Wednesday, September 4, 2013



Younger people do not think much beyond a few years ahead.  Yet we all see people who are much older when we are in the prime of our careers or lives.  I remember the first time I visited a nursing home for the elderly to visit one of Nedra’s relatives.  This was about 1970.  I was young (at least I think being 39 is young to me now).  The first response was the odor of urine that permeated the place.  The thought of incontinent old people horrified me and I can see why younger people blot out the thought of that future.  The second was the feeling of helplessness as I watched some people scooting about in wheel chairs, many leaning on canes, and lots walking corridors holding onto railing along the walls.  The thought crossed my mind that I would rather die a quick death from a heart attack than melt away cell by cell as I aged into oblivion. Today I am in the early phase of my 82rd year.  I use a cane occasionally to avoid falling if the weather is bad or if it is dark or I feel I will tire from walking too much.  I take tai chi classes with Nedra so we can exercise our arthritic joints. My brain feels like it is 30 years old and I can do lots of mental skills.  I can do Sudukos (even the hard ones and sometimes I use a pen instead of a pencil).  I still write books and have had five books published in the past ten years, the latest this year (2013).  These are not vanity press books.  They are scholarly books that must pass critical review by internal and outside referees of the publisher. I also have at least five books I wrote during the same time that have not been published.  I am a realist.  If I don’t get a book published, I try writing another book.  To me that is easier than to market myself.  That’s the same attitude I have for Sudukos.  Solve it and get an endorphin rush.  Goof it up and abandon it by trying another.  If I run out of puzzles to do, then I will erase and try again (and often succeed). So far I have not tried that with my rejected manuscripts. But unlike puzzles, writing books and articles is more fun.  I learn something every time I do the research for a book.  I still have the curiosity of a child and want to learn something new every day I waken.  I understand why many elderly people are depressed.  They have lost the capacity to do the physical things they loved. They may never have had an opportunity to develop their mental skills.  If they do not have dementia, they will see their lives fading away and lack the knowledge of how to cultivate their skills. For me retirement was never going to be shuffleboard, playing cards, and watching vintage movies.  It is the last phase of my life cycle, and as a biologist, I want to extract every moment of creativity I can summon and savor what I have wrought.

Sunday, September 1, 2013



The very likely use of Sarin gas by the Syrian military in an attack on rebel-held territory killed some 1400 people, many of them children and women who had no active role in the civil war.  The targeting of civilian populations, whether by conventional bombs, atomic bombs, or gas warfare is a crime against humanity, justified by the user with utilitarian ethics claiming it prevents an even greater loss of life if such a show of force is not used.  The one thing Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt agreed on in WWII was the use of utilitarian ethics to justify their bombings of civilians in cities and rationalizing the losses as collateral damage. 

Why was chemical warfare singled out after WWI as a banned weapon system?  Gas attacks are difficult to target and wind shifts can cause them to shift to civilian sites They are relatively cheap to manufacture and they do not provide effective defense systems for civilians. This is particularly true for the nerve gases that have been stockpiled in violation of international law. Sarin gas is particularly gruesome in its convulsive effects on the neuromuscular system and many of the victims stop breathing or slowly strangle to death. 

A leading critic of gas warfare, Matthew Meselson, told me several years ago that chemical weapons would be used by smaller nations if their use was not made a war crime with surety of arrest and punishment.  His prediction has come true. They are easy to manufacture and their costs are miniscule compared to a nuclear weapons program. Ironically many of the people, who believe that an iron fist policy is the only one that their country’s enemy respects, also believe that their own civilians and soldiers are toughened in their spines if an enemy resorts to the use of such weapons.  This double standard ["we  will make them cry, Uncle" versus "we will fight to the last man"] exists for users of all weapons systems and goes back to antiquity but few people point out this contradiction in human belief.   

If neither the United States nor the United nations responds to Syria’s use of gas warfare by military response, what other options are there?  One policy is labeling such a nation as a pariah nation and imposing a blockade to its receiving military weapons by air, land, or sea.  A second policy would be a diplomatic offensive with sanctions on that nation’s overall economy, transfer of money in international trade, and freezing of assets around the world. It would include cutting off landing rights to its commercial aircraft. It would block travel by their civilians.  War may not be the answer to those who use chemical weapons, but doing nothing is a terrible response.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013



I never felt comfortable with the claim that humans are innately aggressive and wars are inevitable because of our genes (or if we are male warriors, because of our testosterone). The evidence for genes for war or that testosterone is what makes us fight wars is a “pull out of the air” belief, not something backed with mappable genes. It is certainly not something a molecular biologist could presently identify through gene products and target cells in the brain with innate circuits activated.  Without that type of evidence why put other people’s lives at risk because it is a comfortable belief?  I believe we learn to hate just as we learn to be bigots based on religion, nationality, race or sex. Is there a gene for being a slave master?  Is there a gene for making us homophobic?  Is there a gene for exploiting others?  Is there a gene for greed?  I doubt these cop-outs that avoid thinking about the causes of our discontents and passing them off to biology.  My field does not need that type of endorsement.  It’s just as damaging as the 1930s when genes were used by bigots to justify compulsory sterilization of so-called unfit people in the United States or to justify racial hygiene, especially as Nazi ideologists identified their racial hygiene movement.

There are times in our history when we had alternative thoughts about our values.  I think of the GI Bill that put hundreds of thousands of veterans to college free and as a result gave us the greatest rise in middle class in the twentieth century.  I think of the efforts to establish a Peace Corps whose job was to help needy people around the world build their homes, develop irrigation, create efficient cooking facilities, educate children, and establish public health efforts so they could have more food, a cleaner life with less infectious diseases, newspapers they could read, and roads they could travel.  The same was true for Vista which attempted to remedy many of the problems of those living in poverty or slums in the United States.  I think of the national effort to build the interstate highways which have linked our cities from coast to coast.  I think of the WPA during the Great Depression that provided great public works – bridges, airports, buildings, and provided murals, theatre groups, and parks for communities that lacked a tax base to raise money for them. 

We have largely replaced those values with a gospel of greed, indifference to others, self-interest, a belief that social failure is personal failure, a belief that helping others subsidizes laziness and stupidity, that a government’s role should be limited almost entirely to building a huge military, fighting wars that protect economic interests, regulating the bedroom and defeating efforts to organize labor, eliminating minimum wages or cost of living programs, eliminating health insurance by government, and breaking up public school systems to foster religious based or privileged based schooling.  At the same time the wealthiest are allowed unlimited influence on their legislatures, including opportunities to support candidates with huge sums of cash, gerrymander districts to limit the democratic process, and provide generous subsidies for the rich and a look the other way policy if the rich stash their money in foreign banks and shift their factories to developing nations where labor costs are far below US poverty levels. 

I call such efforts a trend to establishing a plutocracy of the wealthy for the wealthy. It is not an America at its idealistic best.  Why have we abandoned the Monroe Doctrine which tried to keep us from involving ourselves in foreign wars?  Why have we engaged in virtually perpetual war since the end of WWII?  Are the only two forms of government we can imagine being that of a choice of  a plutocracy of uncaring wealthy rulers or a communist type state that stifles individual freedom to criticize one’s government?  Is there no place for a representative government where the middle class and the poor have a voice and can favor peace over war?    

Monday, July 29, 2013




Theologically I am a non-theist, that is, I live my life without a need for a personal God (or gods).  I don’t pray but I do hope, worry, and celebrate depending on the events that happen in my life and the world. I am also religious in the sense that I have, like Socrates, tried to know myself (a difficult task) and I do believe we need what can be called “ideals to live by.”  For me those ideals are simple—do as little harm to others as possible and accept a premise that people prefer to be decent than to be mean and treat them with that respect and expectation. Find what gives you meaning and try to do as well as you can in that talent or interest.  For me that is learning, teaching, and writing.  If possible I try to contribute something that will last longer than my lifetime.  I think some of my books will still be consulted generations from now. I hope that what I have taught in my courses has helped my students both in their careers and in their individual lives.   I accept my mortality and expect no afterlife exists.  I prefer reason to revelation for my behavior.  I am not very interested in proofs of God’s existence or non-existence or which of hundreds of religions is the best for humanity.  I liked being a Unitarian when I first went to the Unitarian Fellowship in Westwood, California in 1960.  Nedra and I have been Unitarians (now Unitarian-Universalists) ever since.  Why would someone who is a non-theist take an interest in a religion that has no fixed creed?  I like to be around people who seek to serve others, especially by working for human rights and social justice.  Unitarians were leaders in the abolition of slavery.  They were leaders in getting women the right to vote, to divorce, to own property, and to work for a decent living in whatever professions or occupations suited their talents.  They opposed child labor.  They supported workers who tried to form unions.  They favored peaceful uses of taxpayers’ money and have sought ways to generate more peaceful resolution of conflicts and less resort to war.  Those go with my Humanist leanings and my liberal philosophy of life which is simple to describe.  Live your life but accept those enacted regulations that protect the public from abuses of ignorance, greed, or neglect.   Reason, I believe, provides more beneficial things to humanity than does a belief in the supernatural.  Surgery, antibiotics, public health measures, and the germ theory are more effective than prayer to preventing disease or in treating patients.   Our infant mortality has shifted from 50% to less than 1% in the United States over the past 150 years because of pasteurization of milk, chlorination of water, the preservation of foods, and refrigeration to keep food fresh.  A balanced diet with sufficient vitamins and essential nutrients has been more effective in getting us to live into our 80s or 90s than the erratic and nutrient deficient diets of our ancestors 100 or more years ago.  What brings this about?  I say it is the use of reason and a reliance on science to solve and prevent the threats that curt short our lives.  Is it perfect? No.  Is it better than praying for deliverance from plagues?  I think so. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Books published and in progress by Elof Axel Carlson


Books Published

1. The Gene: A Critical History Saunders 1966
I showed how the idea of hereditary units evolved from mid-19th century to the early 1960s. In each chapter I showed how a new idea or interpretation contended with one or more rival views of the same data. I explored what made one side win out and why some concepts are revived a generation or more after they were in contention. The entire book was based on my reflections on published articles of those in contention.

2. Genes, Radiation and Society: The Life and Work of H. J. Muller Cornell 1981
Muller was my mentor and I used interviews of his colleagues and students as well as the many tens of thousands of letters in the IU Lilly Library archives to construct his life and relate it to his scientific work and his applications of science to society. I found his social views on science (positive genetics by choice and radiation protection) consistent but his basic science shiftged with each new institution he joined. Muller was intense, committed, idealistic, and often wrong in his trust in the leadership of movements he admired. He had contradictory features to his personality and generated foes as often as generated admirers. His ability to bounce back from his set-backs, many self-imposed, I found remarkable.

3. Human Genetics (text) Heath 1984
I used this as a text for my Biology 101-102 course at Stony Brook University. My non-majors course did not fit the prevailing market’s idea of a biology for non-majors text. I felt it was better to work with most of what I taught than to teach a course for lower division undergraduates with no text book at all. In this book I covered the cell, the gene, developmental biology (the life cycle), evolution, and molecular biology. I considered these five concepts the foundation for understanding biology. I related problems of society to these five concepts and felt I had provided the science a person needs to know to be an informed citizen.

4. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001
This is a history of the roots of eugenics, before eugenics had its name in 1883. People have designated other people as unfit to reside among their peers or even unfit to live since biblical history was recorded. It shifted from transgressions against God as the cause of their being unfit to a scientific basis in the 1700s when masturbation became the first alleged cause of unfit people described as degenerates. Degeneracy theory had a strong appeal in the nineteenth century as the industrial revolution created urbanization and the problems of dealing with paupers, psychotics, the mentally retarded, vagrants, orphans, the physically handicapped, the aged, and the criminal. After Weismann’s work on the germplasm as unaltered by environmental conditions, the isolation of degenerates occupied social workers and physicians, leading to the asylum movement, marriage law restrictions, and compulsory sterilization of the unfit. I show how the two wings of the eugenics movement revolved in the 20th century and why state-mandated eugenics died.

5. Mendel’s Legacy: The Origin of Classical Genetics Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press 2004
Classical genetics was assembled from breeding analysis, cell biology, reproductive biology, evolution, population genetics, and biochemistry. Molecular genetics begins in the 1950s with the recognition of nucleic acids as the chemical basis for gene structure and function. I show how these components developed, most of them initially in Europe and by 1902-1920 mostly in the United States with the theory of the gene and the chromosome theory of heredity. I argue that the American PhD starting at Johns Hopkins University in 1876 created the interdisciplinary approach that brought about these unions of disciplines. I also argue that incrementalism and new technologies are characteristic of biological revolutions and not paradigm shifts.

6. Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt, Science and the Battle for Public Trust Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2006
Scientists are often idealistic and have good intentions when applying their knowledge to society. Why then are there bad outcomes that sometimes arise from these applications. I discuss these concerns for thalidomide, radiation usage, DES or diethylstilbestrol in medicine, DDT and other pesticides, Agent Orange and other herbicides, eugenics, and other instances of known failures. There are also fears of science that are unjustified and that have not led to harm such recombinant DNA technology and genetically modified foods. I argue that where regulation is either self-imposed or regulated by the state, there is a more careful monitoring of the transition of laboratory findings to commercial or health usage.

7. Neither Gods nor Beasts: How Science Is Changing Who We Think We Are. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008
Many philosophers and scientists accept a universal human nature for our species. I argue that this is disputable. But what is not disputable is the way we transform our understanding of ourselves and society through new knowledge, especially scientific findings. I show how this came about first through human anatomy and physiology, leading to a shared understanding of the mammalian body that made it likely an evolutionary origin would be found to explain those resemblances. I show that when the microscope was added to the tools for studying our bodies, we became aware of our cellular composition. This led in turn to the recognition of cells associated with reproduction. This led to the recognition of chromosomes involved in the fertilization process and the genes in those chromosomes as the basis for life itself. With the introduction of biochemical processes and their genetic control in the 1940s humans began to see themselves differently. It led to concepts of molecular disease, of the kinship we can explore through our DNA sequences, and the deep understanding of fundamental processes in metabolism. None of these could have been predicted by theory alone. As we begin to isolated our neuronal functions, synaptic associations, and genetic functioning in regions of our brains that understanding will be more surprising and informative to our sense of who we are.

8. Mutation: The History of an Idea From Darwin to Genomics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2011
This work covers the evolution of scientific language and how it changes each generation in response to new findings and new technologies. I begin with Darwinian fluctuations, the idea of “bud sports,” atavisms, and the amateur breeder’s vocabulary of the mid 1800s. I show how Bateson introduced a new set of terms (homeotic and meristic variations) and conflicts broke out over continuous and discontinuous traits as the driving mechanism of evolution. I show how Mendelism, the chromosome theory of heredity, and the work of Morgan and his students shifted the vocabulary of classical genetics. The molecular era had a similar transforming effect on genetics, with base replacements, transitions, transversions, and frame shift events associated with point mutations. As tools revealed DNA sequences and as gene structure proved more complex than bacterial models, the vocabulary for introns, exons, splicing, and other features of genetic transcription and translation multiplied. Popular views of mutations also changed with somewhat different meanings associated with the new terminology.

9. The 7 Sexes.  Biology of Sex Determination  Indiana University Press, 2013
I cover views of sex determination in antiquity based on anatomy, temperature, activity, and celestial events. I introduce Aristotle’s, Plato’s, and Galen’s views of sex determination and their influences in medieval thinking on sex determination. I cover the discovery of the egg, the discovery of sperm, the proof that a union of one egg and one sperm results in a new life cycle, the working out of male and female reproductive organs, the discovery of sex hormones, the chromosomal basis of sex determination, comparative sex determination across the phyla, and the genetic and molecular basis for sex determination. I show the imperfections of the sex determining process and the formation of chimeras, mosaics, hermaphrodites, and pseudohermaphrodites. I distinguish the sex determination phenomena from gender differentiation and socializing and show how this has led to conflicts of religion, society, the law, and the public perception of sex. I attempt to relate the top down (gender studies) approach with the bottom up (biological) approaches.

Other books (edited):

10. Modern Biology Braziller 1967
I use a selection of articles or excerpts from books that first introduced ideas of the cell, the gene, the life cycle, evolution, and molecular biology. I intended it for classes where undergraduate students could learn about how science works through reading of original published research articles.

11. Man’s Future Birthright: Essays on science and Humanity by H. J. Muller [edited by Elof Carlson] SUNY Press 1973
Muller’s social essays include his views on eugenics, radiation safety, reading science fiction, extraterrestrial life, freedom, peace, the evolution of values, and his views of what the world will be like in 100 years.

12. The Modern Concept of Nature: Essays on theoretical biology by H. J, Muller [edited by Elof Carlson] SUNY Press 1973
I chose essays on mutation, inducing mutations with radiation, chromosome breakage as a tool, how physics can solve genetic problems, genetics in relation to evolution, and the gene as the basis of life,

13. Gene Theory Dickenson Publishing Company 1967
The articles I included were on gene continuity and discontinuity, pseudoallelism, genetic fine structure, the structure of DNA, on genetic colinearity, on the molecular basis of mutation, on the operon model of regulation, and three different views of the gene.

Books in preparation:


1. Agent Orange: How a plant growth hormone became an agent of war [sixth draft completed]
The idea of physical or chemical influences on plant growth begin with Darwin’s experiments on plant responses to light and gravity. In the early twentieth century plant diffusible substances were identified as controlling the bending of stems by differential cell multiplication. The hormone involved was called auxin. By the 1930s synthetic auxins were being tested as plant regulators to produce seedless varieties and to stimulate rapid growth from cuttings and isolated plant tissue. During World War II the synthetic auxins 24D and 245T were identified as agents that could kill broad-leafed plants. The research was shifted to secret studies at Fort Dietrich in the US and independently by British investigators to see if these agents could be used to destroy crops of the enemy. The war ended before they could be used. They were revived by the British in the Malay insurgency and adopted by the Vietnamese through consultation with US military and defense research agencies (especially DARPA). The escalating use of a mixture of these two agents, called Agent Orange, resulted in substantial ecological changes in the sprayed areas but the military value is disputed by the military itself. Health effects have been reported since the first synthesis of chlorinated herbicides in the factories that make them, among civilians exposed to them, and among workers spraying them. Of particular concern after the war ended was the effect on Us and other veterans as well as on the Vietnamese population. I show that a clear cut answer is not possible and that there is presently no way to assess the actual damage done to health or heredity of these veterans. The issue is essentially a political one and not a scientific one.

First drafts and works in progress:
  1. Bits and Pieces: A Memoir of My Awkward Youth [first draft completed]
  2. Bits and Pieces: A Memoir of My Later Years [first draft completed]
  3. Faust: My First 50 Years [a novel, second draft completed]
  4. A More Perfect Union [a novel, first draft completed]
  5. Memoirs of Florence Dawald Miller [completed, privately printed, Bloomington Indiana July 2011]
  6. Dialogs with my Dead Father [first draft completed]
  7. Human and medical genetics: a history [eight chapters done of projected 24]
  8. Life Lines [100 essays from my newspaper column, first draft completed]
  9. My Heroes [7 of 17 chapters completed]
  10. The Pleasures of Living: How to enjoy life without relying on the supernatural [First draft completed]
  11. The Good Teacher [first draft completed]
  12. The Biology of Human Sexuality [text, first draft completed]
  13. The last Evolutionist [novel, first draft completed]
  14. The Science Maven [novel, first draft completed]
  15. Genes, Sex, and Evolution: A discussion [novel written as Platonic dialogs, first draft completed]
  16. How scientific Theories Arise

If you are an editor, publisher, or literary agent and wish more details on my unpublished books and works in progress, please contact me at



Whether I have taught introductory biology for non-science students, genetics, human genetics, or the biology of human reproduction, I have attempted to relate the abstract or technical biology that is in the scientific journals or the monographs I have read and turned them into a comprehensible form for undergraduates.  I did so because I realized early in my academic career that with learning comes understanding.  New knowledge can be applied to our lives for our health, for our world view, for our aesthetic pleasure, and for practical usage. 

I learned that a lot of illness is directly experienced at a cellular level.  Since we cannot see cells without a microscope, that means it is neither seen nor felt when a biological event occurs like a loss of a chromosome, a mutation in a gene, or a shift from a normal functioning cell cycle to a cancerous cell cycle.  I learned that there are agents in our world that are harmful to cells.  Some act as toxic agents and they can kill by disrupting cell division, preventing cell respiration, preventing cell metabolism, or causing the molecules that make our cell membranes fall apart.  Some act as mutagens and can change the nucleotide sequence of a gene.  Some act as agents that can break a chromosome and when it divides it can enter an abnormal cell cycle and kill that cell or its immediate descendants.  Some act on the embryonic processes and can lead to birth defects.  While we defend ourselves from what we know to be toxic (we feel the pain), we usually are unaware of what is mutagenic (alters genes or breaks chromosomes), carcinogenic (causes tumors), or teratogenic (interferes with normal embryonic development).

I learned that an organism is like a three ring circus.  There are activities going on at the cellular level.  There are activities going on at the tissue level.  There are activities going on at the organ level.  We are hierarchies of smaller components of our bodies.  We have no conscious connections to the individual activities of our cells but we do experience events taking place at the level of tissues (e.g., sunburn or a muscle cramp) or  organs (a heart attack). 

I learned, too, that we humans are rarely solitary beings.  We need nurturing by parents.  We acquire knowledge gradually and have to be taught.  We identify loyalties through our family, our schools, our peers, our neighborhoods, and our national identity, religions, or class status.  At that adult level we become very aware of how our lives can be changed by war, revolution, financial hard times, or legislation that provides opportunities for health, education, and service to one’s country.  But I learned that ignorance of our cellular and molecular basis of life (the most vulnerable because we don’t see things at this level) is costly to us and society.  For this reason those who raise concern about what goes into our air, water, food, and the buildings we live in find a lot of resistance because the effects often show up decades after chronic or acute exposure to these cell-harming agents.  I learned that segments of society and their legislators prefer to ignore such concerns, either because they only believe what they can feel or they only respond to immediate toxic effects where the cause and effect is rapid and dramatic like Bhopal with its chemical explosion releasing toxic gasses that killed thousands or Chernobyl that forced the evacuation of a sizable area around the Pripyat failed nuclear reactors.    

Tuesday, July 23, 2013



When I first read the three Platonic dialogues on the arrest, trial, and death of Socrates to my high school teacher, Mr. Cohen, I was moved by the sacrifice he made of his own life when he could have just gone into exile.  To do so, he felt, would repudiate his life’s work.  He wanted to find what motivated people and what were the most suitable ways to live in a democratic Athenian society.  Instead he found most people were motivated by power, making money, favoring their families, getting the approvals of their peers, following their parental desires, greed, pleasure, or fame.  What Socrates sought for himself was intellectual honesty, a search for meaning in life, the satisfactions of teaching, and skepticism of popular cultural and state credos.  He developed the “Socratic method” of inquiry, using a series of questions to explore a person’s claims by showing where each person’s beliefs led to. Very often those who held shallow views soon found themselves stuck in contradictions. Socrates did not do this to heap ridicule on the pretentious, he did this to find what is true so that we would not have to be defending false values and beliefs. Socrates taught the sons of many wealthy Athenians.  Their parents were unhappy when their children began to question them and raise criticism about the Athenian state.  When Athens lost to Persia and then gained control again, Socrates was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth of Athens.  He was convicted by his peers. He gathered his friends together and drank a cup of hemlock (his choice of how to die) and consoled them that he had lived a life worth living. 

I have never had that dramatic a consequence for sticking up for something I believed to be true.  I had one confrontation with a teacher in high school, defending another student’s nomination for membership in our high school Service Council.  He later became an undersecretary of State in the first Bush administration. Unlike Socrates, I took the practical route and apologized to the teacher.  I had a similar experience in the Honors College at Stony Brook and defended a student that my fellow administrators wanted to expel from the Honors College.  He asked me to write a letter of appeal and I did, writing one appeal after another up the chain of command to the university president.  And he won!  He went on to win a brilliancy prize in mathematics for the best performance on the Putnam examination and went to Princeton, the top math department in the US.  My argument as Master of the Honors College, was that we should tolerate idiosyncratic students because they are more likely to become our eminent faculty.  Socrates was idiosyncratic because he challenged authority and conventional belief, making him both impious and subversive to the state. We celebrate our founding fathers, but weren’t they doing what Socrates did in Athens?  But for most people who are comfortable with their lives, the Socratic personality is irritating and threatens the way those in power work.  We don’t like whistleblowers, “rabble rousers”, protestors, critics of industry, the military, the churches, or other institutions that serve as the prevailing glue of society keeping it together.  But without critics we would have racism, sexism, cronyism, and oppression of the powerless. For some people, that is exactly what they want for their status quo and privileges. I thank Socrates for giving me a conscience about the abuses of society.   

Monday, July 22, 2013



At our monthly book discussion group we discussed Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Short American Century: A Postmortem [Harvard 2012].  Bacevich and eight other essayists reflect on a central theme of American history—the belief that we are an exceptional people brought across the Atlantic since the 1630s to establish a “city on a hill” whose lights would serve as a beacon for the Puritans in America.  That phrase was offered in a sermon in 1630 by John Winthrop (1587-1649) a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  His writings with that phrase were not published until the 1800s, but his phrase resonated among the colonists and was absorbed by numerous American Presidents after the Civil War.  The chapters of this book reveal how a combination of religious piety, laissez faire Capitalism, sanctioned genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, a defense of slavery, and a passion for Empire-building led to the growth of the United States first from Ocean to Ocean and then through purchase and conquest, to lands taken from Mexico, the Spanish, the Central American Republics, the establishment of military bases around the world, and the use of military intervention in wars of choice to maintain our self-image of spreading the American dream around the world.

Henry Luce, in 1940 in Time Magazine used the phrase “The American Century” to represent an American dominance of the world through its military strength, its belief in exporting democracy (as long it was pro-American), world trade (as long as it was dominated by American economic interests), and world culture (as long as our publications, popular music, mass produced foods, sports, and Hollywood films were favored and admired). Instead of a century (with thirty more years to go to reach it), the authors of these essays show that the American Century was a myth for us to believe as self-gratifying. It was betrayed by our foreign policy, by our military disasters in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.  It was betrayed by our destruction of the labor union movement and corporate greed leading to the death of American manufacturing in the United States (replaced by using cheap labor overseas and unregulated factories in developing countries).  It was betrayed by plunging into wars around the world when we were not being under military threat except in the imaginations of political advisors and candidates. It was betrayed by creation of secret agencies that carried out killings of leaders who opposed US foreign policy.  These actions, the authors claim, have made America less secure, more divided, less respected (except through fear), and in a state of economic contraction.  Instead of recognizing that there is no one country that can dominate 7 billion people with different cultures and Americanize all 7 billion of them, we have kept propping up “the city on the hill” as our vision of America.  Both Democrats (Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Carter,  Clinton, and Obama) and Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes) have embraced “American exceptionalism” and it is taught in our public schools as an American ideal we should favor.  That other people have a right to self-determination, different religions, different cultures, and different needs is often repressed in favor of the self-deception that we have a God-given right to do as we want whether we call it Manifest Destiny, God’s grace, the American character, or the political equivalent to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that guides our laissez faire capitalism.  Bacevich pleads that we should abandon the American exceptionalism mandate from our public policy.
the short American century: a postmortem

Sunday, July 21, 2013



In 1953 I joined the laboratory of H. J. Muller at Indiana University in Bloomington.  Muller received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1946 for his work inducing mutations in fruit flies with x-rays.  He is considered the founding father of radiation genetics.  He had considerable fame before his discovery of radiation mutagenesis and with T. H. Morgan, C. B. Bridges, and A. H. Sturtevant was a member of the “fly lab” that helped launch classical genetics in the United States. 

Working with Muller was intense because he worked seven days a week and expected his students to do so also.  He was committed to genetics as his life’s work and communicated that energy and enthusiasm by his example.  He taught three courses each year and brought to them the latest knowledge in genetics and the history of each topic we explored.  He liked to think on his feet and rarely had more than a 3 inch square piece of paper with notes for his lectures.  Muller told us that genetics was not like a game. He said it was the most subversive science because it dealt with the most controversial implications for society.  He took a leading role in defending the public from radiation abuse.  There was plenty of that in medicine -- excess radiation used when not needed such as straightening out a child’s bow legs, using radiation at very high doses (100 roentgens) to induce ovulation in infertile women, routine x-raying in the pelvic (gonadal) area by chiropractors.  There was also abuse in commercial applications (shoe fitting in shoe stores using fluoroscopes).  Manufacturing usage often involved x-raying welding for ship building with inadequate or no shielding for workers. After WW II he spoke out against abuses by the military with excessive atmospheric testing and poor protection for soldiers and sailors during those military exercises.  Muller felt risks should be understood and doses kept as low as possible and abuses regulated by law. 

Muller’s life was filled with contradictions and controversies.  He believed in freedom but he naively believed that freedom existed in the USSR.  When he went there in 1933-1937 he learned he was wrong and two of his students were arrested and executed as Trotskyites.  Muller had the courage to debate T. D. Lysenko who advocated western genetics was a bourgeois fascistic invention and that Lysenko could alter heredity by shattering it and retraining it.  Muller called Lysenko on stage a charlatan no different from those practicing shamanism and quackery.  Muller’s conscience resonated with my own and I have tried to communicate to my students in my non-majors biology classes that scientific knowledge has to be applied in an ethical context because there are unintended consequences to the uses of new knowledge.  I later wrote Muller’s biography and over the years I have had to respond to attacks on his integrity as a scientist by those that Muller would accuse of living by wishful thinking or denial. 


Saturday, July 20, 2013



In 1929  Sigmund Freud wrote  Civilization and its Discontents. I first read this book in 1953.  It was the last work I read aloud to my blind high school teacher, Mr. Cohen.  It shaped my life in three ways.  Freud begins with his criticism of organized religions.  He feels religion is a transfer of a child’s fears allayed by a strong father as protector to a non-existent invented god who plays that role and to whom we can petition our desires for help by prayer. He said that his friend, Nobel laureate novelist Romain Rolland, chided him by saying surely he must have felt an “oceanic feeling” looking at the vastness of the universe which conveys a Creator’s presence.  Sorry, Freud replied, he had no such feeling so it clearly wasn’t universal. I was struck by Freud’s integrity and I resonated to his claim because I had never experienced either such an oceanic feeling about the presence of some supernatural being.  The second thing I was struck by, was Freud’s effort to understand why so many sexual themes occupied our lives.  These can appear in doodles, in sudden thoughts that pop into our heads at inappropriate times, in Freudian slips, and in our responses to seeing other people (such as arousal).  Freud was my introduction to the scientific effort to understand human sexuality.  It was an interest that years later resulted in my book The 7 Sexes (2013) which is a history of how our ideas on sexuality --  anatomical,  physiological, and behavioral, arose.   

               The third aspect was Freud’s introduction of the idea of sublimation.  He argued that some people take the tensions brewing in their minds and use it in destructive ways—acting defensively, having paranoid-like interpretations of others, striking out in destructive or aggressive ways.  If such feelings are sublimated in this way by national leaders it can lead to wars.  But others who are psychologically struggling with their problems of insecurity, disappointment, or anger may sublimate their feelings into creative work.  They may write books, compose music, paint masterpieces, designing magnificent architecture, carry out brilliant experimental or theoretical scientific work.  In short—Freud argued that civilization which we admire is an outcome of the same psychic energy that drives us to self destructive or externally destructive activity.  Freud felt a second world war was imminent and that the technology it would introduce could lead to mass destruction of humanity.  His book is a plea for those studying human behavior to find the switches that can shunt discontents into that productive life-enriching direction of civilization instead of the destructive energies that we pour into destroying our enemies, real or imagined.  I consider the book a masterpiece in the study of the human condition although I have doubts about the triune mind of ego, superego, and id that he proposed for our minds or about the Oedipal theory he proposed as a type of Lamarckian acquired characteristic from a primal horde of sons murdering their fathers. I benefitted from reading this work because I have found that switch in my head to turn disappointments into creative activity – teaching, writing, and pursuing scholarly activities.  Instead of feeling “there but for the grace of God go I,” my response has always been, “thank you, Freud, for giving me the insight to sublimate defeat and failure into works that endure and contribute to our understanding of science”.  


Friday, July 19, 2013



I first read a biography of Copernicus when I was an elevator operator for my summer job in 1954.  It was a Mentor paperback with the title “Sun Stand Thou Still.”  I learned that there are very few documents that survived in Copernicus’s own hand.  He was Polish in a German occupied area of that unhappy country that has rarely stayed independent over the centuries.  His uncle helped him with his education and after attending the University at Krakow, he went to Bologna and Padua to study.  One of his classmates was Girolamo Fracastoro, who also studied medicine, and an early pioneer in promoting the germ theory of infectious diseases and the person who first named syphilis and treated it with mercury.  We do not think of Copernicus as a physician.  He followed a medieval tradition of specializing in several fields.  Copernicus chose medicine, law, and mathematics, especially the mathematics that could be applied to astronomy.  The field of astronomy was dominated in medieval times by astrology which Copernicus avoided as much as he could.  Copernicus also chose the path of priesthood so he could pursue academic life. 

Copernicus chose the law, especially church (canon) law and affiliated himself with the dioceses in Krakow and later Prussian city of Frauenberg by the Baltic Sea.  He served as an ambassador for the state government and helped settle disputes.  For his intellectual pleasure, starting at Bologna, he studied astronomy purged of casting horoscopes for patrons.  By stressing his legal and medical skills he could avoid the guesswork of horoscopes.  At that time (the 1400s) Dante’s view (also Ptolemy’s) of the universe prevailed:  the earth was at its center and the largest object in the universe.  The sun was a planet and with the stars and other planets made a daily revolution around the earth.  Working out the complicated movements of planets like Venus and Mercury was difficult because they showed retrograde movement and sometimes marched forward and stopped and then moved backward.  Other planets like Mars, Jupiter and Saturn did not show retrograde movement.  Copernicus realized he could both simplify the mathematics of predicting where each planet would be on any given day or year by placing the sun in the center of our solar system.  This demoted the earth to the status of a planet.  It demoted the moon from being a planet to a satellite of the earth’s.  It placed mars and Mercury between the earth and the sun.  It placed Mars, Jupiter and Saturn outside the earth’s orbit around the sun. 

Why was this revolutionary?  Medieval theology assumed the earth was the largest object in the universe and its center.  After all, the planets and stars, sun, and moon, were created on the fourth day, after the earth’s creation on the third day in the Book of Genesis.   Copernicus’s solar system had no support in reading the Book of Genesis.  He also knew it would be unwise to publicize his views but he did prepare a short handout with his major insights and circulated that among his fellow astronomers.  He prepared a book-length mathematical analysis of the implications of using the solar system and arranged for its publication as he approached his death.  His student Rheticus made sure that was done.  As Copernicus suspected, the Copernican model was condemned as heretical by both the Church and the new Protestant theologians.  But Copernicus showed that once a scientist launches a theory it is difficult to expunge. Ideas are like the spores of Fracastoro’s theory and they spread to epidemic proportions.  It’s why being a scientist is such a joy—the influence of our findings ripple on through the world of human thought

Thursday, July 18, 2013



Nedra and I attended a funeral for a friend of Nedra’s mother and cousin.  She was 97 years old and lived in her own home rather than an assisted living facility.  Enid Record was also a quilter and she would sometimes join Nedra’s cousin and drive down to Ocean Grove NJ to meet a quilting group from Long Island, NY that Nedra and her quilters called “The off the wall quilters.”   The funeral service was held in her church in a tiny town called Michigantown, Indiana which is about 40 miles north of Indianapolis.  Funerals are wonderful times to bring back and reinforce memories.  The pictures of Enid’s life showed her from childhood to very old age as she lived her entire life in Michigantown, going to school, getting married, raising a family, and enjoying her life.  But the minister appealed to a longer memory of her influence on the church, his own life, and the people she loved.  He also invoked a life for her after death, waiting for her based on her accomplishments which included dozens of quilts she made as fund raisers to help others and her church. 

Reality has taught me a different experience about memory.  It fades.  We cling to memories of those we knew.  But we cannot pass on much about them to our children.  By the time we hit our great- grandparents, with rare exceptions, we know little about them.  Occasionally you find an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or the Revolutionary War but what they did is usually summed in a sentence.  But those fragments can be explored by effort as genealogists sometimes find when they research a dead ancestor who lived 300 years ago.  For the most part the vast majority of humanity has no idea who their ancestors were 400 or 500 years ago.  The few who do are usually tied to royalty.  What does it mean then to have a memory of our lives?  For most of humanity we will join the anonymity of the billions who lived centuries before us.  Memory also fades in the elderly, especially in those with Alzheimer syndrome or a dementia from other neurological diseases.  I remember visiting a colleague, George Williams, an esteemed evolutionary biologist who was in the early stages of Alzheimer syndrome.  “I was an evolutionary biologist,” he lamented, “I wish I still was.”  

Those who write books have a better chance of being remembered, but even those authors depend on luck.  Only a few of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have survived. What of the hundreds of playwrights whose works were not as treasured in their time?  They are gone, both their works and their names for the most part.  Most of the wealthy landowners of Athens are also gone and so are their mansions, their collections of art and clothing, furniture, and gold and other precious jewelry or household implements.  Our vanities may give us satisfactions and status but they fade quickly after we are gone.  We should appreciate our lives for the contributions we have made to others even if later generations do not remember our names. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013



My first reading with Mr. Cohen of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was his essays (lots of two word titles beginning with “Of,” like “Of Friendship.”  I thought his essays were dry and not as illuminating as Montaigne’s.  I then read his “Novum Organon” a fragment from an incomplete book on the acquisition of knowledge.  In it Bacon rejects the logical method of making deductions, which are almost like syllogisms.  He felt not much science came from that.  Instead he argued, the scientist depends on the “slow and faithful toil gathering information and brings it into understanding.”  This process he called induction.  He felt the ideas from such an approach could be put to test and he is credited with defining and introducing the scientific method. I also read excerpts of his New Atlantis, a Utopian novel in which he describes the formation of a scientific society with funding for research and research is applied for human use, especially to provide inventions, solving social problems, extending life, and making humanity unlimited benefits limited only by our capacity for  imagination.  The problem with induction is we are not told how it works in our minds.  We are instead assured by Bacon that “faithful toil” of gathering information will bring it about.

At first I was skeptical that this was how science works. Later, when I did science with Muller, I realized he was right.  I still remember the night in Muller’s laboratory about 1957 when I was trying to add a gene mutation to the left and to the right of a stock that I wanted to use in an experiment on gene structure for the dumpy family of alleles.  I was looking for the recombined fly I desired and suddenly saw a fly that was unexpected.  It was almost like a flash of recognition that I realized it was not a contaminant and had to be recombination of a different sort.  It had occurred within the gene and not between the gene and the marker I was looking for.  I then realized with a second flash, that if this was indeed a recombinant within the gene there was no limit to recombining all the member mutations of that gene I had in my stock collection. I was jumping with excitement and wanted to tell everyone I could find but at 2 AM there was no one else in the laboratory I could share my delight that evening.  Every since, I put the emphasis on that phrase “faithful toil” as the basis for gaining insights into knowledge.  I applied it to my books.  I don’t write an outline for a book.  I submerge myself in the topic I want to write and let the connections emerge.  The more my heap of 5 x 8 cards mounts up the more likely they will reveal a number of themes which become the chapters in my book. That is how I wrote The Gene: A Critical History, or The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea, or The 7 Sexes.  Why extend what is already known when the past is waiting there for the scholar to exert “faithful toil” and make it come alive?  Is this not true for the germination of a poem, a musical composition, or a painting?  We can’t poke our minds and make them construct the pieces from some picture of the entirety we eventually produce.  It emerges in pieces and in connections. The best we can do is tell ourselves, that’s right, or that doesn’t work.  Unlike art, however, science has reality as a backup and experimentation is relentless in confirming or shattering our initial insights.  For this I give thanks and it is to Francis Bacon that I say, “Thank you”.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013



               Although I began consciously assimilating the lives and ideas of those contributors to Western Civilization that I encountered by reading to Mr. Cohen, I realize now that a life is being continually constructed by the culture that surrounds us and the opportunities that come our way.  I realized this when I first read Goethe’s Faust.  He wrote the play in two books.  Book I is the familiar theme of Faust the professor, discontent with his life at 50, making a pact with Mephistopheles to explore life to the full as a restored 20 something.  It is the story of his love affair with Marguerite and the calamity he brings in his wake as he discovers the sensual life he had neglected.  Book II deals with the next 50 years of his life and he tries out exploring, money-making, militarism, conjuring back Helen of Troy (and producing a child homunculus with her), and as he approaches his hundredth year he applies everything he learned to laying out a design for a city, serving as a city manager, helping to design harbors, turn pestilential marshlands into fertile soil for bumper crops, and allow opportunities for the growing population to engage in international trade and the diversity of culture it brings.  It is at this point where he tells Mephistopheles that he wants to continue serving humanity through science that he loses the bet with the devil.    But before Mephistopheles can claim his soul, God intervenes and takes the dying Faust’s soul to Heaven, praising him for having striven to fully explore the gift of his humanity. 

               I read this for the first time when the Honors College at Stony Brook University was formed about 1989 and this was one of the books assigned to the freshman class on “progress and its discontents.”  As I read the book I realized I had a Faustian personality.  I did not repeat a year.  I always looked for something new to add to my knowledge, some new skill to acquire, and a zest for plunging into life and enjoying it as much as I could. Fortunately I had a moral restraint Faust lacked until his decrepitude.  My high school exposure to those Greek thinkers and writers had as firm a grip on my desires as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” had on the economy and its usually beneficial outcomes.  The Faust theme still resonates in my mind and I have a draft of a novel with the working title: Faust: My First Fifty Years. In it I explore Faust’s childhood.  I make him the grandson of Gutenberg’s business partner, Johan Fust (who changed his name to Faust as his printing business prospered).  I have my Faust become a priest and physician who teaches the science and math courses in the Renaissance universities he moves to.  He is also assimilating the findings of the Renaissance and I have him meet Fracastoro, Machiavelli, Da Vinci, Columbus, and Copernicus as he travels in Europe buying and copying manuscripts for his father’s printing company.  He is in Wittenberg when his student, Martin Luther, begins the Protestant Reformation.  I make my Faust the proto-scientist who learns from experimentation and whose work leads to the Faust legend of his being a magician, in league with the devil, and a sinister character, chased from one place to another whenever his past catches up with him or when he introduces the findings of his science to his medical practice. I am still revising this book and hope it will be finished before I am. 


Monday, July 15, 2013




On July 15, 1931, I was born in Brooklyn, New York.  I am now 82 years old living in Bloomington, Indiana.  My life has taken me from New York City (22 years) to Bloomington, Indiana (5 years) to Kingston Ontario (2 years), to Los Angeles (8 years) , to Setauket, New York (42 years), and back to Bloomington (3 years so far). I have enjoyed a life as a scholar, a professor, a geneticist, a historian of science, and a writer.  I have enjoyed being the father of five children and seeing them launch their own careers and families.  I learned my own (and Helen’s) inadequacies in a first marriage that failed after four years.  I have enjoyed 54 years of a happy marriage with Nedra and we have never failed to encourage each other through our relatively rare moments of self-doubts. I was not fully on my own with a permanent job until I was 27 as a freshly minted PhD.  During those two years in Canada I learned how to publish my research, how to get grants to support it, and how to teach.  For the scholar the process of becoming independent takes time. At UCLA I became recognized as a geneticist, a scholar, and a teacher.  I enjoyed a busy laboratory with six students obtaining their PhDs.  It was also the 1960s, an era that was searing in its social turmoil on campuses.  It profoundly changed what I taught and shifted me away from the laboratory and into teaching non-science majors as my response to the needs of the 1960s.  It also shifted me to Stony Brook University where I could develop my Biology 101-102 course using a “humanities approach.”  When I turned 65 I did not feel old but I gave myself five years to explore what I wanted to do when I retired.  My Lifelines column was a result of that effort and I continue to enjoy bringing the life sciences to an adult public that prefers the “humanities approach” to what is called popularized science. I see the former as stimulating our world view and the latter as adding to our factual understanding.  Both are needed but I find the humanities approach relatively uncommon. 

I did not begin to feel old until I was in my mid seventies. Aging is like walking through a mine field and you never quite know what is ahead. I have been fortunate that no major surgeries have come my way and my mind is still alive, curious, eager to learn, and eager to share what I have learned.  I can’t count on that luck to accompany me for what my physician desires “of seeing you through to your 90th year and after that, we’ll see.” I have a modest arthritis compared to my father whose gnarled fingers and frozen joints still haunt my memory.  The greatest gift of retiring at 70 was the freedom it gave me to write as much as I wanted and at my own pace, subsidizing my own scholarship and not having to worry about earning a paycheck or honorarium. For this I give thanks to Andrew Carnegie who introduced the TIAA retirement program for professors.  Without his foresight I would have had to subtract five books from my publishing record, wondering when, if at all, I could find time to write them.    

Sunday, July 14, 2013



               No individual has had a greater influence on my intellectual life then Morris Gabriel Cohen, my high school teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn.  He was legally blind from Leber’s optic atrophy, a mitochondrial genetic disorder he inherited from the cytoplasm of his mother’s egg.  I had the good fortune of reading out loud to him for five years (one year in high school and four years in the morning before heading to NYU).  During those years I assimilated an immense range of books, plays, memoirs, and other writings of the classics of Western Civilization. Mr. Cohen was a Pulitzer Prize scholarship winner at Columbia.  He served in WWI before he became a high school teacher and before his vision began to deteriorate.  He never married and the only woman with whom he corresponded was a young woman he met in Britain in 1919.  She was killed during an air raid in London in 1940. 

               I particularly enjoyed the essays of Montaigne. Don’t read the Florio translation which is Renaissance English.  Read the Donald Frame translation (1958) in modern English.  I read the Cotton translation which was in the Modern Library series of classic books. Montaigne wrote 107 essays during his lifetime.  He was born in southern France where his parents had an estate and sold wine and fruits that they grew in their orchard.  His mother was from a Converso family of Spanish Jews who fled across the Pyrenees. This probably gave Montaigne the tolerance he had for all religions and he was successful in settling disputes as a magistrate after getting a law degree.  Montaigne enjoyed life.  He converted a silo on his farm into a library and study where he would have the solitude to write and read.  He suffered from kidney stones all his adult life. He loved conversation and entertained with a circle of acquaintances who enjoyed discussing history, philosophy, and the issues of the day in a broader context than their politics.  He read most of his classics in the original Greek or Latin. 

               Montaigne invented the personal essay.  He reflects on what he reads and the implications of human behavior from his work at court, his observations of his peers, and from the numerous examples he culls from his vast reading. Each essay brings the past and present together with his own personal experiences.  I learned from Montaigne that the personal essay is more powerful than the abstract essay which tends to be more like an encyclopedia entry.  The personal essay shows that the topic is alive and at least filtered through the person writing it.  It was this essay style I mimicked in my high school and college English classes.  It was the personal essay that was my model for my Life Lines columns for the Times Beacon Record newspapers on Long Island, New York, that Leah Dunaieff publishes.  I loved Montaigne’s essay “How by many paths we arrive at the same end.”  His very moving essay on friendship celebrates the life of his closest friend, Etienne de Bo├ętie who died young.  By reading his essays I got his biography, not in a linear way but the way we learn about our own families growing up.  I have used that for my own memoirs (with a working title of Bits and Pieces) when I read aloud chapters at the Emeriti House on the IU campus with my fellow retirees. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013



Most of my life I have kept a diary. I am now on the 102nd volume.  Most are 300 page Record Books I have bought at stationary stores or black covered bound artist sketch books of about 200 pages that I have bought at Barnes and Noble.  I started in 1948 using speckled composition books.  My inspiration for keeping a diary was Samuel Pepys.  I read aloud to my high school English class from Pepys’s description of the London fire of 1666 and the plague year before that and trembled with excitement as I realized he was writing this as it happened.  History was unfiltered. A few months later I bought a set of Pepys’s diaries at a used bookstore  on 59th street in Manhattan and paid 50 cents a week (my allowance) until I paid for all 12 volumes.  Pepys is, as far as my readings go, what I would call the first modern man to write about himself. He was ambitious, talented, loved good food, cheated on his wife although he loved her, collected books, played and composed music, sucked up to power (especially the court of King Charles), recorded gossip and relished it, took bribes, served as secretary of the Royal Society, rebuilt the British Navy and made it the world’s most powerful fleet.  He kept his diary for eight years and then his eyesight began deteriorating and he quit.  In his later career he was accused of Catholic sympathies (Pepys was tolerant of many points of view, especially in his religious beliefs) and because his wife was French and his accusers claimed her conversion to the Church of England was insincere. He was to be tried of plotting to overthrow the King.  His accuser, John Scott  (from Setauket on Long Island in New York), was a scoundrel who sold colonial lands to the British that did not belong to him).  Pepys did not go to trial because Scott murdered another man in a bar room brawl and fled the country.

               My life is not as adventurous as that of Pepys.  What I admired was his simple narrative style of recording the day.  He did not use his diary to meditate or create an image of himself for the future readers of his diary.  He wrote it to capture the day.  That is what I have tried to do.  But my diary has also given me the gift to never feel writer’s block, to write in a narrative style that is as comfortable as breathing, and to have as a resource for checking dates and events in my family’s lives. Some of my diaries I have donated to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory library archives.  I plan to do so with the rest of them.   

Friday, July 12, 2013




Of the billions of people who have lived, perhaps one million have written books or left behind some record of their teachings or beliefs.  Of those one million fortunate enough to be remembered by name, probably no one person alive knows more than a few hundred or few thousand of these writings.  Scholars make it their business to know a lot. But most of humanity settles for a relatively few of these contributors to our civilizations.  The farther back we go the fewer will be remembered or end up in course notes, text books, or referred to in popular literature. There are many good reasons why this is so.  We prefer to dwell on the issues of our generation, not the issues of those who lived 2300 years ago.  We feel the more modern writers have more to say because they have been exposed to so many more findings and interpretations of the universe, life, and the things that matter. I am sure many people live relatively happy lives without ever having heard of Epicurus.

               I was exposed to his ideas when learning about Western Civilization from my blind high school teacher, Morris Cohen. I liked what I heard and I looked at a book I had at home, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.  It described the ideas of Epicurus.  It gave me a picture of how the ancient world saw the universe.  I learned more about the philosophy of Epicurus from a book I bought recommended by Mr. Cohen.  It was Walter Pater’s novel, Marius the Epicurean.  Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who never married and who earned his living by teaching.  He taught from the garden of his home and his academy was called “the Garden.”  He was the first philosopher to accept both female and male students. He believed the universe was not fully determinate as Democritus had taught, but was largely indeterminate because it was more complex than Democritus believed.  Instead of atoms moving like billiard balls in straight lines, he believed atoms occasionally swerved and this created indeterminacy and free will. He rejected taking anything on faith and claimed we should only accept as real what we see, what we can deduce logically, and what we can experience by hands-on activity.  He said happiness comes from avoiding pain and fear.  He believed that death extinguishes both a body and its soul.  He claimed gods do not punish or reward humans. Our object in life should be avoiding power, sexual excess, and glory.  Instead we should live in moderation, savoring the simple pleasures of life, especially the companionship of others, the satisfaction of the good things the world offers us, and avoiding harm to others or to ourselves. 

               Over time Epicureanism got a bad reputation and it was misinterpreted as a selfish pursuit of pleasure involving over-indulgence in food, sex, drugs, or bad company.  Others saw it as a shallow philosophy of life in which seeking pleasure deflected us from piety, patriotism, or other civic virtues.  I consider myself an Epicurean in my philosophy.  I don’t think I could live as fully committed as Epicurus did.  The world does matter to me.  I may have shunned much of the pursuit of pleasure but I have abided to most of Epicurus’s outlook.  I reject the supernatural. I accept the finality of death.  I find life worth living.  I try hard not to harm anyone.  I do not abuse my body with such habits as tobacco usage, alcoholism, or overconsumption of chemicals in my foods and drinks that are known carcinogens or mutagens.  My own life is more than Epicurean.  Like Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.”  The voices of the past are well represented in my being. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013



A reader of an earlier Blog noted a reference to one of his and Nedra’s ancestors, Andrew Babcock (1731-1801) who came from England in 1773 with his brother Edward. They were anchor makers and blacksmiths.  Andrew’s brother died a year after arriving, but Andrew became involved in 1778 with the making of “the Great Chain” as it is now called, across the Hudson River near West Point.  I learned as I read more of this project that the engineer for this fortification of West Point was Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the famous Polish patriot and Enlightenment scholar who was in France in 1776 and who came to America to offer his services to General Washington.  Kosciusko’s name I recognized from my high school history course, but I did not know he was an engineer, architect, artist, and musician.  He also was a foe of slavery and left his estate to Thomas Jefferson to use the money to free Jefferson’s slaves, which Jefferson did not do because it would have created problems for his fellow plantation  owners and family.  The case eventually was settled fifty years later by the US Supreme Court with Kosciuszko’s descendants being awarded what was left of the estate.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much, because the trustees embezzled the money over the half century of litigation.  Kosciusko was much appreciated by George Washington because his engineering skills were used for several fortifications and military engineering projects that prevented the British from following up on their victories or achieving their conquests. 

               Andrew Babcock lived and worked near the northern reaches of Manhattan in  what was then part of Bergen County, New Jersey and now part of  Orange County in New York.  He helped make the links of the chain at the Noble and Townsend Forge located there.  Each link was 18 inches in thickness and two feet in length and weighed 114 pounds. The links (in batches of 4) were placed on rafts of logs and towed to West Point.  The Great Chain was 1800 feet in length and the blacksmiths joined them together.   The barrier was set up to prevent the British ships from attacking Albany and joining British forces in Canada.  That would have cut the US in half and isolated New England from the other colonies.  General Benedict Arnold devised a plan to take over the forts at West Point, release the chain and bring about a defeat of Washington’s army.  It was thwarted when a spy (Major Andre) was captured and Arnold was tipped off and managed to escape and sail back to England.

After the War Andrew Babcock married Susan White and they had four children, Edward E. Babcock, Rachel Babcock, Sarah J Babcock, and James Babcock.  Nedra is descended on her mother’s side from Edward Babcock the great great grandfather of Nedra’s mother, Florence (nee Dawald) Miller.  On her father’s side Sarah Babcock is the great great grandmother of Harold Miller, Nedra’s father.   Susan White Babcock was widowed in 1801 and cheated of her land in Greene County, Pennsylvania.  She used a flat boat and with her four children and belongings followed the rivers and canals to settle near Cincinnati.  The Babcocks made their way into Indiana in the 1830s, especially in Fulton County, Indiana.   There were other Babcocks who came to North America several generations earlier in the 1600s. Some of those Babcocks were loyalists and supported the British during the American Revolution and many of those moved to Canada, particularly in the Brockville, Canada, region, not far from where Nedra and I lived when I was teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.  The memories of Ontario residents were set in a bronze marker by the St Lawrence seaway and I recall reading “These fortifications were emplaced by order of her Majesty, Queen Victoria, as protection against American aggression.  I didn’t learn that in my high school history class!  After the Revolutionary War thirteen of the links were saved to form a monument  at the West Point Academy and the rest of the Great Chain was melted down and sold to recoup some of the costs of the war.