store glucose, so when neurons are activated, getting them back to their original state requires active transport of ions across the cell membrane; this energy comes in the form of glucose. More glucose/energy equals more activity, and more activity means that this area is working really hard to produce the observed behavior.

We’ve realized for a while now that parts of the brain that are working harder will require more energy, but didn’t have a way to measure it. For the past few decades, researchers have been tracking blood flow, oxygen and glucose, as a proxy (indirect measurement) of brain activity. We still use positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional MRI (fMRI) to image brains, which are tools that measure the emissions given off as oxygen and glucose are consumed. The goal of fMRI is to find correlations between an active brain area and a task that the subject performs. These are really great methods to help us learn more. We can even record the activity of a single neuron in animals.

So…can we use brain imaging to detect consciousness?

First we might ask, well, what is consciousness? It’s one of those topics that is truly difficult to define and study, and so often is frowned upon, but it might just be the core element to appreciating brain function. Distilled, it may turn out to be the actions of neurons acting individually and in concert.

Neurons, or nerve cells, are found in the brain. Francis Crick’s so-called “astonishing hypothesis,” is that we are nothing more than the result of electro-chemical reactions in the brain.

neurons equals me

As Crick states, “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Neurons exist in several different shapes and sizes, and they communicate to other neurons by releasing neurotransmitters that bind to receptors. Interestingly, the message that is sent doesn’t depend on the type of neuron that’s sending the signal, or on the identity of neurotransmitter (e.g., glutamate, dopamine, serotonin), but on the type of receptor that is activated by the signal. Receptors are generally classified as excitatory, inhibitory, or modulatory. Over 90% of the neurotransmitters that are released in the brain are glutamate or GABA.

Are sentient beings (i.e., beings able to perceive and feel) really no more than the result of nerve cells firing action potentials? To many scientists, this prospect is not astonishing at all, and neither has it been to my university freshmen. Yet, Crick anticipates objections to the hypothesis. The first anticipated objection is that the hypothesis might be considered too reductionist. In other words, some would argue that the brain is “more than the sum of its parts.” A second sticky point is the issue of free will. Under this hypothesis, it, too, would exist from neurons firing. Free will may be more apparent than real.

In the meantime, the Astonishing Hypothesis is just that—a hypothesis. One of the great things about science is that we revise our stance in the face of new evidence. We shine light on black boxes.

Science in the third-world

Me: Do you see the cells?

Madame Edith: I see a cell—the clear spot.

Me: No, that’s an air-bubble. Look above and to the left. Everything that’s stained blue—those are the cells.

M. Edith: Yes, I see them! Oh, and the nucleus—it’s dark blue!

IMG_8259

***

If you could name any place on the planet where science is the least accessible, where would it be? My answer: the third world.

In June 2014 my husband and I volunteered for three weeks in rural Uganda, at the source of the Nile River. I wanted to bring more science to the area and my husband, Shane, wanted to bring more art. We packed four suitcases of books with us to contribute to an empty library, got every recommended vaccination, took our passports, and hopped on a few planes.

The first day that we were there, it had rained so insanely the night before that the road was a ruinous pit of sticky red clay. We walked ten minutes from our host family’s home to the main office of the S.O.U.L. organization, a non-profit that helped us to secure contacts in the area, and we were bombarded with love from the pre-primary kids. These young kids are inquisitive, spunky, and joyous!

IMG_7341 IMG_7347

[A brief aside for those who are interested in helping from afar. The poverty there is absolutely devastating, and most families struggle with so many things, including paying the price of school fees. If you can’t pay fees, you don’t go to school. S.O.U.L.-sponsored students, from pre-primary through university, are given half of their tuition via a donor program sourced in the United States (www.souluganda.org).]

I spent most of my time at St. Stephens secondary school located in Namizi East. Being government-sponsored, St. Stephens has more resources than other schools (e.g., they have a few microscopes). Nevertheless, the school is flanked by two rows of abandoned school buildings. I was told that the previous headmaster took funds from the building project, leaving no money to finish the brick structures. Weeds grow past what would have been windows.

IMG_7422

I sat in on a Senior 1 biology class (Equivalent to U.S. high school freshmen) to get an idea of the students I would be teaching in the coming weeks, and what they were used to in the classroom. There was nothing spontaneous or interactive that happened; everything was as laid out in the teacher’s notebook. No funny story or real-life examples. It was “this is what I am going to tell you” and “let’s write down what I just told you.” Part of the problem is that these students have no textbooks. (They also have no internet.) The teachers have access to one textbook in their field, which is housed in a locked room. (They also have no internet.) From this one textbook, teachers siphon through what they think will be important or will appear on a national examination, and create a “syllabus book” that contains their notes for class. But the teachers don’t know what is important to teach, and this is a problem.

Illustrative of this, students were only briefly taught about magnification, and were taught for the better part of an hour how to hold and transport a microscope (e.g., carry it with two hands…). It is a cruel twist of irony that these students will never have the opportunity to transport a microscope.

I left wondering, “where’s all the fun stuff?” Science is more fun when you actually do science. Let’s ask a question and then try to answer it. Or let’s at least have some hands-on time with a microscope!

Microscope Class

St. Stephen’s had three microscopes available, all of which had a light source, but the school had no power, so we used the mirrors to deflect sunlight through the specimen and eyepiece.

IMG_7424

Madame Edith expressed interest in the students seeing animal cells under the microscope, so I prepared cheek cells on two different slides, and added dye to one of these samples. (I brought slides, slide covers, eye droppers, glass bottles, and methylene blue dye with me from the United States.) The purpose of adding the dye to only one sample was to demonstrate how dyes can be really useful when trying to visualize parts of the cell. This particular dye, methylene blue, stains the cytoplasm (jelly-like substance inside cells) blue and the nucleus (the cell structure that contains DNA, our genetic material) an even darker blue. The cell membrane is still visible in an unstained preparation, but less so.

For the third microscope, I cut a letter ‘e’ out of a local newspaper, and mounted it with a drop of water under a slide cover. When viewed under a microscope, the image is of course magnified, but it’s also inverted.

letterE100x

Why this is beyond cool: Our eyes also have a lens, and they flip images like this. The brain flips the image for us once more as it’s processed by the visual system, which is why we don’t “see” things as upside-down. It was really something to show the students all of these slides under the microscopes. Some of them you could tell didn’t see it, despite the best encouragement to really put an eye close up on the eyepiece, but others really did. We even had some senior 4 girls sneak into the course.

For the video, click here: Microscopy class in Uganda (2014)

Reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS)

While in the planning stages of the microscopy course, I made a new friend, Stevie, who volunteered for the Peace Corps and co-founded an annual girls’ math and science camp called GirlTech (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDSbdrm9rTw). She sent me a manual for this camp, which was equal parts science and general health.

It was through Stevie that I learned that a majority of girls in Uganda miss school during the time of their period, because they don’t have the funds to purchase tampons or disposal pads. This translates to missing one full week of courses in a month! Perhaps needless to say, if girls had a way to economically and sanitarily manage their period, they would avoid missing valuable class time.

Madame Edith was an enthusiastic supporter of my bringing a special lesson on how to make reusable maxi pads (RUMPS) for the girls at school. In our first in-person meeting, she stressed the importance of not simply handing out the pads to the girls, but instructing them how to make them, so that they could make more themselves. She told me there were 400 girls at this school—how many of them would I want to speak to? Well…all of them!

So, I went to a local market in Jinja town with Phoebe, a member of S.O.U.L., and we bought 8 large towels, 10 bedsheets, and 400 buttons, and proceeded with a plan to make 400 RUMPS.

market these will be pads

For this project, I followed a protocol as published by the Peace Corps, and would recommend it to anyone interested in starting a project like this one (http://peacecorpsuganda.wikispaces.com/file/view/Lizzie’s%20RUMPS%20Manual.pdf). I would also recommend bringing at least twice as much material (to make it twice as thick) for the pad inserts, and would be happy to communicate via email.

Phoebe taught me to sew on an old Singer machine. After we made our first pad, she asked me if I was really going to make 400 in five days. I was going to try! It really was a lot of work! I learned to sew, and made 60 completed pads over the course of two days.

rachel sews 60 pads

The first pad was assessed to be too skinny for a lot of girls, so we decided to make them of varying sizes, with this being the smallest.

IMG_7737 the first pad

The pattern for the pad was cut from a discarded box, and we traced it on the sheet using marker. With occasional helping hands at S.O.U.L., we cut out a total of 400 patterns.

Shane traces pattern

group help happy were done

I was nervous to bring the RUMPS to the school, because I personally don’t use this during my own period, but was hopeful that it might be a solution to an obvious problem. They LOVED it! In the end, I was was so proud that we had something to give every girl!

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 It was literally awesome to see such a long line of girls at St. Stephens!

Each girl was provided (1) a two-piece shell cut out from cotton bedsheet, (2) a strip of towel as the pad insert, and (3) a button. Girls in this area of the world have easy and affordable access to a needle and thread.

For the video of the first group, click here: RUMPS (2014)