Harry Wilson: Too Good To Play For The Textbook Giants

Harry Wilson was far more than a textpert-college chemistry teacher. Despite his different approach towards teaching, his students did at least as well as everyone else on CEGEP finals (junior college in Quebec equivalent to AP and freshman courses), which featured a blend of number-crunching and conceptual questions. But many came out of his courses with more important skills. They learned to design experiments and how to solve problems within a laboratory context.

With only a beaker, a balance and a pipette, find the final volume created by mixing 5.00 ml of absolute ethanol with 5.00 ml of distilled water. 

To the uninitiated, it seems like a trivial problem. But since water slips into the gaps between alcohol molecules, the answer is not 10.00 ml. Even someone realizing that would be tempted to merely pour the liquids into a graduated cylinder, but the result would not be of optimal accuracy. With some thought, most students came up with the following efficient and accurate procedure:

1) Add 5.00 ml of each liquid to a tared beaker on the balance.
2) Record the mass.
3) Withdraw 5.00 ml and record the remaining mass of liquid in the beaker.

By subtracting the remaining mass from the total, the student effectively has the mass of the 5.00 ml. With that mass, all he has to do is calculate the density of the mixture and along with the total mass, he could figure out the volume.

Of course Harry’s methods were controversial. Some teachers saw the great advantage of his labs over cookbook-types, but not all felt comfortable with the approach. He also benefited from an inadvertent selective process. Students had heard that he was more challenging, so insecure or less independent students shied away from taking his courses. But over the years, encouraged by the favorable feedback of a disproportionate number of his students who went on to enjoy successful research careers, not only locally but at places like Cal Tech, Wilson decided to write a textbook. Part of it would be conventional, but the most important section would describe problem-solving labs to communicate ideas like cooling curves (using plain old hot water) and half-lives (using the fact that  phenolphthalein laxative’s pink color at high pH’s breaks down and can be tracked with a spectrophotometer).

But he was shunned repeatedly by publishers. His methods could not be applied to the masses, and given the high cost of producing, marketing and distributing a book, no one was interested. Instead we have the status quo. For his book to have become the norm and replace the common, formula-adhering triteness, which seems to prioritize pretty color pictures over content and inflate prices, there would have to be a revolution in education.

There would have to be better teacher-training in both high school and college; the equivalent of 1% beer-high-school-chemistry courses would have to be trashed so that a greater percentage of freshmen students would be able to work independently and think their way through more challenging labs. These are skills that are not only valuable to chemists but to future engineers and health practitioners for whom college chemistry is a requirement.

But so what if 30% of entering graduate students in chemistry don’t realize that the bubbles in water that had been boiling for over an hour consist of water vapor. It doesn’t seem to matter when the system is proficient at maximizing the number of ill-prepared science students. With that in place, you can have more tuition paid and more mediocre textbooks sold and more jobs for teachers and administrators. Is that the real priority in education? If so, then it would be no different from every other racket.


What Kind of Student or Teacher Are You?

Factory students and teachers copy whenever they can get away with it. True students and teachers value their own work. Factory students and teachers only perform for marks and money. True students and teachers expand and apply what they learned, even in their free time.

Factory students and teachers imitate electrons, choosing the path of least resistance. True students and teachers get stimulated when challenged.



Factory-types mistake information for knowledge. The others prioritize concepts and skills, even when there seems to be no immediate benefit to gaining them.

Factory students and teachers over-consume paper and goods and have no regard for their school’s energy consumption. True students and teachers tread lightly with regards to their ecological footprint.

Factory students and teachers love to socialize in schools but mostly to avoid work. True students and teachers value people and work together toward common goals.

We have all been both. But it’s time to get the truth out of the factories.

Beneficial Viruses

Due to the insights gained from a decade’s worth of viral research, it’s not surprising that in the autumn of 2013, Penn State University offered a newly developed course in viral ecology. For a century, the word virus had been exclusively associated with certain human, animal, plant or computer diseases. Virus, which is rooted in the Latin word for a slimy, poisonous liquid, had nothing but negative connotations. Yet virologists have slowly come to realize that only a minority of viruses are virulent. Most are innocuous, some are definitely beneficial, and others are indispensable to their hosts. In light of this, as pointed out in a review of mutualistic viruses, a part of the old definition of a virus is incorrect:

intracellular parasites with nucleic acid,capable of directing their own replication, that do not serve any essential function for their host, have an extrachromosomal phase and are not cells.

Mutualism, as opposed to parasitism and commensalism, is a form of symbiosis that benefits two (or more) organisms. Given that viruses are not cells, it may seem odd that the term mutualistic is used to describe some of them, but some mutual symbioses between plant and fungi would not exist without the existence of a virus, and in other cases the living host and virus both directly benefit from their relationship.

Let’s survey some of the more colorful examples from a variety of life’s kingdoms.

1. Bacteria
Many bacteria integrate, within their own DNA, the entire nucleic acid sequence(shown in green in diagram below) of a virus(blue). These dormant (lysogenic) viruses protect bacteria from other forms (lytic) of viruses that could burst out and kill their hosts. Other bacteria(red) that do not carry viral genome are not protected from free viruses.

2. Insects
a) Wasps
Several species of parasitic wasps lay their eggs in living hosts. It’s surprising that the immune system of the victim does not encapsulate and kill the foreign egg. In the lepitdopteran caterpillar, it is actually a mutualistic polydnavirus (class I virus: dsDNA) carried by the wasp which prevents encapsulation and keeps wasp eggs thriving within caterpillar hosts.

b) Aphids In the lab, rosy-appled aphids(A )that were free of virus did not develop wings.

Only those infected by dysaphis plantaginea densovirus, a class II ssDNA virus,  (see B and C in two stages of development) grew wings. Interestingly, if the aphids were infected with rosy apple virus, they remained wingless. Flight helps the host and its viral guest move from one branch or tree to another.

3. Ménage à Trois Among Plants, Fungi and Viruses

In the hot spring environment of Yellowstone National Park, certain grasses (Dichanthelium lanuginosum) can withstand extremely hot soil. Using thermal soil simulators, researchers kept plants in soil at 65°C for 10 hours and
37°C for 14 hours per day for two weeks. The grasses only survived if they were colonized by the fungus Curvularia protuberata, which in turn had to serve as the host for a third mutualistic partner, a virus. In the diagram, Wt= wild type, An= virus-infected in lab, VF= virus-killed, and NS= non-symbiotic plant.

4. Animals (specifically mammals)
About 6 years ago, the media reported that in sheep, some retroviruses (class VI: ssRNA-RT) related to Jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus are critical during the early phase of pregnancy when the placenta begins to develop. But more generally, retroviruses may have played a key role in the evolution of the placenta.

The envelope (env) genes of retroviruses function to promote fusion of the viral membrane with the plasma membrane of a host cell. Syncytins are derived from envgenes and are expressed in the placenta, where they promote fusion of cytotrophoblasts with the syncytiotrophoblast. Thus far six syncytin genes have been discovered including two in the mouse and two in higher primates. These genes are not orthologous so each represents an independent capture from a retrovirus. Yet another example of convergent evolution! There is more. The envelope protein of retroviruses is immunosuppressive and endogenous env genes may contribute to immune tolerance by the mother of the fetal semi-allograft.


Whereas a rice plant is protected from drought when infected with cucumber mosaic virus, mice infected with lymphotropic viruses do not get type I diabetes. Investigators have no doubt hit upon the tip of a mind-boggling iceberg of viral relationships, which have even more profound implications in a world of genetic engineering.

Other Sources:




  •   Roossinck M. The good viruses: viral mutualistic symbioses. Nature Reviews Microbiology 9, 99-108 (February 2011) | doi:10.1038/nrmicro2491