Monday, March 24, 2014


Instead of abortion, birth control, the war on religion,  socialist take overs of the US, class warfare, investigations into the President's birth, mandatory prison sentences, pulling out of support for Public Radio, and the war on drugs, this is what Congress should be discussing:

·     1)   The conflict of interest between representing the needs of people of the district and representing the interests of those who give generously to finance campaigns for election or reelection.

·      2)  Ways to prevent big dollar tax avoiders pay their share of taxes instead of hiding them in foreign banks, secret accounts, and loopholes placed by Congressional representatives at the suggestion of lobbyists.

·     3)   Ways to prevent self-serving gerrymandered districts that victimize whichever party is not in power in that State. There are ways to make them balanced and not based on race or economic status.

·       4) Ways to prevent states from making it difficult, if not impossible for US citizens to vote in elections.

·     5)   Shifting some of the money given to defense to rebuilding and repairing the nation’s infrastructure of ports, railways, airports, canals, dams, electric grid, roads, and bridges.

·    6)    Giving the same tax breaks, subsidies,  and start up benefits to the non-fossil fuel, non-polluting energy efforts using wind, sun, tides, and geothermal energy.

·    7)    Making sure that every person in the US has access to health care equivalent to that given to our Congressional representatives and military members.

·   8)    Federal regulation of those industries that pollute our rivers and lakes, deplete our resources, endanger our environments, or diminish our national parks.

·       9) Federal regulation of those industries whose products may endanger the health of those users of products that may contain carcinogens, mutagens, toxins, and teratogens.

·      10)  Finding ways to employ those laid off from work so they can support a family.

·       11) What should be an adult minimum wage?  Why is this exempt from cost of living annual changes?

·     12)   Why does our military budget greatly exceed all other nations?  Is it inflated beyond reasonable costs of manufacture and testing?

·      13)  Why are health costs in the US far greater than any other country? Are hospital costs and medical and pharmaceutical costs inflated beyond reasonable costs of production and care?

·       14) What should be done to address the long term prospects that people are living longer after retirement. Should benefits be graduated based on age of retirement? Should Social Security taxes be extended past income caps that are highly beneficial to those who least need social security?

115) What measures should Congress initiate to protect coastal cities at or near sea level from being inundated in the coming decades by rising sea levels (it does not matter whether the cause was human energy use or natural cycles). 

Friday, March 21, 2014


Nedra and I saw a documentary on the use of drones in warfare. It was a very unsettling experience.  The photographs and films of dead children and the sight of them in hospitals with their healing wounds and lost limbs makes it difficult to accept the term “collateral damage” as anything less than a rationalization that some critics would condemn as  evil.  If it is terrorism to us when a suicide bomber blows up a bus or hotel, it is an act of terrorism to civilians in Pakistan who are sacrificed as “collateral damage” in an effort to assassinate a person on a kill list.  It is also disturbing for those who believe in the importance of law.  To be placed there by an anonymous informant (often the way espionage picks up information) who cannot be challenged in a court of law makes it hard to distinguish from what used to be called “kangaroo court” justice.  The use of kill lists also invites a similar tit for tat response to these killings. Do those who do this not think of the capacity of vengeance among the survivors and neighbors of the “collateral” dead?   What about the psychological effects on those who kill at a distance and do not see their victims, but learn of the collateral dead through TV or newspaper accounts (if they are publicized in their neighborhoods)?  I recall reading Howard Zinn describing his work as a bombardier in WWII.  As the war was coming to an end he was sent on two last minute missions.  One was in southern France.  The other was in Czechoslovakia.  In both cases he dropped the bombs on the targets. When he returned he was told that these were successful military missions with little collateral damage.  A few years later he was in Europe and decided to visit those towns.  He learned to his horror that he killed some 2000 civilians in France as well as German soldiers who had fled Hitler’s losing army and were hiding in what they thought was a safe area until the war ended.  He also learned that some 800 civilians were killed in Czechoslovakia.  He also learned, from a later search of war records that the mission to southern France was added on to bolster the record of a commanding officer who hoped for a promotion.  I have no way of verifying Zinn’s account, but I do not doubt its likelihood because war is rarely clean and ethics are set aside or interpreted  to satisfy rationalizations that argue that these means are essential for survival, honor, or justice.  What worried me most about the documentary on the use of drones is that they are cheaper to make than fighter planes and many countries are now making them.  The technology to target them is also not so sophisticated that other countries would lack the skills to make them. I hate to think what it would be like for those drones to be in the hands of dozens of countries or even home grown terrorist groups who do not like Jews, African Americans, liberals, illegal immigrants, union organizers, Muslims, gays, Tea party extremists, fanatical fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, and billionaires perceived as robber barons.  Both the extreme left and the extreme right are vulnerable to those who make their own kill lists.  I hope we once again bring back “a rule of law” and not this murderous philosophy of by-passing the court protections written into our constitution. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014



I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.  It is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supplemented with the lives of what were later called “the muckrakers,” and what we would today call investigative journalists.  They included Samuel McClure, Ray Davis, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White.  Goodwin writes a compelling narrative and brings to life the Gilded Age which led to the progressive movement as a response to the excesses of the wealthy few and the neglected many.
How bad were those times?  Consider child labor.  It was not thought harmful to send children to fill the coal carts in mine shafts.  No one thought it their concern if the elderly were unable to work because of the infirmities of their bodies or minds.  No one of their employers thought there should be a retirement income for them.  It was their family’s responsibility.  No one of their employers thought there should be a minimum wage.  No one of their employers thought they should be regulated for safe conditions of working (if there was an accident it was the worker’s fault).  If big companies made secret deals with railroads for cheaper rates to force small business competitors out of business, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at work.  If insider trading made the rich richer and the smaller investor broke, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at its best.  Regulate it?  Horrors, that was socialism and big government restraining trade.  If legislation was needed to provide rights of way for the railroads, campaign contributions or outright bribes determined where those rails would be placed and who would benefit.  Bags of money bought jobs – chiefs of police, judges, Senators. 
I loved reading the way the muckrakers did their research for McClure’s Magazine.  When I finished the book I looked up that magazine on the web.  Most of the issues are on-line and free to read. I entered the 1890s and early 20th century. From Goodwin’s book I reversed my judgments and had more respect for Taft as a President and person than I did for Teddy Roosevelt. Of today’s recent Presidents, Bush the younger is most like Roosevelt in his aggressive actions dragging the US into elective wars.  Obama is most like Taft in trying to negotiate, obtaining as many views as possible, and trying to persuade others without using the spotlight of publicity to harass those differing from him. 

It is depressing to see history repeat itself and I do not doubt that a look back at the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the Revolutionary War, would show the same diversity of personalities attracted to government service.  Some seek the fame of being a fighter and conqueror. Some seek to be the peace-makers (but rarely find lasting fame).  Some are corrupt and seek power, money, or prestige.  We try to make government independent of those who govern, and seek laws rather than opinions of those with power and money.  All too often, without regulation or the watchful eyes of muckrakers, our institutions are betrayed by the greedy, the self-deceived, and those who enjoy manipulating others. 

Monday, March 10, 2014


Killing for non violent behavior or for one’s beliefs occurs in almost all eras of history. The Old Testament is filled with episodes of killings based on idol worship, disobedience, dishonoring a parent, belonging to a particular ethnic group (such as the Amalekites), and unspecified offenses against God (see Genesis 38 and the story of Onan and his brothers). The New Testament tells the story of Jesus killed for his beliefs.  The last two millennia are litanies of killings based on religion.  The creed settled by the Catholic Church could not be easily breeched without punishment to heretics. Sometimes they lost their jobs.  Sometimes they were imprisoned.  At its worst, the heretics were put to death.  The Reformation led to the death of Michael Servetus (not by Catholics but by Calvin who was outraged by Servetus’s heresies). It also led to the death of Giordano Bruno in Rome, also burned at the stake for refusing to reject his own beliefs and writings.  Servetus and Bruno are unusual in their beliefs because they were priests of the Catholic Church who both rejected the Trinity. Servetus is a founder of Unitarianism with his book “On the Errors of the Trinity.”  Bruno also rejected the virgin birth of Jesus and the transubstantiation of the blood and body of Christ during the ritual of the Eucharist.
What is also unusual is that both Servetus and Bruno were scientists.  Servetus independently discovered the circulation of the blood (at least the role of the heart and lungs in “purifying” the air we breathe in and out). Servetus taught map-making, medicine, and astronomy as well as courses in theology.  Bruno taught mathematics, mnemonic methods of memory, and astronomy as well as philosophy as he went through seven or eight universities in his teaching career.  None of Servetus’s scientific work was at issue in his condemnation by both Protestant and Catholic agents seeking his arrest. It was luck that he was tried by Calvin’s court in Geneva rather than brought back to Italy for trial by the Church.  Bruno’s science was tied to his religious beliefs and those scientific beliefs were only one of seven charges of heresy against him.  Bruno accepted the Copernican model of a solar system in which the earth was the third planet orbiting the sun. He correctly identified the sun as a star. He then inferred that all stars had planets and that life must exist on most or all of them.  He also believed the universe was infinite and thus life, the material world, and God are all names of one ultimate reality or God.  That heresy the Church identified as pantheism. 
Galileo also endorsed Copernicus’s model and offered evidence from his use of the telescope he made which revealed moons around Jupiter (he calculated their orbits and predicted their positions on any given day provided to him), craters and mountain ranges on the moon, Saturn’s rings (he called them “ears” because of the way they were tilted), the phases of Venus, and the sunspots on the sun which allowed him to calculate the sun’s rotation and proving the sun was not a perfect globe.  Galileo was charged with disobedience because his published works ridiculed the prevailing Ptolemaic model of the earth as the center of the universe.  Luther and Calvin were in full agreement with the Catholic Church that the heliocentric model should be condemned because it implied the biblical account of the universe was false. Galileo lucked out and avoided a death sentence.  He chose to confess his error, denounce his publications, and spend the rest of his life in house arrest.

It took a long time for the crime of heresy to be seen as an error of belief and not as a capital crime.  In many parts of the world heresy can still be used to justify a death sentence.   Even where it may not be a government policy, individuals can convince themselves that heretics should be silenced by death rather than by the superior arguments they should try to muster in defense of their own beliefs.   

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Virtually all industrialized nations use a national health insurance system.  In the United States we followed (decades later) most European countries in adopting Social Security for our elderly population so they could have an income in their remaining years.  All working Americans pay for Social Security, which is a separate tax from income tax or sales taxes.  I am grateful I have both Social Security and Medicare.  The cost of health services not covered by Medicare can be substantial—try getting implants instead of false teeth (upper or lower plates) and four or five implants can run up to $20,000 (as it did for me because I do not have a dental insurance plan covering them). If we each had to pay for our major medical expenses the death rate would go up because poor people would die.  Physicians and other health providers would have to cut back on their standard of living to serve the poor and most people who could afford it rarely make charity meet the needs of all those who are needy.  I am a biologist, so here are a few facts to consider.  We live longer than we did in the 1900s. Most people born in the early 21st century (2001 on) will live to be in their mid 80s.  If they retire at 65 they will likely require Social Security for 20 years and Medicare for their health needs. The bulk of cancers, strokes, heart failures, diabetes, senility, and arthritic conditions occur in people who are 50 or over.  Younger people feel resentful that they are paying for older people.  I can understand that, and some want to gamble that at age 20 they will have another 65 years of life without a stay at a hospital for sickness, without a major accident, without mental or physical impairments that limit their work or change their life activities.  But the odds are overwhelming that most of those young people, when they are old, will have cancer, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, arthritis, or other illnesses that cost a lot.  The odds are also overwhelming that most people will not have 100,000 dollars or more set aside for medical emergencies in their old age.  The odds are overwhelming too, that a young person who is 20 or 30 years old who has an illness or accident will lack the money to pay for medical expenses.  We have a government and a civilization because we believe that collective responsibility makes all citizens better off than having a world where there are a few healthy winners and a massive majority of humanity dying prematurely or suffering pain and limited activities because they cannot afford the sky-high costs of their health needs.

              I much prefer extending Medicare to all working people so all can pay into a national health insurance that is non-profit.  Private health insurance is by definition set up to make a profit.  A significant portion of those premiums paid each month go to corporate stock holders or the families that own and manage these private health companies. They will try (as they did before being regulated) to purge from health insurance those with preexisting conditions, those who are in risky categories (let us say based on race or socio-economic status), and offer their insurance to the healthiest payers. President Roosevelt and President Johnson both tried to get a national health insurance for all working adults to pay into.  President Obama had to compromise and choose Governor Romney’s Massachusetts plan for his Affordable Health Care Plan. They failed because of the tactic that opponents used describing national health insurance as “socialized medicine.”  So is a standing army where our government owns everything down to the shoelaces of the persons wearing a uniform.  I don’t see red flags flying over Scandinavia, Great Britain, and other industrialized capitalist countries that have nationalized health insurance for all their citizens.  I have yet to hear a workable plan from opponents of national health insurance that covers the health needs of those who are poor, lower middle class, or middle class with competing needs of education for their children, a mortgage to pay, and companies doing their best to freeze their wages and dump their coverage for health insurance and retirement. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I love the essay as a means of expressing ideas and feelings with literary grace.  My favorite essay is by Thomas H. Huxley written in 1868.  It is called “A liberal education and how to get it.”  Huxley reacted against the trend then to educate young students by forcing them to learn classical Latin and Greek, not so much for the ideas of those civilizations, which he applauded, but to learn grammar and parse every sentence in ancient texts.   He drew an analogy to a game of chess. If the careers and lives of our children depended on their ability to play chess, we would spend sums of money for tutors to make them experts. There is, he claimed, a game of life.  It is called science. If you are good at it a knowledge of science can enrich your life, provide new careers, and even save your life.  Remember that in 1868, while there was an industrial revolution in full swing, but the germ theory was still 20 years away. If you are ignorant of it or if you play it poorly, you might lack control over your life and short-change your career.  Huxley singled out the new field of evolution as a key component of this knowledge which every child should learn, because without it they are vulnerable to becoming losers in the game of life.  For Huxley the liberal arts included knowledge of world history, literature, philosophy, culture, the world’s geography, and an understanding of the universe through science.

Almost 150 years later we have few public schools that provide the type of liberal education that Huxley proposed.  A majority of K-12 students in the United States do not learn about evolution or find it labeled as a controversial theory.  Many private schools teach Creationism and those public schools that are in “Bible Belt” states (especially the south and Midwest) avoid the topic of evolution in their biology courses to prevent angry parents from complaining and threatening their employment. What science teaches will collide often with one religion or another.  Christian scientists do not like their students in public school to learn that there is a germ theory of infectious diseases and oppose compulsory vaccination for highly lethal diseases.  Jehovah’s Witnesses will object if their students lean blood typing and how blood transfusions have saved millions of lives.  Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis will argue that geologists have some error in method in dating ancient rocks, whether they use radioactive decay, numbers of layers in a sedimentary rock formation, ratios of elements, or tree rings.  They will argue that the red shift used by astronomers does not apply to dating a source of light if it gives answers of more than 10,000 years.  Even worse, some teachers are intimidated in how they teach politically controversial positions of science, including climate changes from global warming, regulation of industries to prevent pollution, regulation of the chemicals placed in our foods, regulation of medicines (prescription and over the counter) for carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. Those with money and power can effectively obscure issues yet act in good faith because they unknowingly accept self-deception or wishful thinking as reality.  I wonder what type of science was taught to those legislators who deny evolution, the germ theory, global warming, the need for regulating industrial pollutants, practicing conservation of natural resources, radiation protection, or the importance of family planning.   A liberal education is intended to equip young people with the knowledge to be informed and effective citizens as well as to be constructive critics of society’s failings.  Is it not time we provide it?  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Alexander Graham Bell [1847-1922],Scottish and later American, was born on March 14. We know him for the telephone but he was the first to recognize founder effects in genetics (hereditary deafness) and complex inheritance (supernumerary breasts in sheep). On the down side, he was a founder of the American eugenics movement.  Joseph Priestley [1733-1804] was born in England on March 13. He discovered air was not an element but composed of several gasses.  He isolated carbon dioxide (and made soda water as a beverage), discovered oxygen, and helped launch the Unitarian movement that stressed reason and not faith.  His home, laboratory, and church were burned by a mob in Birmingham and he then emigrated to the US. For March 14 Albert Einstein [1879-1955] is the most illustrious of the month, with his contributions that revolutionized our sense of the physical world through relativity, the photon theory of light, the cause of Brownian motion, and the equivalence of mass and energy. Also on March 14 we have Paul Ehrlich [1854-1915] , the physician who developed synthetic chemotherapy for infectious diseases (salvorsan for syphilis) and introduced the lock and key model of immunology. Caroline Herschel [1750-1848] was born on March 16.  She studied comets and mapped stars using telescopes invented by her brother. William Roentgen [1845-1923] was born on March 27.  He discovered x-rays and applied them to the detection of hidden objects and established medical radiology as a field. Rene Descartes [1596-1650] was born on March 31.  He was a philosopher and mathematician. His dualism was a major way scientists did science (separating the known or material world from the scientifically unknowable or spiritual world which at best was separate from the material world. He also developed analytical geometry which combined algebra and geometry and showed their conversion.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Nedra and I saw a documentary “Hole in the Head” at the Monroe County Public Library on an act of radiation abuse carried out in 1927.  About 15 children, all African American, from a small town, Lyles Station, in southwest Indiana were taken by bus to the nearby general hospital at Princeton, Indiana.  There each had radiation treatment for ringworm. The children felt ill going home, some vomiting. Their hair fell out and in some grew back in patchy ways.  One, Vertus Hardiman, the subject of the film, had severe burns from the radiation and his scalp never quite healed.  He wore a cap or wig the rest of his life.  Despite this over dose of radiation, Hardiman lived into his mid 80s. He never married. His last three years were painful as bone cancer eroded his cranium leaving a gaping hole into his brain. The author of the documentary, Wilbert Smith, described the procedure used on the children as an experiment, but it is not clear for what purpose it was done or who designed it.  Smith compared it to the syphilis experiments carried out in the South in the 1930s-60s which deceived patients who thought they were being treated for tertiary syphilis.   The unit of measurement, the roentgen, was roughly described (but not named) in 1908 and made international in 1928.  The measurement of dosage for medical purposes was physiological until 1928. The number of seconds of exposure before skin reddened was called a threshold dose (or other names). Treatments were based on multiples of the threshold dose. The Victoreen dosimeter (which I used in Muller’s laboratory) was not invented until 1925 (by Otto Glasser and Hugo Fricke, both in the US) and marketed by Jack Victoreen in Cleveland in 1928.
              The treatment of ringworm by radiation began in 1897 in Germany. It was introduced to the US in 1903. The Kienbok-Adamson method of dividing the scalp into five target regions was proposed in 1907.  A London studied in 1910 claimed “in the hands of experts no danger is incurred.” Dose estimates for treating ringworm vary from 340-660 roentgens.   A 2003 study of 2224 x-rayed children followed for about 39 years contrasted 1380 who were given topical treatments (medications). In the x-ray group there were 16 intracranial tumors, 2 thyroid cancers, and 8 leukemias.  In the topical treated group were 1 intracranial tumor, no thyroid tumors and 1 leukemia.  After 1959 x-ray treatment ceased and was replaced by topical application of an antifungal medicine, griseofulvin.
              Muller had a folder of news clippings which I looked at in the Lilly Library at IU when I wrote his biography.  The abuses of radiation were numerous.  Medical uses included straightening out bow-legs in children, shrinking “enlarged” thymus glands (the alleged cause of chronic respiratory infections), curing plantar warts on the soles of feet, and inducing ovulation in infertile females by 100 r doses of x-rays to the ovaries and pituitary (the Kaplan treatment of the 1920s). Chiropractors at 4H fairs in Indiana had “straightest spine contests” using x-rays.  Shoe stores had fitting of children’s shoes with fluoroscopes.  When I married Nedra in Rochester, Indiana the shoe store on Main Street was called Taylor’s X-Ray Shoe Store.  During WWII those working in shipyards examined steel plate welds for imperfections using x-rays and protection of workers was spotty.

              I don’t know if an experiment was going on Lyles Station, Indiana or what its intent was. What is clear, however, is that abuse of radiation through ignorance, over-confidence, wishful thinking, and incompetence was prevalent in the early history of medicine and radiation abuse still exists because those attitudes are difficult to control.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


I much enjoyed reading Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man: In Search of Ancient Genomes [Basic Books, 2014].  Pääbo is a founder of the field of palaeogenomics, which attempts to reconstruct and interpret the DNA of ancient and extinct organisms. Pääbo spent more than 20 years trying to work out the genome of first the mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals and then the nuclear DNA of these cousins of our own species.  Pääbo uses a combination of memoir, log book, and narrative to give the year by year account of set-backs, new technologies, and constant rethinking of approaches to achieve these important contributions to human evolution and molecular biology.  Unlike Watson’s Double helix   account of the structure of DNA, Pääbo has a different challenge.  He knows that the cells of Neanderthals were virtually identical to living cells of humans because they would have mitochondria, mitochondrial DNA, nuclei, and DNA (very likely with 46 chromosomes largely syntenic in their sequences of genes).  In Watson’s quest, the structure was the unknown.  In Pääbo’s quest, the differences in genes and variations of the genes was the quest.  For both there was the firm conviction, going back to H.J. Muller in 1926 that the gene was the basis of life. 
              Pääbo was born in Stockholm, his father, Sune Bergsgtröm, was a physiologist who worked out the structure and function of prostaglandins, molecules that acted like hormones at the cellular or immediate tissue level. For that work he received a Nobel Prize in 1982.  He carries his mother’s last name, because Karin Pääbo (a biochemist from Estonia) conceived him in an affair she had with Bergstrom.  The young Pääbo rarely saw his biological father and took solace in being a nerd-like scholar, infatuated with Egyptology, after his mother took him to visit Egypt when he was thirteen.    He also complicated his life as a gay activist in Stockholm (although he turned out to be bisexual).  He chose medicine as a possible option for a career but as his father’s fame became more apparent, he began thinking of working as a biochemist, and shifted to a PhD program.  His mentor worked out the DNA sequences of genes involved in antibodies. This rekindled Pääbo’s idea of working with mummies, using their DNA as a way to study ancient genes.
              Pääbo found a sympathetic curator in East Germany during the Cold War and began working with mummified tissue in his laboratory at Uppsala.  He did this independently of his dissertation research and showed his results to his mentor who was impressed and encouraged his career. The publications led to postdoctoral opportunities in Berkeley with Alan Wilson and eventually an appointment as head of a new department at a Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. As his publications grew in number, his access to samples of fossil bones increased when he switched from mummified tissues of Egyptians to his quest for Neanderthal DNA. These are not easy chapters for those without a science background.  They reveal the enormous challenge of identifying Neanderthal DNA as an entity separate from contaminating bacteria and the sweat, dandruff, and other excreta of modern human contamination, often by those who first retrieved the bones from caves and burial sites.  We learn how Pääbo relied on a team of students and employees whose work he supervised but who formed a weekly seminar of criticism of everyone’s work and what it signified.  Those brainstorming sessions led to more sophisticated controls, inventions of new procedures, search of the literature for new technologies, and deeper insights than any individually had conceived.  In most fossil Neanderthal bones it is rare for more than a few percent of the DNA to be Neanderthal. Proving to skeptical molecular biologists that the sequences they reported were Neanderthal and not artifacts of the past or present was stunningly difficult.  It is worth reading through those chapters to see how difficult this field was for a careful investigator. 

              I have often argued in my books that the life sciences rarely work through paradigm shifts.  This book illustrates the incremental changes over 20 years – hundreds of them – that brought about the reality of a new field of science.  We like to believe in the Copernican moment, when a shift takes place and a new field or world view emerges. They are rare in all of science and most new science and theories we add to the field we call the life sciences, fall not into flashes of rare insight but into the hard work of identifying mistakes in our experimental designs, interpreting unexpected findings, identifying contaminating variables, and eventually building an edifice of evidence that meets all known challenges of one’s contemporaries.  That Pääbo has done.