Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life Lines 18


I was preparing an assignment sheet for a seminar course in the history of classical genetics that I was invited to teach at Stony Brook University. In it I was asking graduate students to read some key articles on major findings in genetics from the beginning of the 20th century to 1953 when molecular genetics began with the working out of the double helix model of DNA. I noted that Thomas Hunt Morgan began working with fruit flies in 1907 but did not have anything to publish until 1910 when he published two articles and 1911 when he published two more articles. These four publications (three of them in Science) amounted to ten pages. Now in those ten pages Morgan showed that he had found several mutations in fruit flies which made it a good organism to study genetics; he found that several of them including white eyes, were associated with sex (males showed the trait and females rarely did), and of the ones that were associated with sex, they gave strange ratios not compatible with Mendel’s laws. He made the interpretation that these genes were all linked on one chromosome (called the X) and that a process called crossing over could separate them or put them together. Those findings, today called X-linked inheritance and crossing over were the basis for Morgan’s Nobel Prize in 1933.

If you think that is something (ten pages of work equals one Nobel) consider that Watson and Crick published two articles in Nature in 1953. One was on the structure of DNA (it was a double helix) and the other was on the biological implications of the model (it accounted for gene replication, mutation, and coding). The two articles are less than 3 pages total. That is impressive to compress a Nobel Prize finding into such a small amount of print. It certainly rivals minimalism in art. For me it’s a Zen Buddhist moment of realization. When I was a graduate student, the average PhD dissertation for most of my fellow graduate students was about 200 pages. Most of it consisted of tables of data and methodology and lots of background history as well as a lengthy discussion of what it all means. Mine was about 70 pages. I published the gist of my dissertation into 26 pages. The opposite of this minimalism in science was the introduction of Alfred Korzybski’s book on semantics [Science and Sanity]. He told his readers that if they did not read his book (about 800 pages) three times, not to bother reading it at all. He was lucky; I read it once.

In a productive career, like that of my mentor, H. J. Muller, there is bound to be a range of sizes of publications. His 370 articles included major findings as small as one paragraph (usually an abstract of a larger oral presentation at a meeting) and very lengthy articles of about 77 pages that detailed some of his major findings on the relation of genes to the characters they express. His Nobel paper (on the induction of mutations by x-rays) came out in Science in 1927 and was four pages long. In 1967 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists asked me to condense a speech Muller gave in Chicago shortly before his death. I did so but felt I was mutilating his voice. Today brevity is in (the cost of publication is high) and I miss some of the elaborate reasoning and flourishes of the imagination found in the research papers of the first two decades of the 20th century. More than ten years of writing Life Lines columns to fit one typed page [about 500 words] have taught me the art of brevity.

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