Harvard University’s First Degreed Black Man: The Improbable Discovery of His Historic 1870 Diploma in a Chicago Attic

Richard T. Greener_HarvardRichard Theodore Greener, class of 1870, was the first black to graduate from Harvard University. I had never heard of Richard Greener before I became interested in a book titled, An Illuminated Life: Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. This biography is based on the adventurous life of a light-skinned black woman known as Belle da Costa Greene. Belle was the daughter of Richard T. Greener. The young Ms. da Costa Greene was selected in 1905 by the ultra-wealthy and infamous banker/financier, John Pierpont Morgan, to be his personal librarian. Morgan had gigantic tastes for rare books and manuscripts and a virtually unlimited checkbook with which to satisfy his appetites. Although of limited education and experience (three years employed in the Princeton University library), Belle attracted Morgan’s interest. Her light-skinned beauty and confident elocution convinced Morgan to entrust his burgeoning, mega-million-dollar library acquisitions to her. She rapidly grew from merely managing Morgan’s already-significant library to becoming his long-time trusted aide in charge of new and (very) costly acquisitions.

Over the years, Belle more than validated Morgan’s trust in her by becoming knowledgeable in the high-end book trade and a tough bidder in the rough-and- tumble salons of the world’s premier fine-art auction houses. She more than held her own against the most elite and experienced of her bidding competitors. Anyone who loves books and collects them knows the story of J.P. Morgan and Belle.

I wanted to know still more of that story, and that quest led me to her father, Richard Theodore Greener, who, after graduating Harvard, became a well-known black activist back in the days of post-Civil War reconstruction efforts. Greener traveled in the same intellectual circles as famous black luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Greener was admitted to Harvard as “an experiment” with the help of a prominent white businessman who recognized potential in the young, light-skinned black man who was employed by him. Indeed, Greener went on to become a leading intellectual and black activist well prior to W.E.B. Du Bois’ commanding entry onto the scene of social/racial commentary.

In recent decades, Greener has been largely forgotten save for the hard-core history books. Belle Greener changed her last name early-on, ostensibly to “pass” as Portuguese rather than black. Her personal intelligence and charm served to overcome any lingering suspicions about her black heritage, even in the toniest of European bookseller salons. I need to learn more, but I believe her black activist father would not have approved of her attempted subterfuge! Richard Greener and his personal papers faded from view many decades ago – almost without a trace.

A Remarkable 2009 Discovery in a Chicago South-Side Attic!

Greener Harvard BA_2

In 2009, a termite-infested, dilapidated, and stripped-bare “way house” for local homeless and drug addicts was hours away from demolition in Chicago’s South-Side. Anything and everything of any possible value had been systematically stripped from the old house over many years – even the wiring and copper plumbing. As Rufus McDonald and his demolition crew made a final survey of the house mere hours before “the hammer,” they determined that the attic was empty save for a large, old trunk which had long evaded the interest of scavengers.

McDonald’s colleagues suggested that they throw the trunk in “the dumper” and be quickly done with it. A sixth-sense prompted McDonald to take the time to force open the old trunk and check its contents. Inside, he found the personal papers of Richard Greener including his historic Harvard BA from 1870. There were other papers important to Greener’s history, as well. Water damaged, but intact and legible, his degree today is back at Harvard from whence it came – a valued part of the school’s Du Bois Institute for African-American Research.

Greener Harvard BA_1

The discovery of Greener’s papers after all the decades astonished historians who had long-since resigned themselves to their mysterious “loss.” The attic in which they were found was several miles from Greener’s late-life, South-Side residence. It is not known how they got there!

Historians are thankful for the surprise survival of this important document and several others that came from that attic. Greener’s subsequent law degree from the University of South Carolina was also found in that same cache of documents.

Such diplomas have a way of bringing back to life the images and stories of the long-departed…and therein lies their importance and the “thrill of the chase” that comes with finding and preserving them. I have found Greener’s personal story and his role in post-war reconstruction not only fascinating, but very relevant to the state of today’s society and race-relations.

In my next post, I will elaborate on my penchant for preserving these documents, these diplomas which, through the power of their printed word, speak so eloquently and succinctly of one human being’s unique life-journey.

Information Theory: How the Genius of Claude Shannon Changed Our Lives By Thinking “Outside the Box”

Claude_Elwood_Shannon_(1916-2001)[1]Claude Shannon: have you ever heard the name? How about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin? Those three names are universally familiar to the general public even though all but a small segment of the population would find it difficult to elaborate significant details of the work that made them immortal in scientific history. In Shannon’s case, his name, his face, his genius, and his immense impact on our world are all virtually unknown, thus unappreciated, outside the realms of mathematics and electrical engineering. Claude Shannon is the “father of information/communication theory” and primarily responsible for the vast networks of computers, data processing, and mass communication that power modern society. It is my intention, here, to at least do minimal justice to his rightful legacy among the great minds of mathematics, science, and engineering.

Shannon’s contributions are numerous and varied, but a closer look reveals that the central theme of most of them are well characterized by his most famous of many publications over the years, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, which appeared in 1948. Most of Shannon’s published papers were issued under the imprimatur of the Bell (Telephone) Labs Technical Journal. Bell Labs had a long and illustrious run as an incredible incubator for many of the most important math, science, and engineering advancements in America during the twentieth century. Accordingly, many of the country’s top minds were associated with the Lab and its activities. Claude Shannon was one of them.

All Information Can Be Represented By Data 1’s and 0’s!

3653[1]Have you ever marveled at the fact that modern computers can store and reproduce any-and-all information – text, audio, color pictures, and movies – using only organized collections of data 1’s and 0’s? Think of it! A modern computer is little more than a collection of millions of microscopic electronic switches (think light switches) which reside either in an “on” state (a data 1) or an “off” state (a data 0). If that reality has never occurred to you, pause for a few moments and reflect on the enormity of the fact that anything and everything called “media” can be displayed on-command by calling-up organized collections of data 1’s and 0’s which reside in the bowels of your personal computer! In addition, the computer’s “logical intelligence” – its ability to respond to your commands – also resides in the machine’s memory bank in the form of data 1’s and 0’s. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Claude Shannon was among other computing pioneers who understood the possibilities emerging from the burgeoning progress of electronics. The notion of a binary (or two-state) number system in a computing device was evident as far back as the eighteen-thirties when Charles Babbage designed and built his first bulky, mechanical computing machines.

Today, in our everyday lives, we use the decimal number system which is inherently unsuited to computers because that number system requires each digit in a number representation to assume one of ten states, 0 thru 9. Modern computers are designed around the binary (or two-state) system in which each digit in a binary number assumes a value, or weight, of either one or zero. A simple light switch or an electronic relay (open or closed) are examples of simple, two-state devices which can be used to represent any single digit in a binary number. In actuality, the two-state devices in modern computers are implemented utilizing millions of microscopic, individual solid-state transistors which can be switched either “on” or “off.” The binary number system, requiring only simple two-state devices (or switches), is the optimal choice.

Shannon would be the first to admit that he was never motivated to change the world by the work he pursued. Nor was he motivated by any prospects of fame and fortune for his efforts. Rather, he was endlessly fascinated by the challenges inherent in pursuing theoretical possibilities, regardless of any possible practicality or profit stemming from his efforts. Claude Shannon’s persona had multiple facets: a genius, out-of-the-box thinker, an inveterate tinkerer and inventor of gadgets, a juggler (circus-type), and a devotee of the unicycle – a conveyance he both rode, designed, and built himself! This most unusual personality forged much of the “quiet legend” which surrounded the reclusive, mysterious Mr. Shannon. Even though he was a tinkerer and builder of “toys and gadgets,” he lived for and thrived on elevated ideas – creations of the mind. In many respects, he was much like Albert Einstein in his outlooks, his rampant curiosity, and his dogged persistence, all of which were on full display as Einstein tackled the mysteries of both special and general relativity.

The Most Important Master’s Degree Thesis Ever Submitted!

In 1937, Claude Shannon submitted a thesis for his master’s degree in electrical engineering at MIT. Normally, a master’s thesis proves to be significantly less impressive in terms of originality and impact than that required for a Phd. Shannon’s master’s thesis proved to be a startling exception to the rule – the first of many unorthodoxies that characterized his unusual career. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he had earned dual degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering. It was at Michigan that he learned the “new math” developed by the English mathematician George Boole and introduced to the scholarly community in 1854 under the title, An Investigation into the Laws of Thought, on Which Are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. This work was the most important contribution to emerge from the genius of Boole who died much too young from pneumonia at the age of forty-nine years.

Shannon's ThesisShannon was prescient enough to recognize that Boole’s algebraic treatment of the binary number system uncannily lent itself to the development of real-life logical systems (computers) which could be simply implemented using electrical relays – binary (two-state), on/off devices which had cost, space, power, and reliability issues, but which could nevertheless demonstrate computing principles in the nineteen-thirties and forties. In simplest terms, Shannon demonstrated in his master’s thesis that, using Boolean algebra and simple two-state electrical devices, a computer could be designed to “think logically” while processing and displaying stored information.

Shannon’s prescient recognition led to the characterization of his thesis as “The most important Master’s thesis ever written.” Indeed, Shannon opened the doors to a new and exciting vista, one that he vigorously explored while working at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, and later, at MIT.

Shannon Sets These Major Goals for Himself – No Small Tasks!

How do we define “information,” how do we quantify information, and how can we transmit information most efficiently and reliably through communication channels?

I suggest that the reader pause a moment and ponder the thin air in which Claude Shannon pursued his goals. How in the world does one define and quantify such an “airy” concept as “information?” 

Here are some examples, the easiest entry-point into Shannon’s methodology regarding the definition and quantification of information:

When we flip a coin, we receive one data-bit of information from the outcome, according to Shannon’s math! In this case, there are only two outcome possibilities, heads or tails – two “message” possibilities, if you will. Were we to represent “heads” as a binary data “1” and tails as a binary data “0”, we can visualize and quantify the outcome of the coin flip as the resulting state (“1” or “0”) of a single “binary digit” (or “bit”) of information gained in the process of flipping the coin. In Shannon’s world, the amount of information received would equal precisely one-bit of information in either case – heads or tails – because each case is equally probable, statistically. The final comment concerning probabilities is important.

Here is how probability/statistics enters into Shannon’s treatment of information: What would be the case if I had a bona-fide, accurate/true crystal ball at my disposal and I queried it, “Will I still be alive on my upcoming eighty-second birthday – yes or no?” There are only two possible predictions (or messages), but, in this case, the information content of the message conveyed is dependent on which outcome is provided. If the answer is yes, I will make it to my 82nd birthday, I receive (happily) lessthan one bit of information content because actuarial tables of longevity indicate that, statistically speaking, the odds are in my favor. If the answer is no, I (unhappily) receive more than one bit of information due to the probability that not reaching my next birthday is statistically less than 50/50. A message whose content reveals less likely outcomes conveys more information than a message affirming the more likely, predictable outcomes in Shannon’s mathematical model of information.

Here is a third example of Shannon’s system: Consider the case of rolling a single die with six different faces identified as “1” through “6.” There are six possible outcomes, each one having the equal probability of 1/6. According to Shannon’s mathematical model, the amount of information gained from a single roll of the die is 2.59 binary bits. The outcome of a single roll of a die carries 2.59 bits of information vs. only one bit of information from the single flip of a coin. Why is that? It is because any one of six equally likely possible outcomes is less likely to occur than either outcome of a coin flip which presents only two equally likely outcomes!

Lest you think that quantifying the information content of messages strictly on a statistical basis with no regard for the content of the message itself seems a silly bit of elite hair-splitting on the part of math/engineering crackpots, I can assure you that you are dreadfully mistaken for these and numerous other derivations and conclusions that sprang from the curious mind of Claude Shannon form the backbone of today’s trillion dollar computer and communication industries! Shannon and his information/communication theories, like Einstein and his relativity theories, has been proven correct by both time and actual practice. Because of both men, our world has been immensely altered.

A Good Stopping Point for This Journey into                                  Information/Communication Theory

At this point in the story of Claude Shannon and his information /communication theories, we approach the edge of a technical jungle, replete with a formidable underbrush of advanced mathematics, and this is as far as we should go, here. For those well-versed in mathematics and engineering, that jungle path is clearly marked with signposts signifying that “Shannon has passed this way and cleared the pathway of formidable obstacles: proceed…and marvel.” The pathway that Shannon forged guides fortunate, well-equipped adventurers through some deep and beautiful enclaves of human thought and accomplishment.

Claude Shannon was a remarkable original, an imaginative thinker and doer. Inevitably, great milestones in math, engineering, and science are not without some degree of precedence. In Shannon’s case, there was not much to build from, but there was some. Certainly, the Boolean algebra of George Boole was a gift. As mentioned earlier, Shannon’s first publication of his own findings, titled The Mathematical Theory of Communication, appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal of !948.

IMG_2500Hartley BSTJ 1928 Enhanced 21928 Nyquist Sampling_1

His paper was quickly published in book form in 1949 by the University of Illinois Press. In his paper, Shannon mentioned the earlier work of Ralph V. L. Hartley and Harry Nyquist, both earlier Bell Laboratory employees, like Shannon. Hartley published his prescient views on the nature of information in the Bell System Technical Journal, dated July 1928. His paper was titled, The Transmission of Information. Although rudimentary, the paper was original and set in motion ideas that led Shannon to his triumphant 1948 publication in the Bell Journal. In Nyquist’s case, in addition to discussions re: the importance of optimal coding for the efficient transmission of information in an earlier, 1924 issue, Nyquist published, in the August 1928 Bell Journal, his ground-breaking analysis of the minimum waveform sampling rate of an analog (continuous) signal necessary to accurately reconstruct the original waveform from stored digital data samples – as is routinely done, today. Nyquist’s famous sampling theorem provided the necessary “bridge” between the world of analog information and digital representations of analog data that was so necessary to make Shannon’s theories applicable to all formats containing information.

Two Crucially Important, Parallel Technology Upheavals Which Enabled Shannon’sTheories in the Real World

The first of these upheavals began with the announcement from Bell Labs of the solid-state transistor in 1948, ironically the same year that Bell Labs published Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Three Bell Labs researchers led by William Shockley won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for their work. The transistor was a remarkable achievement which signaled the end of the cumbersome, power-hungry vacuum tubes which powered electrical engineering since their introduction in 1904 by Lee de Forest. By1955, the ultimate promise of the tiny and energy-efficient transistor came into full view.

The second major technology upheaval began in 1958/59 when the integrated circuit was introduced by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and, independently, by a team under Robert Noyce at newly founded Fairchild Semiconductor, right here in adjacent Mountain View – part of today’s Silicon Valley. The Fairchild planar process of semiconductor fabrication signaled the unprecedented progress which quickly powered the computer revolution. Today, we have millions of microscopic transistors fabricated on one small silicon “chip” less than one inch square. The versatile transistor can act as an amplifier of analog signals and/or a very effective high-speed and reliable binary switch.

These two parallel revolutions complete the trilogy of events begun by Shannon which determined our path to this present age of mass computation and communication.

A Final Summation

My goal was to make you, the reader, cognizant of Claude Shannon and his impact on our world, a world often taken for granted by many who daily benefit immensely from his legacy. We have come a very long way from the worlds of the telegraph – Morse and Vail, and the telephone – Alexander Graham Bell, and radio – Marconi, and Armstrong. The mathematical theories and characterizations proposed by Claude Shannon have essentially all been proven sound; his conclusions regarding the mathematical theory of communication are amazingly applicable to all modes of communication – from the simple telegraph, to radio, to our vast cellular networks, and to deep-space satellite communication.

I respectfully suggest you keep a few things in mind, going forward:

-Your computer is what it is and does what is does in no small part thanks to Claude Shannon’s insightful genius.

-Your cell phone can connect you anywhere in the world thanks largely to Claude Shannon.

-The abiliity to store a two-hour movie in high-definition and full, living color on a digital compact disc called a DVD is directly due to Claude Shannon.

-The error-correction capability digitally encoded on CD’s and DVD’s which insure playback with no detectable effects even from a badly scratched disc is absolutely the result of Claude Shannon’s ground-breaking work on error-correcting digital codes.

-Your ability to encrypt the data on your computer hard drive so that it is impenetrable to anyone (even experts) who do not possess the decoding key is, yet again, a direct result of Claude Shannon’s cryptography efforts.

And, finally, we arrive at the most surprising fact of them all: how is it that virtually 90 per-cent of the world’s population has benefitted so immensely from the legacy of Claude Shannon, yet so few have even heard of him? Perhaps there are some lessons, here?

Kudos to Claude Shannon and all the other visionaries who made it happen.

USPS Media Mail: A Book on Harvard’s History Survives the “Black Hole”

On November 15, one event made my day – against all apparent odds! Two people were literally astounded when a book I had ordered was finally delivered in the day’s mail.

Harvard Book Arrives

The other astounded person along with me was the bookseller who mailed the book via media mail on September 20th. Media mail is notoriously slow, but seven weeks to go from North Reading, Massachusetts to Sunnyvale, California is way beyond the pale!

/Three Centuries of Harvard (1)The book in question is a desirable one, first published in 1936, detailing Harvard University’s three centuries of existence as the country’s first institution of higher learning. Harvard opened its doors in 1636 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, a mere sixteen years after pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. No other American institution has that legacy of longevity…and Harvard remains, arguably today, the most famous and influential university in all the land (keep an eye on California’s Stanford University and its role in Silicon Valley’s vast contributions to the tech and business worlds, however!).

My interest in Harvard is not new, but my recent purchase on E-Bay of a fine 1871 Harvard law degree diploma tweaked my desire to learn more about the school and its history; but back to the story at-hand, now.

A USPS journey from hell traveling from east coast to west!

I have ordered many books over the years via AbeBooks on the internet, so I fully expected a typically slow media mail journey from coast to coast to take about two to three weeks max. Instead, the book took seven weeks to crazily ping-pong its way west. I began tracking the book from the start, just after submitting the order.

The following is a blow-by-blow accounting of that unseemly journey:

-The bookseller dispatched the book quickly after processing my order. On 9/20, I noted with satisfaction that the USPS had taken possession of the book at 11:49 am in North Reading, Mass. Looking good!

-The next tracking report followed almost immediately at 12:04 pm on the same day. “Processing Exception, Other Delay” was reported – no further explanation. Huh? Never saw anything like that. What could that mean?

-The next report came on 9/25 indicating that the book had arrived at the Jersey City network distribution center. “OK,” I said to myself.

-On 9/26, the book arrived at the Springfield, Mass. network distribution center.

-On 9/27, the book departed the Springfield center. “Now we’re talking,” I thought.

-On 9/30, tracking reported the book back again at the Jersey City network distribution center! At that point, I knew we were in for big trouble….and we were.

-There were no further tracking updates for three full weeks until, finally, on 10/21, the book was reported back again at the Springfield, Mass. network distribution center. This is not progress. We are going around in circles, here!

-The next day, 10/22, the book had departed Springfield on its way to ??

-On 10/26 the book was on its way to the “next facility.” Where could that be?

-On 11/10, a most welcome update stated that my book had arrived at the San Francisco network distribution center – within sixty miles of my home! Almost here!

-Oops, on the next day, 11/11, the book had arrived at the Los Angeles network distribution center: What is it doing down there?

-Finally, on 11/15, the book was reported to be at the Sunnyvale, Ca. post office; it was delivered to me that afternoon. I can’t believe it got here, and in one piece!

To summarize this whole wacky experience:

Deborah, the bookseller, was as baffled by all of this as I was. Fortunately, the book’s sale price was less than thirty dollars. If it were to be lost, it would not be a significant financial hardship for either of us. I did really want the book, though, so I was “invested” in seeing this through just as she was. Deborah was very proactive with her local postmaster in attempting to get answers as to what was happening… and why. It seems that the large hurricane that swept north from Louisiana into New England with tornados and torrential flooding hit New Jersey hard and affected the distribution center in Jersey City just as our book was passing through. Some days later, Deborah was told by the postmaster that our book was crated in a large shipment which was being “driven across the country?” She was told that the book would most likely be delivered – eventually! It was about that time that the tracking updates became silent for an extended period.

After five or six weeks, hopes dimmed, and Deborah voluntarily refunded my purchase price; I offered that, should the book ever arrive in decent condition, I would gladly let her know and send a check back east. Hopes for a joyous scenario were dim for a long time.

As we both followed this book on its seven-week, ping=pong journey west, our communication E-mails reflected a certain dark humor vis-à-vis the situation and the disarray of media mail within the postal system. We both clearly wished to follow this whole wacky episode through to the end, and a touch of humor helped.

All’s well that ends well, and the book arrived in perfect condition – and a nice copy it is, so I was pleased, overall. It was yet another interesting adventure in bookselling and book-buying. My check to Deborah is in the mail. The United States Postal Service is clearly undergoing difficult times as has been frequently reported. I have found similar experiences to mine by Googling the internet. Something is definitely wrong at the USPS, especially regarding media mail service. The two aviation books I recently ordered from the east coast were earmarked by me for priority shipping, and they arrived in a timely manner – no problems. I will not be saving money by using media mail again anytime soon. SENDER BEWARE!

DNA: The Blueprint of Life; Watson, Crick, the Double Helix and Other Genetic Observations

Welcome, readers of my blog. This post you are viewing is number two-hundred in a long line of mini-essays which have appeared in this space since my first, titled The Lure of Science, in February of 2013. Writing about little things such as my reflections on life has provided me much pleasure and a satisfying outlet. While relishing small pleasures along the way, I remain forever intrigued with the BIG thoughts, the truly great accomplishments, and the monster minds which formulated them. I devote this special post, number two-hundred, to one of the great chapters in scientific history – discovering the double-helix nature of DNA.

Watson’s The Double Helix

The subject at hand is DNA, an acronym for the scientific term deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is literally the blueprint of life – all life on this planet. What is more mysterious than life, itself? Think of DNA molecules quite literally as the repository of nature’s software program for all forms of life, the coding of which uniquely defines each and every one of us, not only as a species, but as distinct individuals. The biological hierarchy which defines us is complex; suffice it to say that DNA is the “instruction set” for our genes, those next-level entities which determine what and who we are.

I have begun reading Walter Isaacson’s newest book release titled, The Code Breaker. The story focuses on the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in biology, Jennifer Doudna, and the story of CRISPR which is an acronym for the gene editing technology which is now quite advanced – to a large extent, because of her work. To the best of my understanding (so far), the question has rapidly become not how to do this (gene editing), but should we do this. Author Isaacson does his subjects justice in his book. I say subjects, plural, because he deftly weaves Ms. Doudna’s story within a larger tapestry which includes the crucial efforts of scientific colleagues, particularly Nobel co-winner Emmanuele Charpentier. Isaacson couples all of this with a healthy dose of what Nobel-winning scientific endeavors are all about. 

Isaacson’s The Code Breaker

The scientific stakes are huge, here. So, too, is the competitive drive necessary to be first with the qualifying research and the scientific papers that justify Nobel-level consideration. This very theme, the competition for scientific immortality, has been repeated countless times throughout the history of science. Among the most reminiscent, for me, is the account by James Watson of his famous collaboration with Francis Crick to discover the structure of the DNA molecule itself. For their revelation in 1953 of the double-helix backbone structure supporting a four base-protein coding of cross-ties, these two researchers were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize along with a third researcher, Maurice Wilkins.

James Watson’s account of DNA’s discovery appeared in his famous book, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, first published in 1968. This book, with its revelation of the scientific discovery and the frank candor of its author, reads like a suspenseful, non-fiction detective story as opposed to what could have been a dry, scientific tome. In the book, Watson describes not only the science, but the competitive endeavor in which he and Crick found themselves immersed: the struggle to be first to finally decipher the biological holy grail – the structure of the DNA molecule. Linus Pauling, world-famous chemist, and Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant, pioneering female researcher are other significant players in the competitive drama and Watson devotes considerable ink to describing them and their roles in the unfolding event.

Crick and Watson at Cambridge

Once the double-helix nature of DNA was revealed by Watson and Crick, some important questions were resolved, specifically, how DNA can replicate itself and how male/female DNA are combined to produce those recognizable features of each that typically appear in offspring. Of course, the latest gene-editing findings by Jennifer Doudna and her fellow researchers all leverage-off the nature of the DNA molecule as first described by Watson and Crick. Enough said about the importance of Watson and Crick’s findings to the state of today’s biology!

Biological Inheritance … As We Came to Understand It

Double Helix

Prior to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution as revealed in his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, little was known about the “bloody obvious” fact that offspring, to one degree or another, tend to reflect identifiable characteristics of their parents. Darwin’s certainty about the validity of “natural selection” as the core principle of evolution still left much uncertainty in his mind as to the actual mechanism of heredity – the passing along of biological traits. Notably mysterious to Darwin was the biological “mechanism” responsible for the significant changes and diversity that randomly occur within a species, thus setting the stage for natural selection to pass long-term judgement on the alternatives presented. Put another way: over the long-haul, natural selection favors genetic adaptations most favorable to survival in a given environment. 

In 1866, merely seven years after Darwin’s milestone book, an obscure Austrian monk published a little-noted paper on experiments breeding pea plants he had been performing in his spare time within his abbey’s small garden. Using three well-known variations of these plants and inter-breeding them, he meticulously tracked his results. The three variations studied were color: green or yellow plants; flower: white or violet; and seed texture: smooth or wrinkled. In Mendel’s paper, he dealt not only with dominant and recessive characteristics of these variables, but, surprisingly, determined that they manifested themselves in numerical ratios that were most revealing as to the nature of biological mechanisms at work!

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetic Science

Gregor Mendel

Mendel’s little paper was supremely important as the first documented revelation of DNA/genetics at work. He had just a few “offprints” printed (scientific terminology for the personal printing of a paper intended for presentation by its author). His findings were sent to the local chapter of naturalist bee-keepers in Brno, Austria, where it received scant attention or interest. Mendel’s work with pea-plants disappeared quickly into the shadows of history until his paper was discovered and publicized for its great significance by the famous English biologist, William Bateson, in 1902. Despite its delayed recognition after thirty-six years, Mendel’s genius nevertheless still provided sufficient impetus for the resulting cascade of discovery and knowledge which ultimately led us to Watson and Crick’s ground-breaking revelation of the DNA double-helix in 1953. And now, for better and for worse, we are close to possessing the incredible capability to understand and to actually edit our own genetic code.

Did Darwin Miss Early Access to Mendel’s Discoveries?

Historical accounts tell us of an offprint copy of his pea-plant experiments that Gregor Mendel purportedly sent to the great man, himself, Charles Darwin, shortly after Darwin’s book on evolution was published in 1859. Darwin had no knowledge of this Austrian abbey monk, Gregor Mendel – or what he was attempting, but everyone, certainly Mendel, knew about Charles Darwin after 1859. Whether fact or fanciful lore, this milestone scientific paper of Mendel’s on genetics/inheritance was supposedly sent by Mendel and sat, in offprint form, unread amid the stacks of books and papers in Darwin’s study at Downe House. There, it was purportedly discovered after Darwin’s death. Walter Isaacson mentions the incident in The Code Breakers, but I have heard that the account as told may merely be fanciful.

Mendel’s Rare Offprint for Sale: on the Internet!

With my long interest in the history of science, I am familiar with many of the great milestones of scientific discovery and their publications – their formal introduction to the scientific world and the public at large.  One of the most memorable items I have ever seen appear for sale, either at auction or via those who deal in such things, came from a renowned bookseller in London some twenty-five years ago. He was offering one of the few of Mendel’s original offprint papers in existence for a then jaw-dropping sixty-four thousand dollars. The paper was said to be in very good condition. I recall how, even back then, I sensed the rarity and deep significance of that particular item. Being an amateur historian of little means, I could only imagine what it would be like to possess such a rare, important slice of scientific history. Who knows where that particular offprint resides today: possibly in some large university library collection. Is it possible that it might have been filed away, unread, by Charles Darwin, himself? One thing I do know about that particular item: the sixty-four thousand dollar price twenty-five years ago would barely be a down-payment in today’s collecting market. The nature of such ground-breaking scientific rarities will ultimately render them priceless – which is as it should be, it seems to me. 

Were Darwin aware of Mendel’s work with pea-plants through Mendel’s paper, he would have been fascinated with the revelations. Darwin wrote often about the nature of heredity in his many books before The Origin. The concept of DNA molecules which are integral to genes and chromosomes were well beyond even Darwin’s long reach. He was convinced, however, that there were biologic hereditary entities at work which shape and define all living things. Darwin referred to them as “gemmules,” while remaining necessarily vague about their attributes and ultimate reality. Although Mendel was able to shed first-light on the “how” of heredity’s behavior, the biological nature of its agents remained to him a mystery, as was the case with Darwin.

Scientific Knowledge IS Power; Have We the Wisdom to Handle It?

Many key discoveries have occurred in the rich history of biology and cell biology. The treasure-chest of acquired knowledge is full of just what the name implies: treasure. That accumulation of knowledge concerning ourselves and the world of living things is perhaps the most significant of all testimonials to what is good and noble about us humans. In these recent pandemic months, when Covid 19 was sweeping the country, instilling fear and taking well over a half-million lives in the process, vaccines quickly appeared which worked exceedingly well in diminishing the threat of this virus. Not many years ago, effective vaccines would have taken years to develop, if at all. It is said that much of the necessary research necessary to neutralize Covid 19 had recently been done and utilized on the earlier HIV and SARS viruses and that the vaccine methodologies were literally “on the shelf” – ready to use on this class of virus. This recent and undeniable affirmation of the power of scientific knowledge is all we need to know about why we should pay heed to pure scientific research which is foundational to all technologies that prove useful to mankind.

Gene editing holds the promise of correcting (curing) some of nature’s cruelest maladies: sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Tay Sachs, for example. Huntington’s is a spectacular example of how a simple DNA/gene coding mistake can condemn an individual’s adult future. Although direct human trials of gene editing medicine are necessarily very rare at this time, the process has already been proven successful on a patient with sickle-cell anemia. Along with the promise of positive advances in medicine comes the danger of mis-using genetic editing. Consider “designer-babies,” and let your imagination run wild.

I have heard the comment that there are two major scientific advances in recent history that point to the need for the strictest supervision of their applications in order to avoid horrific consequences. The first is Albert Einstein’s purely scientific discovery in 1905 that mass and energy are one and the same. That revelation, despite Einstein’s purely scientific motivations behind it, has resulted in global arsenals of nuclear weapons whose power to destroy everything and everyone on this planet requires the utmost vigilance. The second cautionary tale involves irresponsible gene editing which poses a different set of catastrophic scenarios, but, like nuclear energy, once “the genie is out of the bottle,” it would be virtually impossible to recapture and control it. It has long been my view that every advance in science and technology comes complete with a pairing of both advantages for humanity (if wisely utilized), as well as a price to pay if not. Today’s internet and social media are good examples of vast benefits being constantly offset by potential and actual problems. In the case of gene editing, the potential for good and for bad reach the highest levels. At risk, is the potential for joining nuclear energy as a technology for which the “genie let loose from the bottle” is an apt metaphor. 

Months after the lone atomic bomb test held in 1945 at Los Alamos, code-named Trinity, and the subsequent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb’s chief architect was asked by reporters about the prospects for the international control of atomic energy. A memorable film clip which clearly reflects his deep regret, even disgust, burns itself onto the mind’s eye. His answer: “It’s too late; it should have been done the day after Trinity.”

The question remains as man probes ever deeper into nature’s secrets: will we be wise enough to use science and technology to our advantage, or will we allow technology to de-rail and destroy us?

It seems obvious that we must continue to uncover the miracles of nature, those obvious and lasting truths underpinning our human existence, not only to use them to our advantage, but to glean the wisdom and perspective contained, therein. It appears clear from what I read that the scientific community is well aware of its obligations regarding gene editing.