Monday, March 3, 2008

Letter on Science Education and Medicine

This week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News (Washington DC, weekly, 140,000 subscribers) published a letter I wrote in support of science education based on the technology that put me back together after several bad accidents. It's a subscription Web site, so I am copying the letter rather than posting a link.

Broken neck, evolutionary biology

One of the few moments I remember from the hours following the bike accident that splintered my seventh vertebra and broke nine other bones is the neurosurgeon saying: "You have two choices. Get the surgery or we can put you in a halo cast for a year and see what happens." I said, "surgery." And I have walked three to 10 miles per day since I left the hospital eight days later. Since the cervical collar came off on Aug. 2, 2007, I have been back on my bike.

But 10 or more years ago I would have had no option but the halo cast. My seventh vertebra was in pieces. Cadaver bone replacement was not a routine option in 1997. I would still be screwed into a cage or maybe in traction or recovering from surgery to "harvest" bone from my hips. In 1967, I would have been quadriplegic or dead.

C&EN writes well and regularly about modern science and why evolution is so important to our intellectual life. Understanding how the body works at the molecular level is key to accepting donor body parts. So for me the insights of Darwin and Mendel, which led to the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, then to huge advances in medicine and all biosciences in the past 50 years, allowed me, a 54-year-old bicycle racer, to walk out of the hospital eight days after a 50-mph crash that would have left me caged for a year, quadriplegic, or dead if it happened earlier in my life.

I am also a believer. So in addition to thinking rejection of modern science is crazy, I also think it is very bad manners. I would respect those who believe in science-rejecting young-earth creationism more if, consistent with their beliefs, they lived in caves and refused all of the technology that comes directly from science in the past century. But who in America does not benefit from modern medicine or high technology?

In my adult life I have been blinded by shrapnel, seen the bones and ligaments inside my knees after a motorcycle crash, and in 2007 was saved from paralysis by the latest trauma medicine. I certainly support modern science on an intellectual level, but for me I am also a fan of modern medicine, as passionate as my fellow Penn State alums are about football.

Obviously, I am writing with no specific expertise, just an ACS member who thinks support of modern science and rejection of pseudoscience is not just right—it's a matter of life and death.

Neil Gussman