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Sunday, 19 January 2020

Biology Made Simple

(This is not a review. I wouldn’t want to say whether the book is any good or not. I simply picked it off the shelf where it has lodged unopened for half a century.)

A book to take you back to the third form (if only), year 9 as now known, two years before ‘O’ Level, the year you were 14. There you are again, head down, sketching and labelling diagrams of amoeba and the human heart, drawing flow charts of the carbon cycle and learning the names of digestive enzymes.

I loved it. I had the kind of dysfunctional, over-active memory that absorbed the names of anatomical structures and physiological processes like protozoan pseudopodia engulfing scraps of food. Two of us were way better than everyone else. There was, let’s called her Hermione, always first in class tests, and me, always one or two marks behind.

But I had a secret weapon. I must have been the only pupil with a tape recorder at home, or at least the only one devious enough to ask my mother to record a radio programme we were to hear in class in preparation for an essay. Mine was bloody brilliant – better than Hermione’s.

Then it became ‘Biology Made Difficult’. That year, Biology in the first term was not examined until the end of the third (terms 2 and 3 were Physics and Chemistry). That’s a long time to have to remember it. You know what happens. Too much messing about, thinking about the wrong things, lack of planning, lack of attention and in my case, well, let’s say poor mental health, meant I didn’t revise for the exam. My end of year report completes the tale. Biology: position in class 2nd; position in exam 25th; teacher’s comment “a disappointing exam result”. For the next two years, the ‘O’ Level years, I found myself in second-stream Biology where messing about and thinking about the wrong things were a way of life, especially if you wanted people to like you. Low grades for all of us. Idiot!

Still, I took Biology at ‘A’ Level and failed, and when I later chucked accountancy to train as a teacher, Biology was my main subject. That’s when I bought the book: a note inside records it was the 3rd July, 1973, about three months before starting at what was then called City of Leeds and Carnegie College, and six months before dropping out. It’s hard to believe you could once be accepted to train as a specialist Biology teacher without having passed it at ‘A’ Level; it was enough merely to have studied it.

No one has looked at the book since. It has been an absolute joy paying it the attention I should have paid then. Goodness, the things it tells you. It’s a bit like a Bill Bryson book without the exaggeration and contrived jokes. It doesn’t need them. It has its own miracles and wonder. Such as that we create and destroy an incredible 10 million* red blood cells every second. Ten million! Every second! That’s 864,000 million per day. Even at that rate it takes over 100 days to replace them all. And then there’s the horror. Such as hookworm. You really wouldn’t want to pick that up, the way it gets into the blood and burrows from the lungs to the windpipe to be coughed up and swallowed to grow in your gut.

And in Chapter 5: ‘Cycles of Life’, pp57-58, there is this. I am guilty of barefaced breach of copyright here, but Extinction Rebellion says it’s all right to break the law to draw attention to environmental issues.


That is what we knew then. In fact, there is a whole chapter expanding upon the preventative and curative measures listed. It was originally published in 1956 and revised in 1967. Despite not mentioning plastic or climate change or unlimited population growth, it lists so many other ways we upset the balance of nature through our “ignorance, carelessness or ruthlessness … in a given area”. Was it too much of a mental leap to understand that “given area” could mean the whole planet? We should all have been paying more attention.

So, an interesting trip down memory lane. It may be “biology made simple”, there were some things I wanted to read more about, it isn’t modern biology with all that nasty cell chemistry, but I enjoyed it. Best of all, I don’t have to learn it now.


*A bit of Googling suggests this may be an overestimate, the correct figure being a still very impressive 2.4 million red blood cells per second, about a quarter of the number given in the book.

24 comments:

  1. This takes me back. Biology was my favourite subject at school and I somehow managed to attain 100% at O Level. I was completely fascinated by the workings of the human body and still am come to that. I was disappointed to learn that if I wanted to pursue it at A Level I would also need to take Physics and Chemistry as well. Definitely not my best subjects. I went for languages instead.

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    1. I bet you were teacher's favourite as well with 100%. I've really enjoyed reading it again.

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  2. When I was working towards my Bachelor of Arts in university, students had to take one course in science as well, so I took biology. I enjoyed it very much. It was the most interesting and easiest of all the possible science courses, although geology was a close second.

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    1. Now, according to my daughter, they seem to have gone out of the way to make it more difficult (therefore less interesting) by sticking a load of chemistry into it at 'A' level. Seems a pity because it's a valuable thing to have studied for understanding things you encounter later.

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  3. Page 57and 58 could be talking about today's pollution. Tree planting was popular then too.

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    1. It's being said more and more that we knew about all the environmental problems 40 or 50 years ago, but chose to do nothing. What ever did we imagine was going to happen to all that plastic being made, etc. etc.

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  4. My kind of book! I loved most of my science books at school but most years, they did not belong to me and I had to hand them back at the end of the year. I still have my atlas, though, I think. Maybe I shall look for it when I'll be home tonight.

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    1. I can see I'm going to have to get 'physics made simple' next, and then maths, but not chemistry ... no definitely not chemistry with all that atomic bonding stuff. And yes, looking at maps is something else I can do for hours.

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  5. I was never very good in biology but I enjoyed your post. I think when we are older (and don't have to learn for a grade) we can appreciate these subjects more. I love that you had your mother record that program!

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    1. I reckon I could still learn it if I had to - perhaps we should all do exams again to keep the brain cells active. I was the only one at home who knew how to work the reel-to-reel tape recorder, but I set it up with the radio and microphone in place so that all Mum had to do was turn it on at the plug.

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  6. This sounds like my father at the dinner table, telling us in the fifties and sixties how we were destroying the planet. I believe he carried on with his grandchildren, because my oldest daughter opened a successful farm to plate restaurant.

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    1. He sounds like he could think for himself without being told what to think, and was very aware of what was going on.

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  7. There could be the moral that we never learnt from books? I had a similar education path, though I left school at 15. Did not go back to education till 30s when I did three A levels, and went on to teacher training. Self education is very fulfilling though and curiosity fills in the gaps.

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    1. I bet, like me, by being a "late developer" you got a great deal more from the experience (and a new career) than at 18.

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  8. As usual, I enjoyed this blogpost. Biology was the only science subject that appealed to me at school because it spoke directly about things that seemed to matter. My brain was not made for Physics or Chemistry which quite literally bored me to tears. In those days, the relevance of that kind of learning seemed very obscure and some of my teachers were just going through the motions, clinging to text books that made their working lives easier but ignored the need for individualised attention, explanation and encouragement.

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    1. Absolutely true about at least some of the teachers and their inability to make things relevant. I wonder how much better we'd all have done with more like Mr. Farthing, the Colin Welland character in Kes. I might get round to posting about our 'A' Level Maths where we were taught an out of date syllabus and everyone in the class failed.

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    2. Are you sure you knew your times tables?

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    3. If it was in the syllabus they didn't cover it.

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  9. The page you posted was very illuminating. Of course, we already knew then what the issues were.

    I enjoyed reading the bits about your biology class rival. :)

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  10. The trouble was, those books never made anything simple, everything was just as bloody hard or harder. I hated them.

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    1. You've got a point there. Is anything ever simple?

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  11. You have a wonderful blog! The topics you write about are very close to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    I follow you through GFC! If you want, go to my blog :)

    MY NEW POST: BLOG ISSUE♥

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    1. Thank you. Is GFC! Gillingham Football Club or the Great Firewall of China? You seem to be the first Russian lifestyle and fashion blogger to follow me. Do I now have to take more care over my appearance? And why have you made exactly the same comment on several other blogs?

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