Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I like to write.  My interest arose when I was in high school. It was coupled with an equal passion to read widely.  I was also fortunate in having read some of Samuel Pepys’s diary entries on the great London Fire of 1666 and the Plague year that preceded it. It was such a revelation that someone who lived 300 years ago was giving an eyewitness account of what he saw and experienced. I began my own diary using speckled covered composition books.  I did as Pepys did.  I recorded the day.  I wasn’t interest in contemplation or probing for deep meanings about life.  Just capturing the present day in one page was my intent.  I did not address my diary as “Dear Diary.”  This was not a letter to an abstract being.  This was me writing for me to sum up the day.  Writing also led me to use the subject-verb-object narrative  flow of the sentence.  It is easier to read than complex sentences with passive constructions. I had no idea I would be writing books someday. Writing a diary made writing as effortless as eating or breathing.  It became a natural function of my life.  
My first book had the working title “:The Gene Concept.” I had originally intended to write a genetics text while on sabbatical leave from UCLA in 1965. I thought I would work on the historical section first.  I soon found myself steeped in reading the articles of past geneticists in the Woods Hole Marine Biology Library. My 5 x 8 cards were filled with notes and quotes from these articles. I began writing them as chapters of conflict among contending ideas and personalities that emerged from the papers I read. By the end of the sabbatical, I had a manuscript.  I changed the title when I learned the title I desired was already being used in a paperback book.  I then renamed it “The Gene: A Critical History.”  That was 1966.  Since then I have written about a dozen books almost half of them after I retired at the age of 70.  The most time I put into a book was Muller’s biography [Genes, Radiation, and Society: the Life and work of H. J. Muller]. I spent seven summers just reading Muller’s papers at the Lilly Library on the Indiana University campus. My preference for writing is scholarly books, not popularizations of science. I want my books to reveal what I discover from reading on a topic.  My scientific approach is that of a Baconian, trying to infer meaning from a mass of information, looking for connections.

I also learned to tolerate disappointment.  Not every book will appeal to a publisher. Not every book will get glowing praise.  My reward for doing scholarly books comes from their status as works which taught me something that I did not know before.  I had immense joy teaching science to undergraduates and books give me a similar joy when I receive a kind comment from a reader in another country and know that what I found added to that reader’s view of life. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


       I am a maker and a taker.  In high school I benefited from reading aloud the classics to my teacher, Morris Cohen, who was going blind.  He did this as a voluntary act because he liked my habit of reading widely. I was a maker in high school because I volunteered to help teachers, painting posters, mimeographing, and helping keep tally of the number of students in classes as they registered for their elective courses.  I became a taker when I was an undergraduate because I accepted a full tuition scholarship to NYU.  I became a tax paying maker by being an elevator operator in the summers and delivered people to their floors in Manhattan’s office buildings.  I also served (unpaid) as managing Editor of the NYU Literary magazine.
      At Indiana University I was a taker again as a Teaching Assistant which gave me free tuition. I was a maker by helping undergraduates in their laboratory courses in comparative anatomy and introductory zoology. I was a taker in accepting fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.  I was a maker by working on several of Muller’s experiments and publishing smaller articles as I prepared my PhD dissertation.
      At Queen’s University I was a maker earning my first full time salary and paying taxes (to Canada) and became a taker when Christina was born and Canada gave a monthly subsidy for each child born because it was promoting population growth.  I was also a maker (for Canada’s economy) by securing grants from the National Research Council of Canada and from the US National Science Foundation and employed my first full time laboratory helper.  AT UCLA I was a maker as I eventually supervised six students who received PhDs in my laboratory and published my first book. I also had a full time laboratory helper paid from my grants.  I was a taker as I received generous grants from the National Science Foundation to support my research. I was also a maker because I paid for my mother’s stay at an assisted living facility for the psychotic and I was a maker because I paid for both my parents’ funerals neither of whom had any insurance.  I was a taker, by forcing my father to apply for his Social Security.  He did not want to receive any money he did not make by his own labor. I convinced him he paid for that Social Security since Roosevelt started it in the mid 1930s.  He had no health insurance so I paid his medical expenses.
     At Stony Brook University I became a maker as a professor doing research, teaching, writing books and articles, and serving as the founding Master of the Honor’s College.  I was a taker as I applied for sabbatical leaves and learned new fields and wrote new books. I was a taker as I asked for a leave of absence to spend a semester teaching on the SS Universe for Semester at Sea.  But I was a maker in teaching three courses and providing shipboard entertainment by writing a play my students put on.
I am now retired since 2001.  I am a maker in writing five books since retirement and serving as the historian for the local Unitarian-Universalist Church of Bloomington.  I am a taker as my Social Security supplements my retirement fund from TIAA-CREF. 

     Anyone who says he or she is a maker and not a taker, is a liar. You cannot survive as a human without being both. You were once a baby, weren't you? Tell me that is not a taker. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014


              We don’t have problems interpreting the behavior of a seven year old child who sets fire to an apartment or house.  It is usually attributed to “playing with matches.” We don’t seek a deeper cause or wonder why some children don’t play with matches.  We also don’t usually think of the child as evil. Children are curious and like to play with things.  I stuck a hairpin in a light socket when I was a child and quickly learned that was a dumb act. Sometimes those trial and error learning experiences end in tragedy.  Think of the children who lost a finger or damaged an eye playing with firecrackers.
              Guns are a different story.  While a match or firecracker or hairpin in a light socket can be deadly, most children do not seriously hurt themselves or others.  But a loaded gun in a house is asking for trouble if a child finds it.  Children are curious and they explore.  I found my father’s “eight-page bibles” (a sort of comic strip pornography) hidden behind the top row of his books and had to stand on a chair to reach it.  Pity the parent who would be dumb enough to hide a weapon that way (some people are dumb that way).  Guns are dangerous because they have a stunning lethality when they are accidentally or deliberately used by a child or by a person possessed with rage. I saw a neighbor’s child chase his brother with a metal chain and if he had caught up with him, I do not doubt he would have swung it with all his might.   We can understand rage, and barroom brawls and spats between spouses and betrayed lovers.

              What is still hard to figure out is what goes on in the mind of psychotic individual who plots mayhem, buying guns, lots of ammunition, occasionally making homemade bombs, and then goes out to a school, church, mall, or movie theater and tries to kill as many people as possible. Is the person driven by ideology (sometimes), by a desire for execution by police instead of “simple” self-inflicted suicide (sometimes), or by something we may never know (sometimes)?  My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and had frequent fights with our neighbors. She once tore the doorknob off a neighbor’s door. At home she sometimes took dishes and smashed them on the floor.  My brother and I would run to our bedroom and dive under it until her rages passed.   I’ve known other psychotic individuals who do not express physical rage when they are in an emotional stew.  Some are suicidal.  Some withdraw into a shell and cut themselves off from other human contact. Some run away.  I don’t think there is anyone who could predict what type of specific behavior a psychotic mind will produce.  At the same time there are stressed individuals who take that tension and sublimate it into creative work, art, science, scholarship, or invention.  We do not know if there is a switch in our minds that allows some of us to handle disappointment and insecurity with creative acts and others to brood their way to plotting mass murder. Anyone who has a gun in the house and has a troubled relative is taking terrific risks.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Whenever there is a scandal, a preventable disaster, or a gross violation of our Constitutional rights, I find the comments on blog sites and on Facebook using a strange argument.  They blame the voters for electing inept or immoral candidates to state or national office.  This is usually followed by the tag line “they deserve the people they elect.”  I find it strange that few of these commentators on the dreary events presented on the news blame something more fundamental.  The most potent way to get ideologues represented, making a minority into a majority, is by gerrymandering electoral districts.  Both Democrats and Republicans do this every ten years when a new census requires new boundaries for election districts.  Usually it is the party in power that makes that redistricting.  This gives that party the potential to influence political outcomes from legislation, budgets, ideologically-driven legislation, and many life time appointments of judges.  This is how it is done.  For Republicans to have a majority of seats in a state legislation, the Democrats are packed into a few districts that are redrawn to exclude most Republicans.  The districts that are usually Republican are left alone.  The swing districts are redrawn to favor Republican majorities by getting the outlying democratic neighborhoods drawn into one of the few Democratic strongholds.  In many of the States the popular vote can be a majority Democratic but the districts (for state house or senate) will by gerrymandered so the Republicans have a majority of seats.  I have seen virtually no pundits discuss this problem or ways to make redistricting fair to both parties.  There are lots of possible ways around this.  Here are a few—make the districts “virtual” rather than geographic and use date of birth as one’s district or one’s name in an alphabetical listing  from  A** to Z**.  Use a computer to generate random boundaries for a district so each district has the same number of voters with the computer programmed to not recognizing Party affiliation of the voters. There are probably many other ways to make it fair. One would be to have each party submit a gerrymandered design and the non overlapping regions would be randomly assigned, half to Republicans and half to Democrats.  We spend too much time tearing down each other’s ideologies and not focusing on methods that would make the districts more fairly representative of the people in the state.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014


January 2014 began with  severe cold weather that plunged Bloomington, Indiana,  temperature to 14 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (and a wind-chill of minus 30).  Nedra and I were house bound for about four days before we could drive to replenish our food supply.  The last time we experienced such cold weather was in Minneapolis in 1986 when I was on sabbatical leave studying medical genetics at the Dight Institute.  We lived in the student “ghetto” known as Dinkytown.  The temperature for several days was below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and I had to removed the battery from the car when I got back from the University and carry it into the apartment where we lived so I could get it started in the morning.  I learned from our neighbors that multiple layers of clothing is the most important way to survive, including “long john” underwear that extended to my toes.  Even with all the scarves and layers of clothing I would still have ice caking around the fabrics surrounding my face.  Fortunately I did not have to go out in this Bloomington freeze.  I had my computer at home to use,  an advantage of internet technology not present when I was at Minnesota.   Nedra and I prevented “cabin fever” by keeping busy with our projects.  Nedra had quilting projects to do and I wrote a flurry of Life Lines articles for the North Shore of Long island newspapers. I got caught up reading Science and Nature articles.  We also tried out new bean soups, ideal for cold weather, especially with the left over ham bones from the Christmas treat  our son John and his wife Dawn sent us.

It also made me reflect on what makes humans such a successful species.  We can create micro-environments that allow us to live and function in hot or cold weather or in arid or wet surroundings.  There are limits to this.  We depend on others and cannot do this all by ourselves.  Living in an industrialized civilization requires a surrendering of individual autonomy to some degree.  We can’t make our own computers, telephones, cable news television channels, or even build our comfortable homes with all their utilities.  We often take these things for granted but when a sudden change in weather or a natural disaster occurs, we quickly realize how interdependent we humans are. There are hundreds of skills we depend on to make a civilization possible.