How do you answer big questions?

Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 BioMath Connections

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC)

What is the cause of cancer?

How can we stop global warming?

Can we produce a carbon-neutral bioenergy fuel?

Big questions can seem intimidating and might stop you from trying to answer them. However, the great discoveries in science occur when people just like you try to solve problems and answer questions that seem too hard.

Today we will work in teams to answer a fairly modest question, but one that requires you to break the bigger question into smaller sub-questions. You will need to combine some basic math and biology knowledge to answer this question:

Break this single question into a series of smaller questions and then divide and conquer the overall task.

You will have to make some simplifying assumptions to answer this question. You could spend your time designing a wet lab experiment to measure this value. As a famous mathematician once said, "Six months in the lab can save you an afternoon of calculations."

Today, estimate distances, volumes, etc. that would approximate the real measurements you might obtain by measuring many people and finding the average. Keep track of which values are approximations and which ones are supported by published sources.

2008-2009 Bio-Math Connections

Bio-Math Connections is part of the Synthetic Biology Research for Undergraduate (SyBR-U),
a collaborative project between Davidson College and Missouri Western State University
funded by the Undergraduate Biology and Mathematics (UBM) program of the National Science Foundation, DMS-0733952 and DMS-0733955