Monday, February 17, 2014


        I have often been puzzled by the over-reactive response to injustice whether that behavior is justified or not.  In the Biblical tradition that comes about several times.  First is Adam and Eve’s sin of eating a forbidden fruit.  The punishment involves aging and death to all future humanity (along with wearying toil for men and the pain of childbirth for women).  A similar response for a single misdeed involves Ham laughing at his drunken naked father (Noah). All of Ham’s descendants will serve (presumably as slaves) his siblings’ descendants. During the era of 18th and 19th century slavery in the United States that was frequently used to justify slavery. It’s not just the Bible that does this.  In Greek mythology, Pandora’s curiosity in opening a forbidden box, unleashed all sorts of misery and disasters (only hope was left in the box). Back to the Bible again, God tells Moses to kill all Amalekites including their wives and children because they hectored the Jews as they left Egypt.  It is not just religion that practices overkill response.  Nazi ideology sought to kill all Jews for what?  Trying to make a living as doctors, lawyers, professors, or merchants thereby depriving “real” Germans from earning a living?  Death for people who lived there for 1000 years or more?  That genocidal mentality was seen among those who settled the western territories and starved, deported, or killed Native Americans leaving the few survivors in isolated reservations.  What was their crime? They wanted to live as their ancestors did on their hunting grounds or their own farmlands and European descendants who came to North America felt that the land was theirs because they were civilized and Native Americans were savages to be chased away. Fortunately humans are diverse and some choose diplomacy over war, some choose an appreciation for diversity rather than a wiping out of anything but sameness whether that sameness is religious creed, ethnicity, race, or political ideology. On a smaller level we see it in the response to anger.  Some choose a lawsuit and sue for damages.  Some individuals settle for a bar-room brawl. Some (in this age of easy access to guns) come back with guns blazing for insults (loud music, an insulting phrase, being “uppity,” not being deferential).  In a vague way we try to understand but not justify that overkill response if a person is psychotic as seems to be the case for our mass murders in schools, theatres, or churches.  But so many people end  up in court cases for attempted or realized killing of others and use rationalizations to defend their horrible actions (eating Twinkies did it;  spoiled by excess wealth; used stand one’s ground laws; self-defense; couldn’t stand it anymore; substance abuse weakened my judgment; loyalty to a gang’s ethical code, family honor demands it).   Most people, fortunately, do not respond with excess violence to their sorrows real or imagined. What we do not know is the brain physiology that allows one person to “lose it” and most people to find less violent ways to find justice.  Whether it is genetic, viral, epigenetic, hormonal, or induced during gestation by yet unknown factors we do not know.  That is a much needed area for basic research.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


        I began drinking coffee when I was in high school.  My father was my alarm clock and at 6:30 AM he scratched my head and as I sat at the edge of the bed, he handed me a cup of his Swedish style coffee—with lots of cream and sugar.  I glugged it down and was fired up for the day.  At NYU, GIs from WWII taught me to drink coffee black and unsweetened and that I have done ever since. Coffee was cultivated in the Middle East but got its origins as a beverage in Ethiopia and it spread to Yemen. It got to Europe from Constantinople to Venice by Italian traders during the Renaissance. Coffee beans were smuggled out of the Middle East to India and later to Java (hence a cup of Java), and then to the Caribbean and South America. The first coffee houses in England began in 1637.  It was not until 1683 that coffee shifted from black and unsweetened to cream and honey in Vienna.  Coffee houses spawned the stock exchange and the Royal Society among other enterprises.  In 1773 our Boston Tea Party led to the American patriotic duty to drink coffee and shun tea. Coffee percolators were invented in 1818.  Decaffeinated coffee was invented in 1903.  Instant coffee was introduced in 1938. The coffee break was invented by a clever marketer in 1952 and the variety coffee house became nationwide with Starbucks in 1982.

      Coffee comes from a red berry of the tree Coffea arabica. The berries are dried, the seeds removed and roasted and then the seeds are ground.  Coffee’s appealing qualities include its stimulation from caffeine that in many people represses drowsiness.  Caffeine is a purine (like adenine and guanine found in DNA) but it is only weakly mutagenic at high doses. At various times coffee was considered satanic (but Pope Clement VIII approved it in 1607) or equivalent to alcohol (and hence not permitted for early Moslems). It is still banned by Mormons (Latter Day Saints) and when I spent a semester as a visiting professor teaching at the University of Utah, those who drank caffeinated coffee were called “Jack Mormons.”  Most observant Mormon students drank decaffeinated coffee (such as Sanka) or ersatz coffee (such as Postum that C. W. Post made from roasted wheat bran and molasses). During World War II when coffee was rationed, I remember hearing on the radio Eleanor Roosevelt describe how she mixed yesterday's coffee grinds with Postum and a spoon of fresh coffee grounds to make coffee for Franklin. 

Friday, February 14, 2014


February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday (1809-1882) and this year I celebrated drinking my morning coffee in a glass cup engraved with my name and the occasion – Darwin Day 2007 where I gave a talk on Darwin at Rutgers University.  Darwin of course provided massive evidence for evolution and proposed a mechanism, natural selection by which environments selected among variations (later called mutations) and over time this led to species divergence and change. February 15 is Galileo Galilei’s birthday (1581-1585).  We honor him for his telescopic support for the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus.  His observations of the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the sunspots on our sun, and the presence of mountains and craters on the moons made modern astronomy possible.  February 16 is the birthday of Hugo de Vries (1848-1935).  We honor him as a rediscoverer of Mendel’s laws on the transmission of hereditary traits.  He also stimulated interest in mutations and attracted a new generation of geneticists to work in that field. February 19 is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) whose heliocentric model of the solar system he first formulated as a privately circulated letter (the Commentariolus) and did not allow publication of his larger book until he was near death for fear of the repercussions of his ideas despite his being a priest.  February 28 is the birthday of Linus Pauling (1901-1994) a noted chemist who received a Nobel prize for his work on the chemical bond, his recognition and description of sickle cell anemia as a “molecular disease,” and his activism to bring about nuclear weapons testing restrictions (for which he added a second Nobel prize).

              Scientists of note are distributed across all twelve months.  This is a particularly nice group of my favorite scientists.

Monday, February 10, 2014


I first joined a book discussion group when I was in Los Angeles in 1961.  We were going to the Westwood Unitarian Fellowship and met Peter Gary, a Hungarian composer and Holocaust survivor.  He led a monthly book discussion group and we read books that were stimulating – classics, provocative novels, and non-fiction that enlightened us. In 1968 Nedra and I moved to Stony Brook, New York  and joined the Stony Brook Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship.  They had a book discussion group led by Ernie Kamperman, a dentist.  It used a similar format of books recommended by participants and lively discussions.  In both cases these were held in a host’s home (either Gary’s or Kamperman’s).  When Kamperman got ill and died in 1975, I kept the book discussion going for the next 30 years and they were rotated among a half dozen homes of participants. When we moved to Bloomington, Indiana in November 2009 and joined the UU Church of Bloomington, there was no book discussion group.  I volunteered to start it and so far we meet in our home which has a spacious living room that can hold 12 people comfortably. We pick books that are prize winners or nominees for Nobels, Pulitzers, National Book Awards or Booker Prizes.  We occasionally read a classic (like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Lessing’s Nathan the Wise).  The person who recommends the book starts the discussion by telling us why that book was chosen. The conversation for an hour is lively and we then have coffee and cake and discuss what we should read next, alternating a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction.  The result of some 50 years of reading at least a book each month outside my fields of genetics or history of science has been enriching.  I learn from others and see how differently we interpret the works we read. It is also nice to have a sustained discussion on ideas that matter in a world that has abandoned soirees and replaced them with full time pundits on television.