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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Humans have known of epidemics throughout recorded history. 

Biblical “visitations” as they were called, include locusts, infectious diseases, fire and brimstone, and other calamities, the worst of which was the Noachian Flood that wiped out most of life that could not survive in the air, in the water, or on Noah’s ark. That is a religious, not secular event.

 Secular plagues go back to Roman, Greek, and Egyptian civilizations. These could have been typhus, cholera, and bubonic plagues. The most disastrous in more recent memory was the bubonic plague of the 1350s which killed one third of the population. 

Our present worry is the coronavirus pandemic. As I write this, it is in its still early stage, with only a few countries imposing a nationwide quarantine and testing program to check its spread. From the early statistics it does not seem to kill more than 3 percent of those infected. That too is skewed by the heavier mortality among the aged population (those over 65) where it is as high as 10 percent of those infected. 

I am 88 so I am aware of my vulnerability and follow the directives about travel, meetings, handwashing and being careful but not obsessed (I have not hoarded food or antiseptics). I am confident this will pass without killing a substantial portion of humanity. 

One reason it is hard to do a Noah-like massacre of all life on land is the nature of our immune systems. It is hard to design or conceive of a protein surface of a virus or bacterium that can penetrate any cell of any organism. In order to enter, a microbe must have a surface protein capable of attachment to the host cell. It must have one or more proteins capable of digesting that surface. It must have one or more capacities, once entering its DNA or RNA, to replicate and produce more of its kind than any effort by the cell or the infected organism to attack it. 

We know this has never happened in the past three billion years of life because we are alive. There is a constant, back and forth, relation of mutations that increase virulence or hosts and new mutations that prevent microbes from entering or surviving in a penetrated cell. The odds are also in our favor because humans can develop vaccines to immunize against infections.  

What this pandemic reminds us, however, is that our governments need to anticipate such events (usually once or twice a century) with public health programs and effective limits of public gathering and isolating those infected.  

At its early stages the temptation is to deny that an epidemic is starting or will be widespread. No one wants commerce to be disrupted by fears that empty our stores and diminish spending. For this reason, people who have spent their careers in public health are more trustworthy than politicians who are guided by wishful thinking that this is just a false alarm.  

Whenever I read of health workers dying from contact with individuals who sicken and die, the biologist in me says listen to the experts in public health, not those who are guided by their political ideologies and instincts.  

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

We sometimes say “you can’t see the forest for the trees” to describe our frustration that details sometimes obscure the big pictures in our lives. Those bigger pictures are often what matters most to us − our family, our career, our sense of self-worth, or the meaning we hope to find in life.

It also has a deep philosophic or religious significance to people. We talk about ultimate meaning, purpose or connectedness to the universe as ways to express this feeling. I experience it in my life as a scientist. I am a reductionist and by that I mean I use reason and the tools of science to explore all aspects of the material universe. What is that universe? It is the world of atoms, molecules, macromolecules, membranes, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organism, populations and ecosystems that constitute the hierarchies of life from its smallest to its largest aspects. 

You can’t have a forest without a lot of trees. How much is a “lot”? Two trees? 100 trees? 1,000 trees? There is no definition of how many trees make a forest. Language can be imprecise by the standards used by science. A foot is 12 inches. A mile is 5,280 feet, but a forest is not X trees where X is a fixed number. 

This does not mean the term “forest” is meaningless. We know a forest when we see many trees even if we don’t have a precise number to offer. I cannot tell you the exact number of cells in my present adult body, but I know roughly what it can’t exceed (it is trillions, not quadrillions; trillions, not billions). When my brother Roland first visited our home on Mud Road in Setauket, he looked in the back lot and said “Elof, the children are entering the forest!” There were about 40 trees in our one-third acre lot adjoining Gelinas Junior High School. 

There are two approaches to studying life. We can study components and the field of anatomy would be a familiar and acceptable model of how science classifies the parts of the organisms studied. The second approach is through function and the field of physiology tries to relate structures to their functions. They are often multiple. 

A hand holds, touches, feels; it grips, hits, shakes, picks, wipes, waves, counts, points, caresses, prays or even thumbs a ride. A middle finger hand gives an insult. Reductionism in science is the attempt to reduce the complex to the simple by isolating the components of more complex things and after isolating the components and learning of their functions, it reconstitutes the pieces and hopes to restore the functions. It can be done with viruses. It can be done partially with bacterial and eukaryotic cells. One can take the cell membrane of one amoeba, the nucleus of a second and the “cytoplasmic goop” of a third and reconstitute a live amoeba capable of reproducing from the three components. 

There is a second way of looking at life called holism. It regards complexity in living cells as irreducible by reductionism. There is something inherent in that structure that cannot be duplicated by reductionist tools and efforts. In the nineteenth century names like enteleche, elan vital, vitalism, were among the terms used for this holistic interpretation of life. 

It was hard to take away from God the power of creation. Many scientific holists do not invoke religion as the basis for their belief in a complexity that defies reductionism. They feel that the shades of distinction in living systems are either infinite or so vast that no human effort will synthesize a human zygote from which a child will be born. They also feel that whether that complexity eventually yields to reductionism, the world’s problems are so numerous and complex, that we cannot use reductionism alone as our means of interpreting how we live or who we are. They are more like phenomenologists in the field of philosophy who see endless shades of meaning in even the simplest events like describing the color of objects we see. 

My response to this conflict is at least satisfying to my worldview − I see both trees and the forest, reductionism and holism, as essential for navigating the universe in which I live. I can ascend or descend the scale of magnitude of the universe from atoms to galaxies. My one exclusion in the material universe is the supernatural. 

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

Most people are probably unaware that their cells contain ribosomes. They probably know each of their cells has a nucleus and within that nucleus are chromosomes and that the chromosomes contain their genes. 

But most people do not know what other organelles in their cells are present and what they do. One of them is the ribosome. When you look at an electron micrograph of a cell, you see the cytoplasm (the goop between the cell membrane and the nucleus) has many membranous folded sheets called the endoplasmic reticulum on which are thousands of tiny dots. Those dots are the ribosomes. 

In the 1950s, after DNA was shown to be the hereditary material and present in the chromosomes of cells, some biologists began exploring how the structure of DNA is treated to the functions carried out by genes. One of these was how information (the genetic code) was carried by the genes and how that became the traits we see of the organism. 

One theory quickly proven was that DNA made another copy with a slightly different chemical composition, called RNA. In fact, there were three types of RNA − a copy of the gene sequence called messenger RNA, a groups of small RNA molecules that carried one of the 20 different amino acids that compose protein molecules, and an RNA that is present in a molecular machine called the ribosome. 

The ribosome takes the messenger RNA coming from the genes, enters the ribosome and begins plugging amino acids whose tips contain a three-letter sequence corresponding to one of the 20 different amino acids. 

The ribosome is a complex molecule, much bigger than hemoglobin in our cells, and carries out the protein synthesis for the cell, each messenger RNA producing a specific type of protein from a specific gene. 

All that mouthful of scientific events you can translate into this thought. When I eat my three meals a day, how does so much of it become me? Well, one thing to thank is your ribosomes. They take the digested bits of proteins from your foods and convert them into the proteins (enzymes, structural components of your cell organelles, and switches used to turn genes on an off or make fertilized eggs into embryos, fetuses, babies and ultimately you). 

I read an interesting memoir by a Nobel molecular biologist (who started his career as a physicist) who worked on the structure of the ribosome. It has a large and a small protein mass. It also has several ribosomal RNA regions that allow the messenger RNA to enter, the transfer RNAs to deposit their individual amino acids, and the ribosomal RNA to move them along and grow the protein chain. It took about 40 years to work out the details of this molecular machine. 

For science buffs, I recommend reading Venki Ramakrishnan’s 2018 book “Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secret of the Ribosome.” It is a wonderful memoir about the many blind alleys, goofs, luck, hard work, competition and numerous tools used by scientists to bring about the solution to a complex system invisible to the naked eye and it requires the disciplines of physic, chemistry and biology to solve it. 

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

Most of us would say that our sense of self exists in our head, more specifically in our brain, and for those with some memory of high school or college biology, in the frontal lobes of our cerebral hemispheres of the brain where memory, language and sense perceptions are stored and coordinated. 

That is a 20th-century view of where we are. 

If you asked that question earlier, you would get a variety of answers in, let us say, ancient Rome, the golden age of Greece, the Middle East at the time of the rise of Christianity or even before there were written histories. 

Vestiges of these beliefs exist in our language. We say we have “gut feelings” about issues that are central to our beliefs. We say we give heartfelt thanks for things that touch us deeply or spiritually. 

Our ancestors a millennium or so ago also believed that our brains cooled the blood and terms like “hot-headed” or “cold-blooded” reflected the differences in brain heated or chilled states. These phrases reflect the belief that our soul or being was in our intestines or in our heart. How did we shift our self from the gut or the heart to the brain? 

The heart was known to beat, and it responded to emotions by racing and thumping. Galen in ancient Rome believed the blood entered the right ventricle and passed through invisible pores into the left ventricle where it was “vitalized.”

Servetus in the 1550s believed blood entered the right ventricle and then passed into the lungs from the pulmonary artery and returned aerated, into the left ventricle. Thus, he identified the role of the lungs as air exchange and established there was a pulmonary circulation.

William Harvey in 1628 did experimental work to prove that the circulatory system was more complex. He showed veins had valves and arteries did not. He argued (and demonstrated) that the heart is a pump and the blood from the body enters the right atrial chamber, goes into the lungs through the pulmonary artery, exchanges air in the lungs through microscopic vessels (later seen and called capillaries) and returns to the left atrial chamber, goes into the left ventricle, and then gets pumped through the aorta to the rest of the body. 

What neither Servetus nor Harvey knew was that they were scooped by Ibn al Nafis (1213-1288) who was born in Damascus and died in Cairo. He was a celebrated Arab physician and rejected Galen’s views of the role of the heart and claimed there was a pulmonary circulation that went into the right chambers and entered the lungs and returned to the left chambers with refreshed blood. 

The history of science is a wonderful field because it teaches us that knowledge is gained piecemeal and often each generation has an incomplete understanding of the most important parts of who we are and how we work and what composes our body and our understanding of the universe. 

We tend to drop out of memory the predecessors whose partial insights were a mixture of valid insights and false interpretations. We make do with what we know and guess at what we think is complex and reduce it to our understanding, and later generations fix our errors and drop out conclusions. 

I like to think of this analysis with “heartfelt” thanks for the pleasure it gives to have this insight. I also feel, “deep in my gut,” that reason, and not my bowels, is the basis of my success as a scientist in my career. That reason I associate with my brain and the neurons whose connections and synaptic associations (most still to be worked out by future generations of scientists) which allow my “cool-headed” capacity to think and to suppress my “hot-headed” or fevered brain saturated with emotion to be subdued. 

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

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.

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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.