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The elderly were exempt from fasting on holidays in Iceland in 1200 CE. Painting by Johan Peter Raadsig

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

We start our journey as a zygote, or fertilized egg, and become an embryo and fetus forming organ systems. We then become infants and children, then adolescents, and finally achieve adulthood and a heap of rights and activities as we raise families and enter our careers.  

We become old, mature, age and become senescent in a dependent way requiring assisted living and then die. Biologists call this a life cycle. It is true of all multicellular life. Each stage of the life cycle has its vulnerabilities and its diverse activities. I am now 88 years old and Nedra and I will be shifting to the senescent age of our life cycles as we enter assisted living in a retirement community that is affiliated with Indiana University.  

As a historian of science and a biologist, I am interested in how things originate. Humans have cared for the elderly at least as long ago as 500,000 BCE when fossil human remains revealed it was that of a cared for person we would classify as senescent. Canes have been retrieved from burials of Egyptian mummies some 30,000 years ago. The oldest dentures date back to 700 BCE. 

Multigenerational households were constructed in Rome in 100 BCE. In the Christian era, in Iceland in 1200 CE persons over 70 were exempt from fasting on holidays. The Catholic Church cared for the elderly in Europe until the Protestant revolution, when the burden shifted to the government, and it introduced poor laws and the creation of almshouses, poor houses and poor farms. These were often poorly supported and dismal in their environment with the psychotic residents often chained or placed in strait jackets and the elderly were neglected because funding from taxes was minimal.  

Poor houses were established in the Colonies shortly after the Pilgrims arrived. The first home for the aged in the U.S. was in 1823 in Boston. It was Dorothea Dix whose social work led to the separation of the paupers, “lunatics” and the aged from such poor houses and poor farms. 

The germ theory was introduced in the 1870s and 1880s and the number of people surviving to old age increased dramatically, but it was not until 1935 that the U.S. and President Franklin Roosevelt introduced Social Security as a separate tax-gathering organization, allowing unemployed people in their old age to live in their own homes. It was not until 1965 when President Lydon Johnson’s Great Society created Medicare and Medicaid that the aged could shift from boarding houses and nursing homes to communities of assisted living.  

Today there are 32,000 assisted living communities in the U.S. With humans living longer because of medical advances and these social measures, the population of those in their 60s or older will increase dramatically in the 21st century, and we will see far more assisted living communities that incorporate the hospitality of resorts with the medical care needs of the aged and the opportunities for music, lecture, exercise and a variety of eating choices for those who live in these facilities.  

It will also lead to higher taxes and debates on how society should respond to these needs when the opportunities for acquiring private wealth are limited for most of our citizens whose incomes provide little surplus funds for investment in their future retirement. 

It is our biology, not our ideology, that dictates our needs. It is our ideology or politics that dictates how we accommodate those needs.  

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

When I gaze at the night sky and look for landmarks like Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper, I recall my delight as a child reading a picture book on Donald Duck and there he was, on the last page, as a constellation in the sky. 

It taught me that constellations are assigned arbitrary names – is that a big bear (Ursa Major) or is that a big dipper? The stars composing the constellation may differ in age, size, location and chemical composition. It is only their position with respect to our sun that makes them a constellation.

I think of political platforms in the same way. As an old man of 88 years, I remember political campaigns since the 1940s, and in 1940 I saw Roosevelt being driven in an open car in Midtown Manhattan, campaigning for a third term. In those days Republicans took pride in less government interference and, in addition to less taxes and less regulation of business, they favored less interference in our private lives.

They were opposed to bans on family planning and the contraceptives chosen for birth control. In those days the religious right was not sought by either party, and the religious right was still recovering form the pro-fascist sympathies of the KKK, the crushing defeat of Bryan in the Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee, on the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the America First movement whose attacks on Roosevelt were slanderous and did not cease until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

In those post-WWII days, it was the Democrats who were saddled with states’ rights, Jim Crow laws and the religious right. It was in 1948 that the Democrats split into the Dixiecrats and the liberal Democrats.

The Dixiecrats tried forming their own party and failed. It was Nixon and Reagan who accepted the “Southern strategy” to give the Dixiecrats a new home in the Republican Party, and we have continued to see the trend, each party tilting left or right as voting opportunities, demographic change and political opportunism create new constellations of values or platforms for each party.

We live in an inconsistent world with neither extremism nor inconsistency a desired product of our political parties, but nevertheless becoming a reality. While we may be limited in how we shape the political climate, it does help to know that politics lacks the rigor or testing methods of science. We need to keep a healthy skepticism when endorsing the platforms of the party appealing to our political prejudices and ideals.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Wishful thinking is part of our lives. As a guide to our hopes, it often is realized and that might mean a happy marriage, a successful occupation and a healthy mind and body.  

But reality often thwarts these ideals and desires. This may be through our faults as well as by bad luck. Scientists hope for success when exploring the unknown, but they are taught not to trust wishful thinking.

In my fields of genetics and biology I have witnessed wishful thinking when science is applied to practical ends. The tobacco industry used wishful thinking for over 50 years, denying that tobacco smoke caused cancers, emphysema and heart disease. They blamed instead an unhealthy lifestyle, an unhealthy work environment or stress itself.  

Similarly, nuclear reactor companies used wishful thinking (and still do) to minimize or deny hazards of radiation except at very high doses of exposure. Most geneticists use a linear relation of dose received to gene mutations produced. They have based this on dozens of peer-reviewed publications. Wishful thinking by those who deny harm to a population from low doses of radiation include a belief that at worst small doses of radiation lead to resistance of radiation or that small doses of radiation are negated by strengthening the immune system to repair any damage done to the DNA.  

In our generation wishful thinking has appeared in discussions of severe and more numerous instances of climate change. Here, opponents of ecological response by international treaty argue that such changes are just normal responses to Earth’s cycles of warming and cooling leading to ice ages or long arid climate or that unpredictable ocean currents might shift and bring about these changing weather patterns.  

Critics of government regulations downplay the discharge of waste into rivers, lakes and oceans, and they use wishful thinking in their arguments, claiming “nature repairs itself” whether it is chopped down forests, over farmed land, open pit mining, fracking for natural gas or lands saturated with pesticides and herbicides. They call scientists raising alarm “tree huggers.”  

It would be a wonderful world if everything we did had no harmful long-lasting unintended consequences of what we do. Wishful thinking saves money and effort to prevent toxic products from entering the environment. It allows abusers to create erosion from bad practices clearing land for agriculture. It allows the discharging of massive quantities of carbon dioxide, believing a dwindling ecosystem will sop up the atmospheric carbon dioxide, producing luxuriant plant growth with massive emissions of oxygen. 

What scientists know is that environments are more complex, and we can disturb it with bad consequences for both local and global environments. The needs of 7 billion people can create substantial changes to Earth and we (thanks to wishful thinking) tend to be unaware or choose to deny such bad outcomes.   

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

When I first read a biography of Darwin as a teenager, I was attracted to his reputation of having “an enlarged curiosity.” It also described my own personality.  

I never got museum fatigue going through New York’s museums. They were free during the 1940s and my brother and I would enjoy many trips with our mother during the summer to visit them. 

It was fun to study paintings to see how artists differed in the way they drew facial features. It was fun to go through the fossils of dinosaurs and see how much their skeletons resembled those of birds. 

I could imagine being an unseen witness to the huge teeth and claws of meat-eating dinosaurs. I loved looking at gems in the mineral display gallery. I learned about New York City history by looking at the dioramas on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History.

Curiosity is natural to children and they delight in discovering new facts. That curiosity is often stifled by parents who tire of an overload of questions. When a child becomes curious and discovers items parents do not want their children to know about, they often are told that “curiosity may kill a cat.”  

I often satisfied my curiosity at home reading in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which my father bought on installment just before I was born. He argued that I could sleep in an open suitcase on the kitchen table and buying the encyclopedia was more important than the type of bedding an infant slept in. I bless him for that foresight.  

Random reading on rainy days in the encyclopedia filled me with facts about the universe. I read about the art of bonsai or miniaturized trees in Japanese gardens. I read about Egyptian mummies and learned under the topic Bubastis, that there was a city devoted to cats and their burial in ancient Egypt. The isolated facts over the years became a treasure trove of information. 

Curiosity is essential for science. It motivates adolescents and young adults to find careers in science and fields of scholarship. In antiquity, scholars like Aristotle or Pliny (both uncle and nephew) sought to amass all known knowledge and their works are a major source of what we know about Greek and Roman civilizations.  

William Bateson, who coined the term “genetics” in 1906 for my field, said, “Treasure your exceptions” because from them new fields may arise. How true that was for me when I found an unusual fly in an exercise in one of H. J. Muller’s classes as a graduate student. That unusual fly turned out to be a rare instance of two pieces of a gene being united in a new way. It led to my doctoral dissertation study.  

Today many scholarly tasks are done by computers. Wikipedia is now an essential starting tool to explore a topic and obtain several scholarly references to extend a search for knowledge. While the tools for scholars may change, the curiosity fueling scholarship cuts across all disciplines.

 Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Tiny nematodes like this one were found to be unexpectedly hardy, reviving after thousands of years frozen in Arctic ice. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Back in 1968 I gave a futuristic public lecture at UCLA in which I predicted that the mummified tissue of long dead people could be used to reconstruct their genotypes and, if the chemical tools became available, this could lead to what I called “necrogenetic twinning.”

That got on the wire services and I got clippings with headlines like “King Tut may become a papa.” I also got letters from the public including one irate lady who said, “If you were my son, I’d beat you with a broomstick.” Well there is a field of paleogenetics today, and it is being used to work out the genomes of Neanderthal ancestors and may some day be used to bring back old favorites like passenger pigeons and dodos.

But there is a more immediate source of bringing back a few of the presumed long dead that are present in permafrost. The term was coined in 1943 in a report carried out by the U.S. Army. It is an acronym for permanently frozen soil. That is not ice in waterlogged soil. When permafrost is subject to warm temperatures, it thaws. It does not melt. But from that thawed material the organic matter can be isolated and dated by carbon-14 techniques to get the age. 

Recently, Russian scientists studying thawed permafrost discovered samples (one 32,000 years old and the other 42,000 years old) that produced live nematodes that had been frozen for a very long sleep. They began moving a few weeks after removal and eating bacteria and protozoa on a petri dish. These are roundworms related to vinegar eels as they are called, which can be seen in organic vinegars served in restaurants. Hold such a cruet of vinegar to the light and you will see what look like tiny flakes jittering about in the vinegar.

It is not just cold temperature that can preserve life for centuries. Date palm seeds that are more than a thousand years old have been planted and produced fruit bearing dates. The record of the deepest sleep, however, goes to bacterial spores isolated from salt crystals in rock that was present 250 million years ago. They hatched from their protected state and formed bacterial colonies.

I would not be surprised to find future core samples from ocean cores taken in rock that may be as old as the first life-forms on Earth (viruslike) whose sequences might reveal the first genotypes capable of sustaining life in the organic soup thought to be present when the lifeless Earth was formed. That is a speculation that appeals to the imagination. But we humans can also imagine other possibilities that are less charming than alarming.

What if these early life-forms, whether from permafrost or ocean dredgings, contain pathogens that find humans a suitable host? Ancient viruses would not be treatable by antibiotics, and vaccines might be needed to check their spread. Ancient bacteria might be contained by present-day antibiotics, but some might not.

But is that not true of humans who have explored Earth? Many have come down with diseases they did not know existed in the ruins of ancient civilizations. When Darwin was in the Amazon, he contracted Chagas disease, which made him sickly in his later life. My father was in the Merchant Marine in his youth and came down with malaria and had summer chills when the sporozoans decided to celebrate.

That is why my wife Nedra and I had to get several vaccinations when we traveled on Semester at Sea. When we approached equatorial countries, we had to take anti-malarial medication to prevent coming down with a life-threatening malaria infection. Life is full of risks and not all are predictable, but using knowledge often thwarts unknown threats we may encounter.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Johannes Gutenberg, depicted on the right, was the inventor of printing. File photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Knowledge can be conveyed by oral tradition or by written language. 

The earliest writings were on mud tablets (cuneiform tablets in Sumerian culture) or paper (papyrus sheets in Egypt in the ages of the pharaohs). Paper replaced mud or wooden tablets during the Middle Ages and some monasteries made copying texts (mostly religious commentaries and bibles) a major activity for monks. 

Most of humanity was illiterate until the 15th century. What changed? One of the greatest inventions was movable type, which allowed words to be arranged from metal letters. They could be aligned into sentences and pages and then placed in a wooden press and smeared with an oil-based ink. 

The inventor of this technology was Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468). He raised the money from Johann Fust. Gutenberg’s son-in-law marketed the books Gutenberg printed (the Bible being his first large-scale project). 

Printed books became affordable to the new middle class emerging in Renaissance Europe.  They also became more diverse and translations (into Latin) of Greek texts were in heavy demand. The first biology text printed in 1476 was “De Animalibus” by Aristotle (translated from the Greek to Latin because Latin was the universal language of scholars throughout Europe until the 19th century). 

The first book in a different language was a German book in 1461. The first book in English was in 1475. Euclid’s “Elements of Geometry” was printed in 1482. The first book printed in North America, “The Bay Psalm Book,” was printed in 1640.

The problem with an oral tradition is its vulnerability to change with time and a high risk of losing lots of information. Written language can survive if preserved copies are kept in libraries, monasteries or royal households. The explosion of knowledge that came during the Renaissance owed much of its success to printing. 

Books were translated into Latin (and during the later Enlightenment into vernacular German, Italian, English and other languages). They could also be written to reflect new knowledge and commentary on any topic. 

Before printing, it took a monk about a year to copy a book using pen, ink and paper. Gutenberg’s press could produce 240 sheets of pages per day. It was not until the 1820s that steam-driven presses became available to scale up the production of books and newspapers. It also required the introduction of paper mills to mass produce paper from discarded clothing or from wood pulp. 

When Martin Luther led his Reformation movement and separated his followers from the authority of the Vatican, he ordered placing the Bible as the prime authority for religious instruction. He shifted it to German so it could be read by all Lutherans. This shifted printing from limited printings of scholarly or commercial technical books to mass production of texts where education was compulsory for all children and for mass production of Bibles so every household would have a Bible. 

As in many instances of new technology, these changes could not be anticipated when Gutenberg first introduced his printing press.  Once made available, more books appeared.  More books led to more readership. More readership led to the spread of diverse views of life and society. Once more diversity entered so did a ferment of ideas on how we should live, what we should revere, and what careers would emerge as new knowledge spread. 

For the scholar it led to the university and to higher degrees certifying an exposure to knowledge in dozens of fields old and new. 

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

My mentor, Nobel laureate Hermann Joseph Muller, described science to his graduate students as “the winning of the facts.” Three implications exist in that interpretation. 

First, it is not easy to do science. It takes skills at using instruments to obtain facts, design experiments or infer connections among isolated facts. Second, the scientist may be in competition with alternate ways to interpret the same data. The scientist may have biases that were not controlled adequately in the experimental design, or the scientist may be a victim of wishful thinking. Third, science has implications for our lives that may be received with resistance or disbelief by those who prefer their advantages for the world as they are presently enjoying it.

A good example is the effort it took Muller to work out some findings about the gene. When he joined Thomas H. Morgan’s laboratory in 1912, the gene was just an abstract idea. Its chemistry was unknown. Morgan had just found that there were genes associated with sex and that genes were associated with chromosomes in the cell. 

In 1913 Morgan’s student Alfred H. Sturtevant showed those genes could be mapped. In 1915 Morgan’s student Calvin B. Bridges showed cell division could be imperfect and an extra or missing chromosome may be present in a fertilized egg. Go fast forward about 50 years and in humans that explained why some children have Down syndrome (with three instead of two chromosomes for number 21 of 23 pairs of chromosomes). 

Muller took 15 more years after joining Morgan’s laboratory before he worked out genetic stocks to do an experiment that showed X-rays induce mutations. That did not make many people in the health industries happy because most of the mutations induced by X-rays had harmful effects (loss of function). 

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Muller’s findings interpreted cell death from broken chromosomes by high doses of radiation created radiation sickness in tens of thousands of people who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when our atomic bombs exploded. During the Cold War, many legislators felt that concern over radiation exposure was a Communist plot to delay development of nuclear weapons and the need to test them in the atmosphere, at sea or on land. Muller tried to strike a balance between political fears and the need for radiation protection. 

The debate over consequences of low doses versus high doses of radiation exposure is still ongoing. The values of military needs for new or renewed weapons dominate concerns over low dose exposure. Those in the nuclear reactor industries feel the permissible doses add expenses that are not necessary because they feel no mutations are produced at low doses. 

The overwhelming number of experiments done to test radiation exposure is that it is proportional to dose or linear for thousands of roentgens to fractions of a roentgen. The experiments are difficult to do with low doses in mice or fruit flies. Fortunately, most dentists give a lead apron to patients before doing X-rays, and newer X-ray machines give a much lower dose to get even sharper images with better X-ray machines. Fortunately, most health providers protect themselves and their staff from exposure to X-rays and do not have to be in the same room with the patient. 

Basic science provides knowledge we may not want to know. But it also provides knowledge we can use to protect ourselves. It is not usually the scientists who make these findings who prevail in how science is received or used by the public. The winning of the facts is often a struggle that may be ongoing for years or decades before consensus occurs.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Felix Hoppe-Seyler

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I enjoy doing history of science because I learn so much when delving into the past. If I am reading about cell theory and the types of tissues there are, I remember the course in microscopic techniques I took as an undergraduate at NYU.

I did not know then that the microtome to cut slices of tissue for making slides was first introduced by Johannes Purkinje. I did not know that growing bacteria on agar plates or slants in test tubes to obtain pure cultures was first done by Robert Koch. I did not know that the word “mutation,” as a change in heredity, was first introduced by Hugo de Vries. Similarly, I did not know that Bernhard Tollens first showed carbohydrates were composed of sugars.

It was William Cheselden who first demonstrated that the role of saliva was to break down food for digestion. I did not know the chemical notation for representing molecules, like CO2 being carbon dioxide was invented by Jöns Berzelius. I did not know the first person to show that oxygen binds to hemoglobin was Felix Hoppe-Seyler. But I did know that Albrecht Kossel was the first to isolate and name the nitrogenous biases of nucleic acid and he called them adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine and uracil. 

I did not know ringworm was shown to be a fungal parasite by Johann Schönlein. He also changed the name “consumption” to “tuberculosis” and made a third contribution: He was the first science professor to teach in his native tongue, German, instead of Latin to his students. It was Rudolf Leuckart who worked out the nematode parasite causing trichinosis in pork, and his work led to compulsory meat inspection in most industrial countries. The first phylogenetic tree for evolutionary history of plants or animals was constructed by Ernst Haeckel (that I did know).

Even the nouns I use as a scientist have known origins: Tissue was first introduced by Marie François Xavier Bichat at the time of the French Revolution (his 20 different tissues became the four basic tissues I learned as an undergraduate).

The cell theory was first promoted by Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann in 1838. It was changed to a cell doctrine (all cells arise from preceding cells) by Robert Remak and Rudolf Virchow. Most of the names I have mentioned lived in the 1700s and 1800s. We remember the names of 20th century scientists partly because they are published in textbooks. But if one studies a field and looks at old textbooks of about 100 years ago or more, lots of terms used in those past generations have disappeared. Also, the names of then recent scientists are abundant.

It is a curious honor to be a discoverer of something important and then 100 years after your death your role in it is no longer present in texts or scientific articles. Who remembers that Karl Gegenbaur first introduced the idea of homology into comparative anatomy (your hands, a bat’s wings and a horse’s forefeet are homologous because they have an embryonic common formation from an initial limb bud)?   

Scientists do science because they enjoy the opportunity to make discoveries. Very few will be remembered for centuries like Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All who have published will be dug up centuries from now by historians curious about the origins of ideas and processes of our own generation.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Science is a way of knowing based on reason. That aspect of science would also apply to logic or the creation of mathematical fields. But when science is applied to the material world, reason is not sufficient. Modern science includes the use of data from observations and from the use of tools to produce data. A third aspect of science is characteristic of modern science. It is the design of experiments that predict what type of data will be found. 

Science differs from revelation, tradition, authority or religious belief because these nonscientific ways that culture forms often require faith or do not attempt to apply science to their beliefs. This difference in interpreting the world around us allowed scientists to be skeptical, to require evidence and to apply more testing and tools to expand the applications of science to the universe and to life.  

This resulted in many new fields of science. Astronomers purged themselves of astrology. Chemists purged themselves of alchemy. Medicine purged itself of quackery. All sciences rejected magic (except as entertainment) and wishful thinking. 

Modern science arose in Italy in the 1500s.  We attribute to Galileo the origins of modern physics and astronomy. He worked out physical laws for falling bodies or bodies rolling down inclined planes. He introduced the mathematical equations to describe and to predict the time required and the distances involved in projectiles dropped, thrown or shot from cannons. He used the telescope he constructed to detect moons around Jupiter, phases of Venus, Saturn’s rings (they looked like ears to him) and mountains and craters on the moon. 

Modern science arose in Italy because the first universities arose in Italy (the University of Bologna was the first in 1088). The Renaissance began in Italy with increased members of the middle class, formation of large cities, importing of knowledge from trade with Asia and Africa and an accumulation of wealth that was spent on architecture, the arts, hobbies, scholarship and curiosity for those with leisure time. 

Artists like Albrecht Dürer went from Bavaria to Italy to study anatomy. William Harvey went from England to study medicine in Italy (Galileo was on the faculty when Harvey was a student) and brought back experimentation to the human body and the circulation of blood.  

German universities benefited from sending students to Italy. In turn the Italian-trained German professors brought their skills to France. During the Enlightenment, French science flourished with Lavoisier in chemistry and Cuvier in biology. From France, science moved to the United States and the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, Daniel Coit Gilman, went to Europe and designed the American University model for its doctorate. 

For the life sciences he recruited a student of Thomas Huxley’s, H. Newell Martin, and W. K. Brooks, one of the first American students of Louis Agassiz (famed for demonstrating and naming the Ice Age that covered large parts of Europe and North America). Martin and Brooks mentored T. H. Morgan. Morgan, at Columbia University, mentored H. J. Muller; and Muller, at Indiana University, mentored me. 

While where a student goes for a doctorate may vary with time, over the past 500 years, the three features of science – reason, data collection and experimentation have not changed. Instead, they have provided enormous applications to our lives from computers to public health, to air flight, to transcontinental roads and railways. They have extended our life expectancy by more than 50 years since the Renaissance began. They allowed humans to walk on the moon and determine how many children to have and when to have them; and they allow us to eat fresh fruits and vegetables all year round. 

Science has its limitations. It cannot design ideal governments, what values to live by, what purpose we choose for motivating us or supply the yearnings of wishful thinking (we will never be rid of all accidents, all diseases, or live forever). It co-exists with the humanities and the arts in filling out each generation’s expectations.   

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Penguins are among the few animals that live in the South Pole. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Life abounds from pole to pole and from the bottom of oceans to the peaks of Asian mountain tops. It does this by using the air, water and land to sustain life.

For most of the time on Earth life was confined to single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria. They take in water across a cell membrane. Most do not use oxygen from the air. Those that do came later, when some bacteria developed tools to use sunlight to combine carbon dioxide in the air with water to produce food (carbohydrates) and more abundant energy for the cell. They released oxygen and the atmosphere began to accumulate oxygen. 

Most forms of multicellular life use oxygen from the air to provide the energy to sustain their cellular life. Multicellularity permitted specialization of cells to form tissues, and the tissues then permitted organs to specialize in exchanging carbon dioxide (a waste product for animals) for oxygen.

The branching of limbs on trees is efficient to increase surfaced area for gaseous exchanges. So too are the branching of filaments in the gills of fish or the trachea of insects or the branching of the bronchi in our lungs.

When I see a tree, I see those organ systems reaching skyward with terminal leaves and an equally branched underground of roots, which are bringing in water and minerals from the land into which they are penetrated. The artist sees the beauty of the landscape. The mystic feels the awe of the complexity that seems beyond human comprehension. The scientist explores the structures and assigns functions as they emerge through the tools of science and experimentation.

It is as thrilling to me to see the cellular network of living tissues or organs under a microscope as it is to watch the changing scenery of life when driving from Indiana to New York, or taking walks in Amsterdam, Capetown, Samara, the Seychelles, the nature preserves in Kenya or the beaches of Baja Mexico.

I think of life through time as a fractal drawing with many repetitions creating new patterns. All of life requires a few basic activities. Life requires molecules to form membranes. It requires carbon-based compounds to produce the organelles that compose a cell.  All life (except viruses) is cellular. Life requires molecules that can store information to provide the molecules of life — proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids.

I think of the tools of the artist — a palette, brushes, tubes of oil paint, a canvas stretched on a frame, an easel to hold it. The artist can meticulously render a face, a still life or a landscape with the skills of many hundreds of hours of practice. 

Life also uses cellular tools to construct more complex membranes, organelles, chromosomes and vesicles to a symphony of functioning parts. Science enriches our understanding, opens new worlds of the very small and the very large that we do not normally see.  At most, a galaxy other than our own Milky Way is a mere dot in the sky, but close up it has 100 billion stars in it, most of them like our own sun. Our universe has billions of galaxies. 

As I type a page for an article or book, I am aware that I am coordinating the 37 trillion cells composing me. Human life mimics the universe in its immensity as our Earth now contains some 7 billion people. But this is humbled by the immensity of the astronomer’s universe or the biologist’s inventory of our own cells.    

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.