Tag Archives: academia

“You Did Not Use the Standard Nomenclature and Terminology of Embryology!”

When I was an undergraduate there were two things I hated more than anything else. First, I hated being forced to memorize and regurgitate. The best example of this was Intermediate Biochemistry 101 in my second year as a biochemistry major. I was essentially handed a huge book as thick as telephone book and told to memorize it. It was one of the most boring courses I ever had to take. Lectures consisted of writing out all the steps of the Kreb’s cycle, glycolysis, glycogenesis and other pathways. I don’t ever recall being taught what these pathways were for. Our professor wrote out all the steps of the pathways and talked about carbon backbones and proton transfer. Our exams required we precisely regurgitated the complex diagrams and pathways. Marks were deducted for every letter and sign we did not put on the paper. No matter how hard I tried I could not regurgitate those diagrams without mixing things up. I literally cried over the pages I practiced on as I wrote it out again and again and again. I always failed.

If I had not gotten lucky about something else I probably would have given up biochemistry. I had to juggle day care needs of my children with my class schedule so I asked for permission to take a third year biochemistry course as a co-requisite that same year. This course was taught in totally different fashion. It was called Nitrogen Fixation. I loved this course! It was so fascinating! The professor gave us the diagram about nitrogen fixation and we learned about the role of fixation in the life cycle of plants. We studied where and how nitrogen fixation takes place. We learned wonderful things such as how farmers cultivate floating plants that can fix nitrogen in rice paddies to increase yield. We also studied how the system worked as whole including what the effect of specific mutations of genes for enzymes. My final exam had a two sentence questions.

“The enzyme GlnA in a specific legume is mutated so the efficiency drops to 15% of normal. What happens to the plant?”

Even more amazing, we actually had a diagram of the cycle to consult!


I ended with the term two things that were stunning and depressing. I got an A in Nitrogen Fixation and I got a C in Intermediate Biochemistry. My kindly nitrogen fixation professor saw me struggling to regurgitate those diagrams for Intermediate Biochemistry and he told me that he thought I had a learning disability similar to his daughter’s. She had dyslexia. He referred me to student services. After testing, it turned out I did indeed have a genuine, measurable, real, learning disability so that I flipped groups of atoms at random on the carbon backbones of those diagrams. It wasn’t my fault. I was not stupid, sloppy or lazy!

For the rest of my undergraduate career I would have to go to the department head at registration time and ask for an exemption. All the subsequent biochemistry courses I took required a C+ in Intermediate Biochemistry and I only had a C. I would pull out my official diagnosis of a learning disability with my proof of a need to be accommodated.  Each and every time the department head would look at me and shake his head in wonder and ask me “How could you get a C in Intermediate Biochemistry and an A in Nitrogen Fixation? Everyone knows that the Nitrogen Fixation is a much harder course and hardly anyone ever gets an A.” Then he would sign the waiver for me.

How indeed. It was many years until I figured it out. It was partly my learning disability. The Intermediate Biochemistry course was based entirely on the ability to memorize and regurgitate a set of diagrams and I just couldn’t do it. No understanding was required to pass that course. No ability to think was needed. You just needed an ability to reproduce diagrams which I did not have. You don’t even have to be able to speak English. You just needed to be able to draw the pathway precisely as laid out in the textbook. After you have completed that “essential” learning step, then and only then can you, as a student, move on to learning real stuff.

Nitrogen fixation was taught in a manner that required I really understand how the whole thing worked. The professor who taught it complained (and warned us) that many of the student who took the course would write out the diagrams for him in the exam but they would fail. He was not interested in having us write out the diagrams. He was interested in knowing we understood the content he was teaching in the context it operated in. No wonder it was such a fascinating course!

My Introduction to Embryology course was much the same though not as bad (for me) as Intermediate Biochemistry. I was required to memorize and regurgitate all the proper labels of diagrams on stages of embryogenesis. This included correct spelling of terms like coelom, archenteron, and blastocoel. If you had a single letter wrong you got a zero score. This did nothing to increase my understanding of embryology. There was a really great lab with three dimensional models and time lapse movies. We also got to study carefully prepared serial section slides of stages of development over time. I learned the anatomy of the embryo from those labs, not the lectures. I got almost nothing out of the lectures. For the exams I got lucky because I have always been fascinated by Latin and Greek elements in words. I even took an optional course in it simply because I liked the topic. That made it much easier for me to reproduce that arcane language correctly because I knew the roots all the horrid words came from. My fellow students without such a background struggled terribly and most left the course with a C for poor spelling and hating embryology as a topic.

So why do we make students go through the pain and suffering of memorizing and regurgitating in the first courses they take in a topic? It can’t be because it helps students learn. It does the opposite. It bores them and drives them away. It can’t be because it helps understanding. There is no understanding required. It can’t be to give them “a solid grounding in the basics” because I have never encountered a need to have the entire Kreb’s cycle memorized or the correct spelling of “gastroceol” in any work I ever did. Active researchers use databases and computer programs of such things and always check their memory against real data. Memory is unreliable and not something to be trusted. The greatest metabolic geneticist I ever knew, Dr. Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg, had the pathways she encountered most often in the clinic memorized but I still saw her consulting a text book more than once. We would be working on something and she would get telephone calls from clinicians from all over the world. We would pause while she took the calls and I would sit and listen. She would often pull out a textbook and consult it in her conversations. It was fascinating to watch her really using biochemistry but she did not count on her memory. I kept asking my question about why we do this to students but no one had a good answer. When I got a little more senior in my studies, when I was closer to being ‘one of us’ as a PhD student, I still kept asking. Why do we make students memorise and regurgitate diagrams?

Finally one professor literally snarled at me and said “I had to do when I was an undergraduate and they are all damn well are going to suffer through it too!”

That’s when I finally understood. This is a form of hazing. We make students do this horrible useless exercise in order to make them prove they really want to be “one of us”. We force students to learn and then adopt the special language we use. This special language keeps “us” as an exclusive group that outsiders can’t join easily because they can’t understand our private conversations. You want to be an embryologist? You have to first prove you deserve to become one of us by proving you will let us make you spell every arcane, old fashioned word there is in our special secret language. You want to be a biochemist? You have to memorize a textbook of stupid diagrams to show you really want to belong to our special club no matter what we do to you. This hazing creates a nice camaraderie within the profession. It also drives away some of the best and brightest at their first exposure. Worse, it stifles those who think independently and who might therefore challenge the current consensus of whatever is considered the great truth scientific of the day. It helps explain why scientific breakthroughs resulting from paradigm shifts take so long to occur and meet so much resistance before they are accepted.

When I taught engineers and mathematicians embryology, I did not use diagrams with all those arcane names and labels. I used models with clay, and pictures and movies and live embryos. I explained how the embryo changed over developmental time giving them only a few key terms. I never mistreated them for a misspelling. I did not make them memorize anything. I allowed as many questions as they wanted to ask. I noticed these students learned much more quickly and understood much more thoroughly than the poor biology student who is forced to memorize and regurgitate diagrams. And my students never got bored with either biochemistry or embryology. And I don’t see why an engineer should be prevented from applying his skills to development because he hasn’t been forced to prove he can correctly spell “syncytiotrophoblast” or “integumentary”.

This is also why I am not bothered by the criticism that I did not use the standard nomenclature and terminology of embryology in our book. We wanted a book that was accessible to as broad an audience as possible, and one that reveals the miraculous beauty of embryogenesis without the stultifying jargon. We don’t want embryology to be a closed society with a secret language. We want everyone to love embryology as much as we do.

Near Misses: Paths not Crossed with Richard Bellman

World Scientific Publishing recently had a sale of electronic books, in which I came across and downloaded:

Bellman, Richard (1984). Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography,  World Scientific. Web:  https://books.google.com/books?id=6rN7QgAACAAJ; http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/0076

for US$9.90. I had heard that Bellman had a reputation of meeting someone, having a chat, and sending them a manuscript to co-author the next day. In this way he was the applied math complement to Paul Erdös, about whom I wrote:

Gordon, R. (2011). Cosmic Embryo #1: My Erdös Number Is 2i.  http://www.science20.com/cosmic_embryo/cosmic_embryo_1_my_erd%C3%B6s_number_2i

While Bellman doesn’t discuss this story, he did love to travel, and much of the book is about the places he has been, even including in some cases the addresses of hotels he liked. He was indeed prolific: “Over the course of his career he published 619 papers and 39 books. During the last 11 years of his life [1920-1984] he published over 100 papers despite suffering from crippling complications of brain surgery” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Bellman). Whoever added his CV to the end of the autobiography upped it to 620 papers and 40 books. While it was written in 1978, his autobiography seems to have been published after his death in 1984. He doesn’t even mention his medical condition in the book.

What what I found uncanny about his autobiography is how many people he names who I also knew, and one he didn’t name, but undoubtedly knew: my own father, Jack Gordon. I deduce this because both played handball at Brighton Beach near the boardwalk to Coney Island, New York, on one-wall courts. Bellman, born in 1920, was 7 months older than my father, who I recall was winning at handball at age 13, on those courts. Maybe he trounced Bellman. While my father focussed on handball all his life and became a USA national champion (Singer, Stuffy (1994). Gordon honored with Kendler Award. Handball 44(1), 18.), Bellman was an all-round jock, claiming to excel at other sports: tennis, table tennis, track, football, basketball, baseball, swimming. He even did some ballet. I can recall those courts, the boardwalk, the hot summer beach on which one could hard boil an egg, building sand castles, the lines of rocks with oysters perpendicular to the beach, out into the water, and Nathan’s hotdog stand. It was there my mother, then Diana Lazaroff, met my father. This book rang of childhood nostalgia for me. I was raised nearby until age 5, when my parents moved to Chicago about 1948.

But our lives were further intertwined. I postdoced with Stanislaw Ulam; he reviewed Ulam’s “A Collection of Mathematical Problems”, and knew him well. Three more misses: “Nixon announced that two billion dollars would be available for cancer research. The experts in the field were to gather in Warrentown, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, to divide up the pie. I was chairman of a committee on the use of mathematical methods. The other members of the committee were, John Jacques, Fred Grodins, Bob Rosen, Monas Berman, and John Hearon…. At Warrentown, we had a good time deciding how we would spend the money. Alas, it was a typical Nixon trick. He posed for TV cameras and gave away pens, but not a penny ever appeared.” I had postdoced with Bob Rosen at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY/Buffalo, worked under John Hearon at the Mathematical Research Branch at NIH, and knew Monas Berman while there. Natalie and I had a strange encounter with Bellman’s former student John Casti at the Third International Workshop, Open Problems of Computational Molecular Biology, Telluride, Colorado, July 11-25, 1993, albeit after Bellman’s death. Casti, guest of honor, left the conference the first evening, when (not knowing who he was) I said to him “we can explain that” in reference to a remark about embryology by the host. Beyond that, the book is full of names of mathematicians and scientists whose work I knew, a slice in time through that culture, written by someone one generation ahead of me, but overlapping. It was quite a journey, watching Bellman’s parallel life.

It was from a couple of Bellman’s math books that I learned about concepts such as differential-delay equations and invariant embedding. The former helped me understand the 30 year cycle in academic hiring, reported going back to the 1800’s in:

Nyhart, L.K. (1995). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago,  University of Chicago Press.

Let’s say jobs are available for would-be professors. Lots of students decide to go into the open disciplines. By the time they are trained (the delay), the jobs are being snarfed up. So the next generation of students seek other disciplines. And so it goes, with no one doing long-range, 30 or more year planning, to equalize supply and demand. I suppose we could call the oscillating academic job market an emergent phenomenon! I actually hit one of those peaks, at age 33 in 1977, when I applied for 100 jobs, got a couple of interviews, and no offers. Out of luck, with 300 to 500 younger applicants per job opening at that time, I answered a phone call from Winnipeg asking me to recommend someone for a job there with “How about me?”. And so I ended up at the University of Manitoba.

Like Ulam (who is discussed in my blog on Erdös), Bellman was a mathematician first. For instance, he had a moral compunction to work on the H-bomb, but when his math didn’t prove useful to the project, he dropped out, rather than solve the problem with whatever it took. As with Ulam, we would not have seen eye to eye: “There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa” (Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11, http://life.biology.mcmaster.ca/~brian/biomath/careers.theo.biol.html).

I was about to wind up this blog by adding a photo of Bellman, but came across something even better, a movie by his grandson:

Bellman, G.L. (2011). The Bellman Equation [movie].  http://www.bellmanequation.com; http://www.amazon.com/Equation-Goldstein-Betty-Jo-Dreyfuss-Landauer/dp/B00C6WHRM4

So rather than color my blog by the movie, I’ll post this first, and enjoy the movie tonight with Natalie.

The Bagnold Dunes on Mars


Dick Gordon on a trip to revisit the Oregon coast in February 2013, with his back to the sea. The logs were gone. (Natalie Gordon)

When I was a graduate student in the Chemical Physics program at the University of Oregon (1963-67), I would occasionally take a break and drive with friends from Eugene to the Pacific coast. At that time huge logs that drifted in would be piled on the beach, and sometimes after we slept in an abandoned cabin up the steep cliffs, the next morning the logs would be seen totally rearranged. One does not turn one’s back on the sea.


Tide pool with typical huge anemones on the Oregon Coast near Gold Beach. Dick put his glove down for perspective. (Natalie Gordon)

Besides the tidal pools in the rocks with their anemones, snails and small fish, I was fascinated by the sand itself. For with each retreating wave dendritic patterns of darker grains atop the lighter toned majority were made. As I was (initially secretly) doing my first paper on morphogenesis:

I became fascinated by all pattern mechanisms, from rippling clouds to river deltas, and in sand. At that time Jack Carmichael was visiting my mentor, statistical mechanic Terrell Hill, working on the basic mechanism of column chromatography. That’s a strange name, because in most chromatography techniques then and now, one sees no colors. But here’s the origin of the word from an online dictionary:

  • 1930s: from German Chromatographie. The name alludes to the earliest separations when the result was displayed as a number of colored bands or spots.

The sand was doing real color chromatography, on itself.

Jack moved on, and after my first postdoc he invited me to spend the summer of 1968 with him at the Department of Polymer Science & Engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was a great, if hot summer, because I also met Ryan Drum there, and launched my career in diatoms. But that is another story.

Jack, his student Frank Isackson and I built a plexiglass, 6 foot long, one dimensional flume. It was 8 inches tall, and just wide enough to hold white pellet gun plastic balls so we could see every one. We ran water through it from one end to the other, slow enough so the balls were not dislodged. Then we would add one ball and photograph its bouncing motion (called saltation) as it made its way driven by the current, using a strobe light to record its motion.


I had done a lot of reading about how sand moves when driven by wind and water. Much of this literature was by Sir Ralph Bagnold, and I recall reading everything he wrote on the subject. While I was visiting Lewis Wolpert in London, UK in 1969, I took a train north to meet Bagnold at his country home, where he had retired, and spent a pleasant afternoon with him. He told me how he got interested in the motion of sand while in the English foreign legion in North Africa during World War II. He spoke of saltations so high during night sandstorms that one could see nothing horizontally, but could look up and see stars. I formulated the concept that it is important to meet the grand old men and women of science while they are still with us, and have frequently done so.


The sand on the Oregon coast arranged into small dunes by the wind from the Pacific ocean. If you were to put your eye at ground level and look across sand in wind, you could watch individual grains saltating. (Dick Gordon)

I did a computer simulation of the bouncing balls, and we published the experimental and computer results in my one and only sandpaper:

acknowledging Bagnold too dryly “for discussions”. A couple of days ago I read that the Mars lander is now exploring the Bagnold Dunes  on Mars, a fitting tribute to a life well spent on shifting sands.


Bagnold Dunes on Mars courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. This image, captured by NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity on Sept 25, 2015 shows the dark Bagnold sand dunes in the middle distance.



The Oregon Coast February 2013 (Dick Gordon)


Intersections with John Brent Musgrave


Intersections with John  Musgrave, on learning from his Colombian born wife Consuelo of his sudden death of a heart attack August 11, 2015 (by Richard Gordon)

I met John probably in my last (3rd) year of high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. He was then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Astronomy Club (still in business). The president Tom was the older brother of a girl who was a year ahead of me in the Lab School. Tom made me recite some constellations (a difficult task for me, allergic to memorizations) to join the club. I learned them once and promptly forgot most, though Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia and Orion still stick. By the time I entered UC in 1959 as a 16 year old student, skipping the senior year in high school, John was President, I became Treasurer, and there were no other members and no membership fees. It was typical of John’s wry humor, which I went along with, that he gave me this null responsibility for all our money. I enjoyed the irony.

John lived in the crawl space between the roof and the ceiling, just high enough to sit up on the mattress he set up in there, above our club room atop the Ryerson Physics Building, accessed by a narrow helical staircase. John kept his personal belongings locked in the club room, explaining that the purpose of locks was to keep honest people honest. Above the club room, from which we could look east across the campus, was the observatory on the roof containing a 6 inch refracting telescope. Daytimes I would occasionally sketch projected images of the sun’s spots. At night I sometimes brought a date up there. I tried simultaneously photographing the same meteorites with my brother, with him at our home in southwest Chicago and me at UC. I had built a strobing device consisting of a fan blade on a motor that went in front of the camera, so that the images of meteorites would be a sequence of dashes, allowing calculation of their velocity But the film cracked in the cold of night when advanced in the camera, and I didn’t think about how to overcome that problem. Dan later became an excellent amateur astronomer with his own observatory, and a prize winning astronomy photographer. He still volunteers at McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Astronomy overnights with John meant we played with an ancient brass calculating machine we had, listened to classical music on WFMT (a radio station still on, now available on Internet), and browsed through negatives of galaxies photographed by previous members. That space became my second campus home, my first being my own lab over the central lecture theater in the Kent Chemistry Building, where I kept a cot and cooked canned spaghetti in a beaker. I prepared specimens for students to analyze for the quantitative chemistry course, after taking that course my first summer before I entered UC. Ed Anders taught it. I later worked with him on organic matter in meteors.

John majored in history of science, and via him I gained an appreciation for that history. I recall sitting in on a course on modelling in science, undoubtedly because of John. John questioned everything, especially having to do with authority, and I owe much of my professional and daily skepticism to discussions with him. He told me about Vulcan, the planet deduced from its perturbations of Mercury’s orbit, and that was sometimes observed, between Mercury and the sun. It was later explained away by relativistic effects on Mercury’s orbit. We discussed phenomena such as people seeing lights on the Moon. John told me that when he was a kid, in broad daylight he used his telescope to watch something in the sky that had parts twirling around and going in and out, unlike any aircraft with which he was familiar. He later wrote a short book on UFO sightings in Canada. Again, I learned from him open-mindedness about things, raising questions, but not jumping to conclusions based on scant evidence. He was not a believer in UFOs, just open to their possibility. After a visit 5 years ago that Natalie and I paid to the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico, I made sure they got a copy of his book into their extensive library.

John came to my home, where my parents Jack and Diana Gordon got to know and like him. This probably made it easier on them when at 17 I moved out and shared an apartment with John and one other fellow in Hyde Park, north of the University. He also got to know George and Susan Meschel. Susan was a grad student in Quantitative Chemistry, who along with Jim Dwyer looked after me. I was younger than everyone else in my class, so it was these people, along with Helmut Hirsch and later Victor Fried, a prodigy in Biophysics, also my age, who formed my world.

I went off to graduate school at age 19 to the Institute for Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon. John’s pacifism wore off on me: “Do you believe in the use of force? Well, I do use a can opener.” Always a wry point of view. At UO I was kept out of the army draft “in the national interest” and joined many of the discussions pro and con about the Vietnam War. But this is John’s story.

John visited me once in Oregon, driving up from California, where his parents lived. His father, a laborer as I recalled, in the San Diego area, had done a lot of reading on witchcraft, which influenced John. (My father, a home remodelling salesman, was likewise a collector of all books on Franklin D. Roosevelt.) On a visit to John down there, he made a remark about my moustache looking like Hitler’s. When I mentioned this to him 50 years later, he said it showed how cruel kids can be to one another. The bad memory was laid to rest. In retrospect his remark was just his observation of the incongruity of a Jew bearing such a moustache. Although not Jewish himself, he did observe that most of his friends were Jewish.

On one visit John and I drove to and stayed with an old friend of his, who lived on the coast of northern Oregon. We caught razor clams on the beach, overcoming their amazing speed through sand with a half meter long sheet metal pipe capped at one end to let air out, with thumb over the hole to pull out a core of sand with clam. His friend couldn’t pay the taxes on his tiny home, so it went up for auction, and he bought it. More wryness.

For a year or two I kept a diary of sorts in the form of long, handwritten letters to John. Unfortunately, in his wanderings he had to lighten his load, and they were gone.

John collected books, amassing over 3000 of them, for which Consuelo now needs a buyer. He had rare books of interest to historians of science, and an eclectic variety of others. When I sold mine to begin full time RVing with Natalie, I had only 2000 to my name, much the same in kind, but focussing on biology instead of physics and astronomy. He moved to Edmonton, was in graduate school at the University of Alberta for a while, and I visited him there with his newly wed Consuelo, our young sons Chason and Justin in tow. When later he was short of cash, I bought a shelf of books from him on religion and science.


John’s beloved wife Consuelo Sanclemente Musgrave in a playful moment

Natalie and I visited John and Consuelo during our two stays in Osoyoos, British Columbia, winter 2013/14, seeing them at their home in Oliver and in restaurants. I attended a meeting of the local historical society with John. He was much the same, but had drifted far from science, the two of them having fostered many First Nations kids, and he getting involved in the history of local First Nations affairs. The last I saw him was when he came to our RV camp site (run by the Osoyoos Indian Band with whom John worked) to try to help me with a bolt on our trailer hitch, which would not budge with the tools we had between us.

John was one of those fine intellects who could never have made it in academia. I squeaked through, despite the attitudes I learned from John and concurred with. In retrospect, though I didn’t think of him that way, he was a fine, exemplary big brother. I’m off shortly to a conference on the origin of life, where I will be trying to tempt people to join me in a book on The Habitability of the Universe Before Earth, which if it comes to fruition will be dedicated to John’s memory.


Some of John’s Publications:

Musgrave, J.B. (1979). UFO Occupants & Critters: The Patterns in Canada. New York, Global Communications.

Musgrave, J.B. & J. Houran (2000). Flight and abduction in witchcraft and UFO lore. Psychological Reports 86(2), 669-688

Musgrave, J.B. & J. Houran (2003). The Witches’ Sabbat in legend and literature. Lore and Language 17, 157

Musgrave, J.B. (2003). Smallpox as a weapon of genocide in the Okanagan and Similkameen? Report of the Okanagan Historical Society 67, 41-43.

Book Excerpt – Literature Reviews Before Search Engines.

In May of 1990 we got our first hints of the presence of a physical wave in the ectoderm. By the end of 1991 we had the entire trajectory of that first wave well documented. There were also long stretches of time between, waiting for the embryos to reach the correct stage for filming. We had classes and teaching duties and grants to write at the laboratory. At home, we had children who needed things from us like school lunches, stories before bed, hugs and clean clothing. Still, the differentiation waves occupied our thoughts in every spare moment.

We scoured the literature over several months collecting every related paper we could find. Google did not exist in those days and there were no online journals to download articles in a PDF form. Finding papers meant hours of searching physical indexes or the limited, mostly keyword, computer searches that existed in those days. PubMed was a brand new tool. Using it was like being the proverbial kid let loose in the candy store. Once a reference was located, we had to walk to the library and pull out physical copies of journals, carry them to a photocopier, and make a paper copy to work from. We would read that copy carefully, underlining or highlighting critical components. Each paper had multiple references to follow up on which meant more trips to the library. If the journal was not available in our library, and it often wasn’t, we could try ordering it through interlibrary loan and it would arrive after a few weeks or months. (We would often find ourselves wondering why we ordered a particular paper once it finally came.) We would also contact the author and ask for a reprint. Most scientists were using email by that time and so our requests were acknowledged in a day or two with a promise to drop a reprint in the mail. Some of the scientists, especially those in key papers by senior members of the field, had to be petitioned in formal politely worded paper letters. Each workday, one of us would run to check the mail to see what eagerly awaited gems had arrived by “snail mail”. We would also trek to the library to see what precious items may have arrived via interlibrary loans. Our desks were soon piled high with towers of papers covered with notes. After six months of hard work, we found enough clues from the literature to create a plausible pathway between microfilament contraction and changes in gene expression. Still we were left with a lot of unlabeled arrows in our original nuclear state splitter model. Molecular biology of eukaryotic cells was in its infancy back then. Like genetics, the field was exploding. We published the collected ideas as a working model in our paper, “Nuclear state splitting: a working model for the mechanochemical coupling of differentiation waves to master genes”, in 1993.

While theoretical papers are easy to publish in fields like physics, and it is quite respectable to do so, in biology theoretical papers are generally viewed with disdain. More than one colleague advised us to not publish the idea until we had more data. We knew we would have a very difficult time finding any standard journal to publish a mere idea. We did find a welcoming colleague in Russia, Lev Beloussov, who has a long history of investigating the physics of amphibian embryos. We therefore published our idea, in Russian first, in the journal Ontogenez. Our English version appeared in their “translation” version of the journal a few months later, the Russian Journal of Developmental Biology, though of course that was the original and the Russian version was the translation. We took the opportunity of the delay to prepare an Addendum to the English version.

As the years passed, and biochemical, molecular biological and genetic knowledge grew in great leaps and bounds, more new pathways and interactions and proteins were collected and catalogued. It was not unusual to have a student spend their entire PhD characterizing a single protein within a complex pathway. Once the knowledge of the proteins was combined with the genetic sequence producing the proteins, families of biochemical components were discovered and their evolution and relationships across species were explored. Not surprisingly, the protein carefully studied in one organism often turned up in another organism in a closely related form. All too frequently this homologous protein would have an entirely different name or function ascribed to it by some other PhD student or postdoctoral fellow and his or her supervisor. Since the early days of the field, the general amount of knowledge of scientists studying these processes has doubled about every five years. We have tried to follow all of these developments as they came out and, while we found a lot of new detail, we never found anything contradicting the general layout of our first nuclear state splitter model. In fact, the more the scientific community learned, the more correct our original working model appeared to be and the more blank arrows in our model acquired names. Today, there are no blanks. There was very little interest from anyone else in our early model. It is so easy to not see the forest for the trees, especially when you are trained to focus on leaves. Those were exciting and giddy days full of new discovery and heady wonder. It doesn’t matter if no one else listens to us. There is only one test the counts. Every idea or theory must be tested against nature and in the end nature will prove us right or wrong.

Natalie 1990

Natalie circa 1990 with an old Mac of similar vintage.

(Ultimately) Alone in the Universe, by Richard (Dick) Gordon


I was trying to convince Abraham (Avi) Loeb to join me as an editor of Habitability of the Universe before Earth (HUBE), a book I’m planning in the new book series Astrobiology: Exploring Life on Earth and Beyond (World Scientific Publishing, London) with series editors Joseph Seckbach (Israel), Pabulo Henrique Rampelotto (Brazil) and me (Canada & USA). Now, as Natalie and I have long observed, organizing scientists is much like herding cats. Avi turned me down, despite saying he is very drawn to the subject, on the basis that he is writing yet another book (Books by Abraham Loeb) and that he is heading some sort of award giving group (Breakthrough Initiatives Project of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation). Then he sent me his latest book, available only in Kindle format, From the First Star to Milkomeda. (He did not ask me to do this review.) Milkomeda refers to the result of collision of our Milky Way Galaxy with the “nearby” Andromeda Galaxy “within a few billion years”. Whew! Imagine trying to absorb and assimilate migrants from another 100 billion planets.

This is a semi-autobiographical account of a fine mature scientist and academic who has reached the peak in his career. By reading this book you can see how his mind works and sense his high personal and academic standards. You can also sense the intense loneliness that comes with reaching such a place. It’s a weird book giving you a view most people never see, the workings of an imaginative, clever, sharp, yet careful mind. He is a theoretician, par excellence, with substantial immunity from the grant system and the committees who decide who gets viewing time on expensive, communal telescopes. As a theoretical biologist I understand this independence. It allows our ideas to pour forth.

Avi thinks big. His latest work is on the earliest formation of water in our universe, and the possibility that life developed way back when. I have long been annoyed with the many books on the origin of life that presume, without discussion, that life began on Earth. This is one of the last anthropocentrisms, the first being that Earth is the center of the universe. I had an opportunity to knock the idea down a bit when Alexei Sharov and I wrote Life Before Earth. He came at the problem from a biological point of view, extrapolating a measure of organism complexity back in time, and I helped spell out the consequences. Avi calculates the first time the universe had places warm and cool enough to support liquid water. Both calculations allow for life for most of the 13.6 billion years our universe has been around, not just the paltry 4.54 billion years since the formation of our solar system.

When you start Milkomeda, you think you are about to be treated to a proper autobiography, farm boy near Tel Aviv rocketing to theoretical astrophysicist. But the book in short order plunges into the kind of language one expects in grant applications, giving only hints of Avi’s personal life. As all of Avi’s work is new to me, his 500 or so papers not having crossed my computer desktop previously, I saw past the “justifications” in the grant style of writing to fascinating ideas, like stars doing sling shots around pairs of black holes to achieve speeds near the speed of light. What a ride! Now I have to know whether life on planets around such flying stars would have any chance of surviving the trip? If so, we’d have a mechanism that could spread life well beyond the confines of galaxies. Close encounters with black holes are tales worth telling. I really enjoyed this.

Avi has reached that point in scientific life where he gives much thought to mentoring. A substantial portion of Milkomeda is devoted to the cultivation of the minds of young astrophysicists, trying to strike a balance between them towing the line and being obnoxiously creative. Here Avi shows he is one of us unherded cats. Did you ever hear of a labor union of scientists? No such thing. I’m still nominally President of CARRF, the Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding, whose members have long since dispersed or departed Earth. My cofounders rejected my preferred moniker UNFUN, the Union of Unfunded Scientists. But under the CARRF banner, we produced much peer reviewed and other literature on how to improve/replace the peer review system for grants. Avi has rediscovered many of these ideas, our tiltings at windmills, unaware of our published efforts. So many scientists independently come to these conclusions, but ununionized, nothing happens. The shame of it all is that the taxpayer, who foots most of the bill for scientific discovery, gets far less bang for the buck than should be possible. I so completely agree with him but I found the whole topic maddening to read about, again. He gives ten specific examples in astrophysics of scientists suppressing the research of other scientists they thought were wrong. It is a warning for anyone who practices science by consensus. If you are someone who has looked with curiosity at the inner workings of astrophysics and wondered what being in the field is about, this book will give you keen insights.

Good ole Lord Kelvin predicted the Heat Death of the Universe, back before nuclear energy was discovered, a rather depressing scenario. Avi, while holding his head high in contemplating the universe on the cover of Milkomeda, points out that with the universe expanding, most of the galaxies we see beyond our local cluster will vanish from the sky. Their light will not reach us, because the rate of expansion of the universe exceeds the speed of light. Somehow gravity will keep our small corner of the universe intact, but alone. Well, perhaps: another depressing outcome. But maybe we could hitch a ride around that pair of black holes from the Milky Way and Andromeda as they hurl towards each other, and be out of here. Stay tuned. And buy the book. You still have time.