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. 

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