Bench Research, Ice Skating, And Jesus
By JIM NICHOLS
“Bench research” describes scientific endeavor that involves, at least partially, standing at a laboratory bench doing experiments. This might involve test tubes, various liquid solutions, small machines, and, in the case of a biologist, some sort of living organisms. The goal is to generate numbers that have some meaning or usefulness. I have done a lot of bench research in my career.
During that research, I have clearly found one truth about my work. The first several times I perform an experiment, I carefully follow a protocol (like a cookbook). Using the previous work of others, I attempt to add just the right materials in the right quantities, heat it to a certain temperature for a certain length of time, do everything just as has been suggested by earlier workers. It takes a long time. However, after doing the experiment multiple times, I have found that I speed up significantly. I have found, for example, that although the protocol reads to keep the tubes on ice for 60 minutes, keeping them for only 30 minutes makes no difference in the reliability of the results. Therefore, rather than follow all the rules exactly, I have found that some rules have flexibility or additions.
My father was a good ice skater. Growing up in the Midwest with real winters, he and his friends apparently spent many cold days on the ice. That joy obviously extended into his adulthood and at one point he bought skates for my sisters and me. More than once, he bundled us up and we took off in the car to find some frozen-over pond out in the “timbers.” We had to hunt a while sometimes since the area was much more developed than when he was a boy. At least once, we were sitting in the car putting on our skates and the police stopped by and reminded us that we were going onto private property without permission. It really irritated my dad.
That was also the early days of television and accomplished ice skaters sometimes were shown, for example in the Olympics. Dad was a good skater, but those skaters on television were amazing. They looked so free and unafraid on the ice.
I asked my dad how they seemed so brave and confident. You will not be surprised that he responded that they had practiced for years following their teachers and, specifically, a set of rules as to how to perform certain activities on the ice. They were free and creative now because they had carefully learned the rules earlier. Only now, after they had basically perfected the rules, could they exercise their own will on the ice and perform stunningly beautiful jumps and flips and skate backwards. They could even skate with a partner and each seemed to know what the other was going to do. Apparently, following the rules initially allowed them to find which rules had some flexibility. And remember, ice is hard when you fall.
Rules are certainly positive, at least initially. Rules set boundaries and keep us safe. Rules are the basis for building communities. Rules can delineate responsibilities and help identify skills. Rules help us build containers for the various aspects of our lives. We have spent a large portion of our existence learning the rules of life. Sometimes the rules were simple to understand; we might not have wanted to follow the rules, but they were not mysterious.
In the Biomedical Ethics course I used to teach, we dealt with ethical dilemmas. I pointed out to the students that what we are prone to call an ethical dilemma is often not one at all. If we know what we are supposed to do and choose not to do it, that is not an ethical dilemma; it is disobedience.
Jesus dealt with rules a lot. Jesus seems to respect rules, but he also clearly added flexibility to them. “You have heard it said: Do not work on the sabbath. Do not touch lepers. Do not eat with tax collectors. Make sure you fast according to the rules.”
In contrast, in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus uses a refrain of, “The Law says . . . but I say . . . .” For example, “Do not murder? I say do not be angry.” “Do not commit adultery? I say do not even lust.”
Yet in that same passage he notes that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. I have read that Jesus boils down 613 clear biblical commands to two: love of God and love of neighbor. Working out how to do that is our challenge.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain