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Marine Biology. Human Cultures. Climate Change. Genetics What is Genetics? Genetics Stuff: ALL. What's This? The take-aways for me from this book can be broken down into three categories: 1 history, 2 science, and 3 implications. Mukherjee has a knack for storytelling. As he takes us through the history of genetics, we become gripped by the dramatic stories of how the scientific discoveries unfolded and the intriguing characters that were involved.
The field of genetics underwent a series of fits and starts, beginning in the mids. Following each major advance, there was a lull during which teams of scientists grappled with solving the next major problem for genetics. Behind each major scientific breakthrough, there were two common elements. First, you have an individual or a team who was obsessed with understanding a particular aspect of genetics, or solving a particular problem. These scientists would dedicate countless hours leading up to years repeating and refining experiments until they arrived at the key breakthrough. Second, you see multiple individuals or teams that are in pursuit of solving the same problem at the same time, and locked in a competition to be the first to make the discovery.
Time and again, we see scientists racing furiously against the threat of another team beating them to the scientific breakthrough — and capturing the rewards of recognition, influence, and legacy that comes along with it. These two elements are probably not unique to the field of genetics — however, they are chronicled extremely well in this book.
That is, they have studied everything but the question of what they are studying. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you.
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The city had grown around them over four centuries, cascading down the slopes and then sprawling out over the flat landscape of farms and meadowlands below. But the friars had fallen out of favor with Emperor Joseph II in The midtown real estate was far too valuable to house them, the emperor had decreed bluntly—and the monks were packed off to a crumbling structure at the bottom of the hill in Old Brno, the ignominy of the relocation compounded by the fact that they had been assigned to live in quarters originally designed for women.
Heredity beyond the gene
The halls had the vague animal smell of damp mortar, and the grounds were overgrown with grass, bramble, and weeds. The only perk of this fourteenth-century building—as cold as a meathouse and as bare as a prison—was a rectangular garden with shade trees, stone steps, and a long alley, where the monks could walk and think in isolation. The friars made the best of the new accommodations.
A library was restored on the second floor. A study room was connected to it and outfitted with pine reading desks, a few lamps, and a growing collection of nearly ten thousand books, including the latest works of natural history, geology, and astronomy the Augustinians, fortunately, saw no conflict between religion and most science; indeed, they embraced science as yet another testament of the workings of the divine order in the world. A wine cellar was carved out below, and a modest refectory vaulted above it.
One-room cells, with the most rudimentary wooden furniture, housed the inhabitants on the second floor. In October , a young man from Silesia, the son of two peasants, joined the abbey. He was a short man with a serious face, myopic, and tending toward portliness. He professed little interest in the spiritual life—but was intellectually curious, good with his hands, and a natural gardener.
The monastery provided him with a home, and a place to read and learn. He was ordained on August 6, His given name was Johann, but the friars changed it to Gregor Johann Mendel. For the young priest in training, life at the monastery soon settled into a predictable routine. The tumult of —the bloody populist revolutions that swept fiercely through France, Denmark, Germany, and Austria and overturned social, political, and religious orders—largely passed him by, like distant thunder.
What I learned from “The Gene: An Intimate History”
He was disciplined, plodding, deferential—a man of habits among men in habits. Admonished by his superiors, he politely complied. In the summer of , Mendel began work as a parish priest in Brno. He was, by all accounts, terrible at the job. Later that year, he schemed a perfect way out: he applied for a job to teach mathematics, natural sciences, and elementary Greek at the Znaim High School.
With a helpful nudge from the abbey, Mendel was selected—although there was a catch. Knowing that he had never been trained as a teacher, the school asked Mendel to sit for the formal examination in the natural sciences for high school teachers. In the late spring of , an eager Mendel took the written version of the exam in Brno. On July 20, in the midst of an enervating heat wave in Austria, he traveled from Brno to Vienna to take the oral part of the exam. On August 16, he appeared before his examiners to be tested in the natural sciences.
This time, his performance was even worse—in biology. Asked to describe and classify mammals, he scribbled down an incomplete and absurd system of taxonomy—omitting categories, inventing others, lumping kangaroos with beavers, and pigs with elephants. Mendel failed again. In August, Mendel returned to Brno with his exam results. The verdict from the examiners had been clear: if Mendel was to be allowed to teach, he needed additional education in the natural sciences—more advanced training than the monastery library, or its walled garden, could provide.
Mendel applied to the University of Vienna to pursue a degree in the natural sciences. The abbey intervened with letters and pleas; Mendel was accepted. In the winter of , Mendel boarded the train to enroll in his classes at the university. The night train from Brno to Vienna slices through a spectacularly bleak landscape in the winter—the farmlands and vineyards buried in frost, the canals hardened into ice-blue venules, the occasional farmhouse blanketed in the locked darkness of Central Europe.
The river Thaya crosses the land, half-frozen and sluggish; the islands of the Danube come into view. But the morning of his arrival, it was as if Mendel had woken up in a new cosmos. In Vienna, science was crackling, electric—alive. At the university, just a few miles from his back-alley boardinghouse on Invalidenstrasse, Mendel began to experience the intellectual baptism that he had so ardently sought in Brno.
In , Doppler, a gaunt, acerbic thirty-nine-year-old, had used mathematical reasoning to argue that the pitch of sound or the color of light was not fixed, but depended on the location and velocity of the observer. Sound from a source speeding toward a listener would become compressed and register at a higher pitch, while sound speeding away would be heard with a drop in its pitch.
Skeptics had scoffed: How could the same light, emitted from the same lamp, be registered as different colors by different viewers? But in , Doppler had loaded a train with a band of trumpet players and asked them to hold a note as the train sped forward. As the audience on the platform listened in disbelief, a higher note came from the train as it approached, and a lower note emanated as it sped away. Sound and light, Doppler argued, behaved according to universal and natural laws—even if these were deeply counterintuitive to ordinary viewers or listeners.
Indeed, if you looked carefully, all the chaotic and complex phenomena of the world were the result of highly organized natural laws.
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Occasionally, our intuitions and perceptions might allow us to grasp these natural laws. But more commonly, a profoundly artificial experiment—loading trumpeters on a speeding train—might be necessary to understand and demonstrate these laws. Biology, his main subject, seemed to be a wild, overgrown garden of a discipline, lacking any systematic organizing principles. Superficially, there seemed to be a profusion of order—or rather a profusion of Orders.
The reigning discipline in biology was taxonomy, an elaborate attempt to classify and subclassify all living things into distinct categories: Kingdoms, Phylae, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera, and Species. But these categories, originally devised by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the mids, were purely descriptive, not mechanistic.
The system described how to categorize living things on the earth, but did not ascribe an underlying logic to its organization. Why, a biologist might ask, were living things categorized in this manner? What maintained its constancy or fidelity: What kept elephants from morphing into pigs, or kangaroos into beavers? What was the mechanism of heredity? Why, or how, did like beget like?
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