3 August 2005 at 17:01 (General)

From a physiology lecture the other day:

“People have trouble understanding the development of the osmotic gradient in the kidney’s medulla and so they give up on renal physiology. But the truth is nobody needs to know how it’s developed, just how it stops you from dehydrating.

Lecturers who teach it don’t understand it properly so they can’t teach it properly. So the students aren’t really expected to know it because it’s never presented in exams.

If you happen to go into this field and then get a job and your boss asks you if you understand it, say yes. Because the truth is he doesn’t understand it so he won’t be able to quiz you on it and no one uses the process, just the effects that result. It’s really just an academic exercise for geeks.”



  1. Deirdre said,

    What makes it so tricky? How hard can it be?
    (What happens if your boss is a woman? She’ll know you’re lying. Big trouble.)

  2. toto said,

    I don’t know how hard it actually is.. I haven’t really looked at it, I’m trying to lay off the academic geek exercises.

    As for bossy women, very likely. lucky I wasn’t planning to make a career out of kidneys.

  3. Kent said,

    Sounds like most dialogue in all works of life to me. You might like one of my history lecturers; he refuses to teach us at all.

    As for the boss, big deal. They lie to you, you lie to them, nobody minds as long as the work gets done and you both get your money. IMHE.

  4. Kent said,

    … which is why, I suppose, everybody will continue to not understand the development of the osmotic gradient in the kidney’s medulla. Because no one needs to.

    Which is why we should have public universities (read, not profitable) in order to understand things that we don’t need to. Or else we’d still be using the very elaborate but fabricated and false Ptolemaic system of modelling the movements of the planets, earth in the middle.

    Perhaps such knowledge is useful in the end, though. Without the Copernican revolution puttin’ the Sun where it belongs in the middle, navigation at sea would never have developed. Columbus might still have reached America, but he wouldn’t have been able to point to it on a bit of paper, and he sure as hell would never have made it back to Spain, let alone repeat it three times.

    So useless knowledge is useful in the end.

    Deirdre, I seem to have caught your propensity for expanding the point!

  5. Kent said,

    Wow. It’s astonishing how wrong I can actually be. Of course navigation at sea would have continued to work perfectly well – that’s the point. The Ptolemaic system, incorrect as it ultimately was, was an excellent modelling of the apparent motions of the planets. It was the results that mattered, just like the kidney.

    But my point still stands in the end. Copernicus and Kepler putting the Sun in the middle, that knowledge was useful in the end. Ptolemy and the Church wouldn’t have done too well with the whole interplanetary travel gig.

    Sorry about the multiple comments.

  6. J said,

    How can you not love the kidney? ;-) Many may wax lyrical about Japanes poetry and English literature, but when it comes to the beauty of words, it doesn’t get much better than juxtamedullary nephron, or fenestrated endothelium of the glomerulus or the famed hydroephrosis. Don’t they just roll off the tongue?

    Ignore the lecturer’s apathy – learn as much as you can about everything. Not just to regurgitate it in an exam, but because it all matters. The more you learn, the more everything makes sense. But then, I’m an exercise physiologist and we’re all a tad strange..! Good luck with the study. (PS Deirdre sent me to check out your site. Hi D!)

  7. Deirdre said,

    I was being sexist before. Boo for not noticing. ;)
    I thought your main point was about lying. If you lied about something so (apparently) trivial, you’d be more likely to lie about something big and important as well. Or is that too harsh or impractical or something?

    And it’d be worth studying for a career in this field, because then when somebody asked what you did, you could say, “I’m in kidneys.” (… It makes me laugh. Small brain, easily amused, etc.)

    Kent, how is it possible for you to write comments like 2 & 3 in 6 minutes each? It just makes me want to kill you. Even if I could come up with the argument, it’d still take 5 hours each to write the damn thing. And the whole question of pure vs. applied research/exploration… Have you seen the ad on ABC TV for the programs that are coming up? I’ve only seen it twice but both times ended up with tears down my face. It asks something about why we humans explore, and the answer is that we’re fascinating. And what a great reason. We’re so damn interesting – not just humans but everything about our lives and the world itself. I know somebody has to rank research projects according to “use” value if tax-payers are footing the bill, but that’s for somebody else to worry about (thank God; what a horrible job). I think humans might be born with this inbuilt need to explore: we want to know, not because it’s useful, just because we have to ask. Plus it’s fun. :)

    J: hullooo, darl! Gee you look cute in that white coat… :)

  8. matty said,

    kent: yes, I agree. Being able to find the results is often all that matters, but understanding the ‘most correct theory’ has value when it things don’t behave as expected. For example, a system like Ptolemy’s might leave a few people scratching heads when there’s an eclipse (though I don’t know much about his system or what his explanation was).

    If it were a job that I didn’t care about I would agree with the mentality of keeping your distance from your boss so that you can both live in peace. However, if you’re dealing with people’s health and things that you think matter, I’d suggest being honest with your boss would be fairly important. From what I hear, researchers need to find this balance between being moral/honest and being brutal enough to stay employed and receive grants.

    J: thanks for your comment :D
    Are you involved in research or do you help people exercise? I do love the kidneys and over the past few lectures I’ve come to appreciate them with new esteem. However words like ‘juxtamedullary glomerular arterioles’ are still not welcome in those prac exams where they give us two minutes per station. Though I can see how the JG could be useful in kidney poetry, or possibly crosswords. Hey, it’d be great in scrabble if someone had already put down ‘medulla’.

    Looks like I’ve given this lecturer a bad name. This was a 30 second extract from a year of teaching where he really pushes us to build strong knowlege from the ground up and then integrate everything.

    I’m not just saying this because you’re a physiologist, but physiology is my favourite subject at the moment. Anatomy and pathology are alright, but physiology is more conceptual and the course coordinator we have really pushes logic and reasoning. Yes, some physiologists can be a tad strange, but some of the anatomists make anything seem perfectly normal.

    And Dee, I’m sorry, I don’t see what’s funny about kidneys. Perhaps it’s all that respect I have for them now… Ever since year 9 when Mr Pfitzner explained how rainbows are formed I’ve believed that science ruins the child within. – Actually, I bumped into some engineers the other day who laughed for about five minutes when they saw I was studding the renal system, so perhaps it is funny to some people. Now that I think about it, everyone was laughing at the people who were assigned the renal module for their prac session, but only ’cause nobody wants to give urine samples.

    Oh, and kent can type that fast because he’s kent, that’s what he does. I used to sit next to him and try to copy his answers as he read the questions and filled in the gaps (yr10 CK). He had to wait before he could turn the page because I’d still be writing about half way down. Plus now he has a new computer without any missing keys… What’s your WPM on the powerbook kent? I get my iBook back tomorrow! Yay!

  9. D said,

    Science ruins the child within?? Oh, no no no… You don’t really think that, do you? What about Dr Karl? He’s a pin-up boy for joy in science. (I’m just hoping you like Dr Karl, obviously…)

    And, sad to say, I was laughing about “I’m in kidneys” because I was picturing you standing in a big heap of them. Yes, pitiful. And it’s still making me laugh. As does the idea of kidney poetry, but that’s because I’m kidney-ignorant.

    And I was more impressed by what Kent was writing than his speed in writing it, sorry; I meant it would take me 5 hours to work out how to say it.

    PS. Whatever J might say, she actually sits in the lab and does nothing. All day. Every day. All year. It’s a disgrace.

  10. matty said,

    Yes, I love Dr Karl. That’s how science should be. Kidney poetry would be a challenge. I’ll have a shot at it sometime.

    And re:kent, yes, i can probably type 80% of kents speed but I wouldn’t crank out an idea like that because I like to sit and think and review and let the words brew for a while. By the time I’m done I’ve usually forgotten what I was doing so nothing gets posted.

  11. Kent said,

    Bah, how do you know those comments weren’t prepared earlier. And don’t say science should be like Dr Karl; that’s as if yer saying journalism should be like infotainment. Funny, but so often devoid of substance.

    Great to hear you’re getting your computer back. Pity you’re not getting store credit back though.

  12. Kent said,

    I got 104 wpm on some javascript thing but it’s not very good. And I can’t get above 80 now. Will find some proper software to play with.

  13. Kent said,

    PS – I despise the lack of the true delete key on these things. Thankfully there is Fn-Del, but it’s a poor substitute for a real key. Steve Jobs really got that one really really wrong all those years ago.

  14. J said,

    I was employed to conduct research and help people exercise (that’s what we call the pure torture we put the athletes through!) but as D suggests, unfortunately, I spend much too much time sitting in an empty lab twiddling my thumbs…;-) Currently I’m involved in a research project looking at the effects of resistance training on people with metabolic syndrome. A bit ho hum, but it pays the bills..

  15. D said,

    matty, I’m a big fan of the ponder technique of thinking, but it’s a pity if you don’t post your results, especially if they ever involve a kidney poem.

    Here’s something I prepared earlier: my stupid quip about J having nothing to do gives the impression that she has nothing to do, which is not true. I should stop making such stupid jokey comments and just say what I mean, which is this: J is an intelligent, hard-working, busy member of the scientific community, and she’s very very strange.

    As for Dr Karl & infotainment: there’s nothing inherently wrong with infotainment as long as it doesn’t pretend to be something else. But I see him more as a great teacher: someone who loves their job, loves the topic, shows you how the subject is relevant and interesting, and fires up your own sense of curiosity so you’ll go looking for answers yourself. Who knows how many students he’s brought into science who might have gone elsewhere? Plus there’s the feel-good factor: science needs all the public support and funding it can get, and it won’t do that if it seems like a subject beyond the reach and interest of The Public. Good on him, I say. Bless him, in fact. Go, Karl.

  16. Kent said,

    There is everything inherently wrong with infotainment. I cite commercial TV.

  17. D said,

    Kent, is that you expanding the point or being objectionable or what? What’s your beef with commercial TV?

  18. Kent said,

    Uh, everything. Six o’clock (five o’clock too, come to think out) news is about nothing more than getting guys sexually excited over newsreaders with slutty smiles and low-cut tops, and guys with wide-set jaws that reek of youthful aggressiveness (cite dickheads on Sports Tonight) or patriarch-like patronising attitudes. There’s no point giving examples because you have different ones to us.

    The shit-stirring populism of “current affairs” shows, with which I lump the news also, like they’re any different these days. The ads? The ads are at the crux of it. The fact that they are compressed audio which although technically may not be louder, is louder. Plenty of people actually get upset when you mute the ads. It’s like their sole grip on life.

    Everything is also wrong with commerical sitcoms, but that’s a little off-topic for here.

    And believe you me, this is my axe to grind more so than matty’s is cars.

  19. Kent said,

    ‘think of it’ not ‘think out’. Forgive me I really am typing these quickly, I have to go to work.

  20. D said,

    I see.

    The standard response is that you don’t have to watch, and that’s pretty hard to refute. SBS & ABC both do a better job of news and current affairs, so you could just turn over, or off. And the other standard response is that some people LIKE what the commercials offer: if the stations couldn’t attract viewers to sell to advertisers, they’d go out of business, and they’re not yet out of business, so they must be still attracting viewers.

    The problem I see with commercials is the influence they have on the public broadcasters, who end up looking for ratings, just because… Because why? I don’t know. Funding, I suppose. Or are they trying to run with the pack?

  21. Kent said,

    Oh, you’re totally right. I almost never watch TV any more, thanks mostly to my hours at work.

    But, when I’m home at 6pm and my parents are having tea, I have to have tea with them – in front of the channel nine news.

    And you wouldn’t believe how pissed off I get. You actually wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

    I physically struggle to watch it any more, so. But that doesn’t stop me despising it.

  22. D said,

    Strangely enough, I don’t have any trouble imagining you getting pissed off about something. And being stuck in front of the Channel Nine News… well, yes. That might qualify as some sort of family-administered torture (I’m guessing).

    One of the big problems with television news though (whichever station you’re watching) is that they can only really do stories which have pictures – you need something to look at. Most big stories, or the ongoing ones, and all of the underlying reasons for them, can’t be covered properly. It’s basically just half an hour of look at this! look! look! Newspapers do it better.

  23. D said,

    Of course, web sites do it best. Instant, round-the-world, now.

  24. Kent said,

    Yes, agreed. But I find it hard to consider commerical TV news as actual reporting. Like I said, everything is wrong with it. Everything. I would be quite pleased to never see it again in my life. Can do without the images.

  25. Kent said,

    And yeah, what the TV really does is: ooh look at this, people have died in a big disaster but we can’t show you any dead bodies! ooh look at this someone got raped walking down the street! fuck! public terror! ooh look at this state politicans are incompetent! if only you could vote for ray martin! then everything would be ok! ooh look at this!! mark bickley!! OMG warren tredrea!! OMG!!! CHAD CORNES!! MARK RICCUITO!!! QUICK GIRLS!

    Defecating on your pillow is more enjoyable.

  26. D said,

    Okay, so when I said I could imagine how pissed off you’d be, that was incorrect. You get really pissed off. During tea I suppose your parents have to sit far far away from you so as not to get spit all over them?

    (Matty, quick! Why’d you let him in here?? The sedatives, man, quick! And don’t let him near any pillows.)

  27. matty said,

    sorry, I’ve been a very bad host here… easily distracted. I posted a picture relating to careers, and why we shouldn’t worry about what J does, as long as we don’t totally understand it.

    Kent’s anger is good. When I worry that I don’t care enough about which news service is humming away in the background I put my mind at ease, knowing that other people will be giving this proper consideration. Yes, news in general is shit, especially the commercial kind, but I wouldn’t make comparisons with Dr Karl.

    As I see it, good science has several important attributes. It should be about using the scientific method which Karl commends and actively encourages on his show. It should be about collecting and integrating information which Karl demonstrates. He also encourages others to use logic to reach the conclusions themselves, however he always reminds them to be cautious because the wold doesn’t always behave in a way that agrees with our meek understanding and logic. Science should be about communication, something that Karl excels in, his delivery is enjoyable and entertaining, and he ensures that his audience knows what he is saying because he doesn’t cloud issues with jargon. Karl is honest, he knows when he’s out of his depth, at which point he’ll make an educated guess and refer people onto the proper authorities. Finally, more often than not, Karl practices what he preaches, he lives his science.

    Dr Karl isn’t just a comedian, his stuff isn’t devoid of substance. He’s a real scientist, communicating with the masses, helping people understand thier problems and queries. That’s what science is about.

  28. Kent said,

    Yeah all of your points are true. Meh, I shall continue to be frustrated by him more often than not. Too often he says “I don’t know” and then tries a half-baked explanation which he shouldn’t bother with. They’d be better off with someone who knows more, including knowing which direction “offshore breeze” means.

    I am naturally a fan of the scientific method; but I’m also a fan of straightforward (yes, more often than not memorised – memory is no less important than thinking) knowledge, which I’d love to see more people know more of, and I’d rather see more of that than teaching people methods. See how you say science should be about communication? Nah. Don’t agree. Science should be about knowledge.

    It’s like all the crap at school and uni about “the real value of this course is learning skills, not facts”. Fuck that, I’m here to get knowledge. I took this course to learn what happened in 1095 AD and why. To learn how shale turns into the slate into gniess. How Kropotkin decided the social contract was unnecessary. I came here for knowledge. If I wanted to learn skills, I’d take a business course, and if I wanted to learn how to learn, I’d take philosophy.

  29. Kent said,

    And yeah, I know, I know, science is really about the method of garnering knowledge. But the end result, the usefulness of science, the reason we have pills and powerbooks and pretty nice bicycles, is knowledge; applied science; technology. The scientific method is really useful only insofar as it gathers that knowledge. Otherwise it’s just a substitute for revelatory faith ala Religion, or other ways of thinking. Hell, if believing that a three-legged pig shat the universe into being half an hour ago gives me the same body of knowledge that the good ol’ sci. method does, then I’m all for trilegged pig worship.

  30. Kent said,

    Christ I couldn’t be further off topic if I started dissertating on the use of grammar in Byzantine promulgations. I’ll pretend to be sorry for all these comments. But I’m not really.

    Though I am sorry for comparing Dr Karl to commercial TV, they’re just not comparable. TV is evil, Karl is just someone I don’t get ecstatic about but don’t mind that much. Deirdre’s right, I was just trying to wind things up.

    As you were.

    Hmm. The spam-bot-checker doesn’t like being threatened.

  31. matty said,

    yes, the spam-bot is still reasonably sensitive…

    we wasn’t just trying to wind things up, we succeeded!

    thanks for your comments anyway.

  32. D said,

    By winding things up, do you mean The End, get out, doors closed? I’ll just stick this under the door, and you can trip on it in the morning.

    I was trying to synthesise what you’re both saying, because they’re both valid points of view. Matty seems to be looking at the process, and Kent at the outcome. In fact it all seems a bit like a list of “on the one hand” v. “on the other hand”: question v. answer, learning v. knowledge, understanding the world v. using it, wonder v. certainty, ideas v. facts, even (this is a big stretch) education v. training. That’s all a big oversimplification, and what was the point anyway? Which in the end is my point: what’s the point of science, what’s the point of anything? Whatever answer you come up with is going to dictate your approach to everything else. Probably. Maybe. I couldn’t even understand the cartoon.

  33. Kent said,

    I think I speak for both of us when I say we have identical views on science and what it is for and what its value is. I was just being argumentative for the sake of argument, and yeah and meh.

    Today’s calvin and hobbes in the paper, a continuation, was great as well; I thought I’d read every C&H in existence but I can’t remember this sequence. I too used to misspell weltanschauung. Heh.

  34. J said,

    Thanks for the cartoon, Matty. Does it matter that I chose an ist rather than an ism. Now I’m worried.
    D, you are starting to sound like a certain M (I was trying to synthesise what you’re both saying, because they’re both valid points of view, above)… Now, I am really worried.

  35. matty said,

    I’m still being a particularly bad host. I wrote a reply to kent but didn’t like it and put it on the back burner.. Basically, yes, I’m glad you spoke for us both, I was going to but I didn’t want to be wrong in assuming we agree (which is correct).

    J, your not just an ist, your an ologist which is nothing to worry about. There are plenty of worse things people can call you.

    I should spit and polish one of the other thoughts I’ve made a note of before we all go insane.

  36. J said,

    And I agree with Kent. Commercial tv is crap. After not having a tv for a couple of years, we have borrowed one for the last few months. I get angry when it’s turned on to anything other than SBS or cricket (which, happily is now the same thing) :-)

  37. Kent said,

    Scientologist vs scientist?

  38. D said,

    Yes, definite problems with all the ologists. God knows where they’d lead us. Ists, one and all.

    And by “M” J is referring to an Evil one, Matty, not you. And she’s being funny. The said M would gallop over the lot of us with nary a backward glance – there IS no valid POV except her own. :)

  39. Kent said,

    Speak for yourself, no-one gallops over me.

  40. D said,

    Terribly sorry, Kent. That would be an outstanding duel, actually: you v. M. Debating pistols drawn at 20 paces, etc.

  41. J said,

    Now, that would be a truly outstanding duel. If I was into bloodsports, I would actually consider buying a front row ticket ;-)

  42. D said,

    J, it’d be the only duel in history to last for days. In the end they’d end up agreeing or dead.
    (We’ll just chat about you while you’re not here, Kent, okey-dokey?)

    Matty, how’s that spit and polish coming along? I think the insanity has got me already, but please do try to save the others…

  43. Kent said,

    Meh, chat all you like. I have no idea who you’re talking about.

  44. D said,

    No, you wouldn’t, which is exactly why we shouldn’t have been chatting about her on a public comment thread… Sorry. J & I sometimes wander off the track into Siblingworld. (Just to explain, M is good with an argument; it’d be anybody’s guess who’d win that duel.)

  45. matty said,

    the spit and polish will be done later tonight, not because that’s how long it will take, but rather just because I need to put something new here. It would have been easier to do, but my laptop has died again (I just got it back from a three week repair job). So I have a bunch of half-baked ideas but I can’t get to any of them at the moment.

  46. D said,

    Oh, bad news on your laptop. Poor thing.

  47. Kent said,

    Bah it hope it accidentally gets crushed by the pet goat they keep in the repair shop, and you get credit. Stupid frickin machine.

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