Authors Posts by Elof Carlson

Elof Carlson


Pixabay photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

In 1997 I sent Leah Dunaief several essays that I called Life Lines and I asked her if she thought these might be of interest to the readers of her new newspaper, the Village Times.  

About a month later she replied and said she retrieved my packet from her pile of correspondence and liked my essays and thus began a 25 year association and more than 400 columns of Life Lines as her newspaper chain grew in number across the North Shore of Long Island.  

My aim was to inform my readers of the importance of science in our lives. I am a professor, now retired, who taught in Canada (Queen’s University), UCLA, and Stony Brook University as well as holding visiting professorships over the years in San Diego State University, the University of Utah, the University of Minnesota, and Tugaloo College  in Mississippi.

I have also taught twice on Semester at Sea a floating campus that sales eastward or westward around the world for a semester with 500 students. I have taught also in programs for a federal program to raise science literacy in former USSR republics, including Samara —  on the Volga River, and Tbilisi in former Soviet Georgia. I have mentored 6 students through their PhDs in my laboratories and have published 15 books on genetics, the history of genetics, the eugenics controversy, and science and society conflicts. I love to teach and have taught thousands of students at UCLA and Stony Brook University in a course titled Biology 101-102 Biology – A Humanities Approach.

I argued that a knowledge of science and its history and its application to society is important in showing how science has greatly reduced infant mortality, greatly increased life expectancy, eliminated most communicable disease, and restored health to millions of people through its applications to our food industries, pharmaceutical industries, and public health programs.  

It gives us greater control over our lives and allows a person like me to live more than 90 years. I will be celebrating my 91st birthday in July and I am grateful that I have lived an examined life, avoided alcohol and other harmful agents in my life and have insights into how life works that are worth sharing.  

I read widely, love the arts and humanities, consider science to be part of the liberal arts education we should extend past K-12 to college level programs that make us informed citizens in a democracy and parents able to make informed decisions about their children’s well-being rather than relying on political ideologies or religious traditions first introduced two or three thousand years ago as guides for how to protect ourselves and our families.  

Science allowed me to understand how life works. I can follow it from atoms to molecules, macromolecules, cell organelles, cells, tissues, and organs. From there I can extend it to the population, the diversity of life on earth, and the importance of human stewardship of that life by informed ways using the earth’s bounty, protecting it from pollution, avoiding erosion, preventing desert formation, and preventing discharges of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use that lead to climate change that can flood our coastal cities and bring chaotic weather patterns around the world.  

I thank Leah Dunaief and her son Daniel for the many articles on science that inform North Shore readers of what is going on in our universities, research institute, and industries on Long Island. I thank you readers who have written to me, stopped me when I shopped in the local stores, or offered different points of view to which I would respond.  

I have lived an examined life, selected, as an Epicurean, from the best minds and writing of Western civilization. I am grateful for the gift of life to have lived this long. But now in my 90s I lack the energy I had ten years ago and have decided to use the time remaining in my life to work on my unpublished manuscripts and get them published or place them to print-on-demand programs on the internet. I much appreciate you, my reader, for the pleasure of having this opportunity,

Elof Axel Carlson

[email protected]

Graph from Wikipedia

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

In my youth I read Joyce Cary’s novel Herself Surprised and was moved by his opening chapter describing a woman, rather frumpy looking, hustling and puffing her way through a train station only to realize she was looking at a mirror image of herself. The book’s title and theme engaged my attention. 

In my own life I have had a few “myself surprised” moments. One of them came as I read an article in American Scientist by evolutionist David Pfennig who works at the University of North Carolina. He discusses a concept called “phenotypic plasticity.” When Mendel worked out his laws of genetics he distinguished between the phenotype (appearance) and the genotype (genetic composition) of the pea plants he studied. A yellow pea could be heterozygous or homozygous and look the same. You had to do a genetic cross to determine the genotypes form the phenotypes of the traits you studied. 

In Pfennig’s study, phenotypic plasticity is a surprise. An organism can have itself or its progeny change characteristics very rapidly in moments or days instead of mutational change which takes generations or millennia to distinguish new populations. Some species of birds or animals can change color seasonally. Some social insects like bees or wasps or ants can change body shape and function by feeding the developing embryos in the hives or by shifting a mode of  reproduction from fertilization to cloning or parthenogenesis (virgin birth). They are adaptations to changes in seasons or changes of a sudden nature (like flooding or a drought). Unlike the survival of finches in the Galapagos islands that take decades or millennia to change through natural selection of mutations arising spontaneously, phenotypic plasticity enables some organisms to resist extinction by a rapid response.

I realized that my own body was subject to this phenotypic plasticity as I turned 85.  I knew I was getting older physically as I began to grey and my skin wrinkled. I feel as if my mitochondria are being depleted and the energy requirements of my cells are no longer being met in all my tissues. I am the reverse of Oscar Wilde’s portrait of Dorian Gray. 

I have accelerated the aging process in my advanced old age, a fate that will befall all who are lucky to live as long as I have. One of my undergraduate students at Stony Brook University did a project on aging in identical twins. He got photo albums of elderly identical twins and matched their appearance by scissoring copies of their photos and matching the left of one twin to the right of the other twin when they were separately photographed. It was surprising how much they fit, while nonidentical same sex twins did not do this and produced asymmetrical faces. 

The surprise is how a body can use its genotype to maintain a sameness in the two twins who are identical at any age. We don’t select for each year’s features of our faces and bodies. Something else is going on that plays out in our lifestyle as we age. It makes sense that our environments can shape us through the careers we choose and opportunities that come our way. But the biological changes that take place are much more difficult to explain and show that much is to be learned about the “plasticity” in our lives and how it works at a scientific level.  

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

Pixabay photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Scientists study nature. Nature is the world we can observe. It includes things like life, from viruses to plants and animals, and to all forms of  humanity.  It includes the earth and its continents, oceans, and atmosphere.  It includes the moon, the planets and stars and galaxies. It includes the composition of all the objects we can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear.

What does it not include? Scientists call that aspect of our experience the supernatural. What is the supernatural?  It includes a belief in gods, souls, ghosts, spirits, devils, angels, saints, witches, goblins, trolls, leprechauns, and mythical beasts like unicorns, or snakes that speak intelligible language we can understand, or a host of imagined possibilities such as a fountain of youth, turning other metals into gold, devising perpetual motion machines, pills that can convert water into gasoline, or using the ground powder of rhinoceros horns to cure impotence in middle aged men. 

It also includes pseudo-sciences such as astrology, alchemy, palmistry, mind-reading, telekinesis, and other forms of extrasensory perception. The list is long, and scientists would strike off some of the supernatural if carefully controlled experiments are done to demonstrate them. Unfortunately, that has not occurred. 

Magicians are often allied with scientists in exposing the tricks other magicians and charlatans use to fool inexperienced or gullible people. Science has more mysteries to solve and does not need supernatural unproven claims to compete for an interpretation of the universe. Science uses reason, gathering of information or data, proposals of theories, testing of theories, instruments to amplify or supplement our senses, and experimentation to test predictions of theories. 

The supernatural depends on faith. It raises some difficulties. Whose gods are valid and whose have been demoted to myths? Is Zeus still alive? Is Osiris still alive? Is Gilgamesh still alive? Of our current deities, is Jesus an aspect of a Trinitarian deity or is he a human prophet who founded a new religion? If the Old Testament deity called Jehovah, Lord, or God is monotheistic, and if He is also the God of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, is He the same God that Christians pray to and call Jesus?  

As these questions and concerns sink in, note that scientists exclude the numerous ways supernatural beings (represented in human or other forms of life) are accepted.  The supernatural events and things are accepted through faith. Science is universal and demands testable and repeatable evidence. It does not matter what country one lives in; water will consist of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. It will behave the same wherever it is studied and exists as a gas, liquid, or solid, depending on temperature and pressure. 

Science is very strict about the evidence needed for demonstrating something to science. Those who practice supernatural beliefs do so out of faith. There is no one universal supernatural system all people would agree to. But all people on earth will be convinced that striking a match to dry paper at room temperature, in breathable air, will ignite the paper and reduce it to ashes and release carbon dioxide into the air.

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

What do you see in the clouds? Photo by Gerard Romano

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

It is rare for me to learn a new word as I approach my 90th year. The ones I encounter are usually scientific because I look through science journals and e-science news.  Even less frequently do I learn new words from popular culture. 

The word I just learned is “pareidolia.”  It refers to the capacity most humans have of seeing images where they don’t belong like seeing a man in the moon or faces and bodies in the clouds. Optical illusions also provide such constructions from ambiguous drawings. 

Some people have heightened imaginations and I recall my mother, who was schizophrenic, often imagining people staring at her, whispering about her, or saying to me that the sitter I hired to look after my bed-ridden father when my wife Nedra and I went out, was a Nazi disguised in woman’s clothing. I also remember the great pleasure I had as a youth in the 1940s reading Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby, a boy who had an imaginary  fairy godfather who used his cigar as a magic wand.  

There are boundary lines between illusion and delusion. That includes religious apparitions, conversations with God or saints, revelations dictated to a scribe that become religious scripture. It includes the oral tradition of polytheistic religions like the Greek and Roman Gods.  For the most part these are tolerated or admired in our cultures. 

What is less convincing are the mental constructions used to justify racial prejudice, assigning hereditary fixed traits to people based on caste or social class. At one time it was assumed an upper-class person (often with a title) would not lie and his testimony would be sufficient in court. In politics there is a tendency to define an opponent by looking for flaws in character or errors of judgment that get amplified if not invented.  

I wonder if all creativity in the arts involve a similar ability to see patterns and images that come out of difficult to pin down experiences in the preceding days or weeks. Clearly there is a spectrum of such images with outcomes that can be inspiring, beneficial, of even hateful in their consequences. Fortunately, reason and science offer ways to prevent  or limit such bad outcomes. 

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

The IQ or intelligence quotient was introduced early in the 20th century to measure learning abilities in school children. It spread from Germany to the United States where it was enthusiastically adopted in K-12 schools.  

I took the test four times. The first score I got, 116, was in first or second grade. The second score, about 3 years later, was 130. The third test in junior high school (PS210) was 149. The last score was in my freshman orientation week at NYU and it was 160. How do I know my scores? I was a teacher’s pet throughout my education and in high school, one of my volunteer activities was filing the report cards of students after teacher’s made their entries. 

In the process of filing I looked at my own record card (and my friends) and saw my scores for K-12. I saw my NYU score while being counseled in the Freshman week follow up. My test scores for various aptitude tests were on the sheet of paper my counselor was reading. She said I was talented but very insecure.  

The IQ score is usually interpreted in 30-point intervals with normal 100 (86-115); bright 130 (116- 145); and genius (146 and up) for the more intelligent students. 

A more damning score exists for categories of students classified as slow learners, with a terminology no longer used, morons 70 ( 56-85); imbeciles 40 (26-55); and idiots (25 and below). Those with less than normal IQ scores are sometimes classified collectively as retarded, feebleminded, or regarded or euphemistically as exceptional children.  

High IQ was widely admired and accepted as the basis for success in  school and in life. Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius used the IQ test about 1910 to identify 1000 gifted children in California (mean IQ = 140). They were followed at Stanford University for more than 50 years.  They became college educated successful lawyers, MDs, professors, CEOs and other middle-class professionals with numerous publications and comfortable incomes.  

In contrast George and Muriel Goertzel’s Cradles of Eminence used a different approach. They selected 300 Americans who lived in the 20th century who had two or more books written about them. Their mean IQ was 127. Instead of comfortable middle-class upbringings that were characteristic of Terman’s high IQ children, the Goertzel’s biographies revealed about two-thirds had troubled homes growing up with a parent who was a business failure, psychotic, idiosyncratic, alcoholic, or physically handicapped. 

The Goertzel’s argued that IQ was insufficient for eminence. Eminence required what they called “a neural itch” that stimulated children to focus more intensely on their work, to exercise their imagination and creativity, and to generate the energy to complete tasks and compensate (sublimate in Freudian terminology) for the stress they encountered growing up. 

Not a single one of the 1000 Terman high IQ children ended up with a biography written about him or her. If being the subject of a biography is a measure of eminence, IQ is a poor predictor. IQ is more aptly an academic quotient and not an intelligence quotient. It measures the ability to take tests not the capacity to be innovative or driven to greatness.  

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

Photo from Pixabay

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I have had 15 published books and my 16th came out in April of this year. I have at least ten other books that are either near completion or could be completed within a year.  

Why do I have so many unpublished books? I committed myself to a career in science as an undergraduate and graduate student. I got my PhD with Nobelist H. J. Muller and admired the way he used his talents. He was committed to doing research and teaching about his major interest in “mutation and the gene.” He spoke out against abuses by science (racism, and indifference to health effect many of industries applications of science to commerce health, or the military).

I also learned, as I began to teach, that teaching was enjoyable and I  began constructing my life like an insect undergoing a sequence of metamorphoses. I first focused on my research and got grants and published in professional journals. Then I shifted to teaching because I learned of the discontents of the 1960s that changed my students lives. Some were beaten by police when they demonstrated. Some had Peace Corps experiences. Many of the issues (sexism, bigotry, racism, aggression, mental health, environmental degradation) were tied to science and I began developing ways to teach biology to non science majors as a way to reach large numbers of students and give them a course that helped them make decisions about their own and their families’ lives.  

Above, the cover of Elof Carlson’s latest book.

I also wrote books, mostly scholarly books, and got those published. I participated in and helped create new educational programs and served as the founding Master of the Honors College at Stony Brook University. I also had a large family with five children and later my mother-in-law to join my household. 

This led to a technique that I call “using snippets of time.” I learned to write whenever waiting for appointments or office hours if no one showed up and to put books in progress aside when other commitments had priority.  

Also, I used writing to explore new ways to write. I wrote four novels. I wrote four different ways to do a memoir or an autobiography. I explored how the personal essay could be used to educate people reading a column I wrote for social newspapers. I also wrote, after I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to present chapters at a “Life Writing” seminar held at Indiana University’s Emeriti House for retired faculty and staff and alums.  

I plan to write a one-page blurb for  each of my unpublished books. I will explore putting them on line as e-books or print on demand books. For me writing is fun. Just as I learned when I was teaching and preparing lectures, I have learned by writing that each book helps overcome a science indifference as well as science illiteracy in a world that I feel needs more science in evaluating the controversies of our generation.  

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

Pixabay photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

While watching the evening news I sat cozied with a quilt to warm my 89-year-old body while sitting on the couch in our cottage at Indiana University’s assisted living community, Meadowood. I took an envelope and calculated what fraction of the known universe I was composed of. 

I began with an approximation of a teaspoon of sugar and estimated it held  about 1023 atoms, using Avogadro’s number as a guide.  I then calculated my body contained 1027 atoms and all of humanity 1036 atoms.  All of humanity could be packed into a cubic mile so that brings it up to 1045 atoms and if we use a formula for the cubic miles of earth that exist it is now 1052 atoms.  If we figured how many earths could fit in the sun this would give us 1056  atoms and if we multiplied that to the number of stars in the Milky Way this brings us to 1064 . The estimated number of galaxies in the universe would give us our final tally of 1073 atoms in the universe.  I am thus one part in 1049  of the totality of the known universe contemplating itself.   

Does this make me feel insignificant? No.  Because I am a tiny bit of the universe capable of contemplating itself. I do so without invoking the supernatural. My contemplation is based on the use of my brain to apply my knowledge of science to make a rough calculation of how much matter I occupy where my sense of self is dependent on a functioning mammalian adult brain using the knowledge won by reason, observation, gathering facts, and using logic and mathematics to make the calculation. Most of the atoms of the universe cannot do this because they are atoms of mostly hydrogen and helium in their suns. 

My estimate is both crude (I am rounding off most measurements) and indeterminate (I don’t know how many atoms per cubic mile of space there is between stars and between galaxies). I also don’t know how much “dark matter” is in the universe and some astronomers consider it to be far greater than the masses of stars and galaxies seen by visible light. 

Also lacking are any supernatural components of the universe (ghosts, souls, gods, and other nonmaterial beings that cannot be seen by most of humanity other than in  dreams or hallucinations).   Unlike dark matter, supernatural things have no detectable mass. 

I can reflect on the atoms I contain and very likely I have at least one atom of every person who has lived on this earth. That is an accomplishment most of the matter of the universe cannot do. My awareness I owe to the inventions of language, writing, printing, and all the trappings of civilization that emerged since humans first emerged as bipedal primates capable of using and making tools for their survival. 

While I feel shame for all the tyrants and evil deeds done by most of the humanity within me, I am proud of those who contributed to the civilizations past and present and that allow me to sit at my computer and prepare this thought for the week.

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

Photo from Pixabay
Elof Axel Carlson

By Elof Axel Carlson

When I’ve gone to a performance of La Bohême or Les Misérables I see a common theme that is not only European but may be universal. The young express their disappointment of the world in which they are raised and seek change by revolution and protest. The old see the world as manageable, despite its failings, and feel threatened by the discontents of youths who will destroy a way life as they know it. For the young, the privilege, bigotry, inequality, and neglect are considered wrongs that need correcting. For the old, the new brings to mind authoritarian rule by mobs and dictators. Where does science fit into that conflict?

Scientists like to claim a neutrality in what they do as scientists. For those in basic science they are not motivated by political and private usage of their findings. Their quest is adding new knowledge of our perception of the universe.  How it is used is the job of everyone. 

We do not blame a scientist who invents a pocket watch if that watch is used in a bomb to assassinate a nation’s leader. But applied science is different. If a scientist is hired to design an intercontinental missile to deliver a hydrogen bomb that will decimate a city thousands of miles away, that scientist is very much aware of the potential use of that weapon in war and rationalizes that he or she is just making a deterrent necessary for peace. 

It becomes harder to make such a rationalization if the scientist is hired to design a gas chamber designed as a public shower to kill 20 people at a time with cyanide gas pouring into that sealed chamber. It then becomes a war crime if the side using those gas chambers loses the war. The only plausible defense for the scientist is to claim he or she was forced under possible threat of death to design the chamber.    

Science provides the tools  and  findings of basic science and applies them to society. Both protestors and those protecting private property as police or militia may use the same shields and weapons in their confrontations. What distinguishes them in their acts are the values they accept. 

In general, the young are more likely to be among the protesters, the adults who have learned to live the contradictions of society will tend to be older and supported most vigorously by the older members of society who accept their privileges without a sense of guilt. 

I am a liberal (in the sense of the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party through most of the 20th and 21st century). I do not consider those provisions of the government as identical to totalitarian socialist states and more than Republicans consider their support of capitalist inequality as identical to such right wing totalitarian governments under Mussolini, Peron, Franco, Trujillo, or other anti-socialist and anti-Communist outlooks.  

Not all concern over science is based on politics. There are disagreements among scientists on issues such as the contributions of natural and synthetic gases to world climate changes or the rising levels of ocean water.  There is disagreement on the exposure or individuals of populations from low doses of ionizing radiation. There is disagreement on the carrying capacity of land for increases in the human population (each person needs food, shelter, health, and work to sustain a family). 

Unfortunately, science literacy is not good for most of the world’s population and politics rather than scientific evidence is more likely to dominate the debates on these issues which are highly dependent on how science is used or abused. 

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

METRO photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Science is a way of enlarging our knowledge about the  universe. It is not the only way to do so.  We can experience the universe through our travels, our observation of the changing seasons, our feelings of awe at a glorious sunset, or the joy of seeing a rainbow form after a passing rain shower. 

We can also experience a feeling that many call spiritual, through meditation, prayers, or reverential feelings. All societies experience these different ways of encountering the diversity of the universe and how to classify the world we experience around us. What sets science apart is its use of reason and tools to explore the universe.

Experimental science was formalized during the renaissance especially in Italy where Galileo and his students did experiments to work out the first laws of physics using inclined planes and quantitative relations to show a mathematical measure of speed and acceleration. Galileo also added the use of the telescope to explore the heavenly bodies and showed Venus had phases like the moon, the moon had craters and mountain ranges, Jupiter had 4 moons whose orbits he and his students worked out, and the sun had sunspots whose migrations allowed him to show the sun rotates on an axis.

That is not knowledge one gets from revelation or looking for bible codes in the Old Testament verses. It led to a dualism with Descartes and other philosophers seeing the universe as containing two realms – the material universe accessible to science through reason and experimentation and the spiritual or supernatural world that was accessible by revelation and scriptural interpretations of theologians. The Renaissance was also contentious, and Protestants and Catholics fought over who should interpret the Bible.

The relation between the world interpreted by science and the world interpreted by the supernatural has been an uneasy one ever since the Renaissance. Many people have no problem balancing the two ways to experience their lives. Other feel uncomfortable with the supernatural or uncomfortable with the scientific outlook expressed as atheism agnosticism, humanism, or scientism.

I am a scientist, and in that role I avoid explanations invoking the supernatural. I describe what is accessible through observation, experimentation, and the tools of science to investigate what is complex and render it interpretable through my studies. But I am also a human being who enjoys listening to music, going to museums to see great artworks and reading wonderful books of fiction and human imagination.

Science enlarged the universe I can live in and made possible the long life I have lived.  Some people, however, have a more ambivalent relation to science. They see it as destructive to their spiritual beliefs. They see it as destroyer of their children’s faith. They see it as sterile of emotions and human feelings. They see it as a rival that deprives them of the total freedom of the will to do what they want when they want. 

We see this in the  responses to the  advice offered by the nation’s epidemiologists and microbiologists who have studied infectious disease. Germs have no ideology. They have hosts. Those hosts can include you or me.

My response to a contagious disease is to follow what science recommends. I get a flu shot each year. I was immunized in my youth against smallpox, polio, and whooping cough. I had the measles and got an autoimmunity from that as was the case for mumps during the Depression years I grew up.

I am puzzled that adults can take offense at being told to  wear a facial mask to prevent spraying their germs in the streets and rooms they occupy as well as serving as a protection from those germs exhaled from our mouths and noses.

I am puzzled that people belittle scientists who measure the oceans’ temperatures and the study of the melting of glaciers around the polar regions and who keep careful records showing increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a rising temperature of the atmosphere and a rising sea level and more numerous and severe climate changes around the world. The evidence is overwhelming that it is caused by a fossil fuel carbon-based civilization and that it needs regulation through international treaties.

But those who ignore or reject science do not offer an alternative to changing our habits of how we live. What is it besides “wishful thinking” or denial that they offer in response? I am not advocating that science always has good outcomes. Science, like all human activity, has to be monitored, assessed and regulated. Pollution of the land, air and waters that are essential  for our lives needs regulation. Science often lends its help to the construction of weapons of mass destruction which is just rationalized murder of the innocent who are embedded in the guilty we designate as the enemy.

In a democracy it is our obligation to debate the uses and abuses of science as well as the uses and abuses of cultural beliefs and political ideologies. It is false to believe that society and nature are always self-correcting without human involvement in how we respond to the  threats often of our own making.

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

The Christopher Columbus statue at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park in Boston was beheaded on June 10.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I can accept the toppling of statues of dictators and those who were traitors and I can see as justified the removal of Confederate flags from public places. People whose personal deeds were heinous to Americans, like Confederate generals, or Benedict Arnold, have few virtues that can compensate for the major actions associated with their names.

It is more difficult for me to remove Columbus’s name from cities and our national celebrations of the opening up of the New World to Europe. The history of colonization is as old as history. Kings conquered whether in biblical times or in the fifteenth century.  If all present occupants are colonizers and descendants of colonizers, should they go back to the countries that their ancestors left?  Where would it end? In the Middle East when all the countries of the world were in the Middle East?

A similar difficulty is honoring a scientist for a major contribution to knowledge. Good science can be done by people of any ideology, religion, or ethnicity. Good science can be done in countries led by dictators. The scientists in those countries are also patriotic to their countries. They may also vary in their personalities regardless of how their countries are governed. A good scientist can make major contributions to humanity while being a cheating spouse, a tyrant as a mentor, a sexist, or a bigot.

I enjoy reading a lot about science and scientists. Most people are not saints. I am reminded of a phrase I learned in school — “most heroes have feet of clay.” It is important that a work of science is independent of the scientist’s personal behavior and beliefs. Often those beliefs are learned by the scientist who is shaped by the culture in which he or she resides.

In the 19th and 20th centuries most people were raised with racial theories that were discriminatory and prevailing views of human differences were based on what turned out to be false assumptions.

Virtually every educated person raised in the 1800s and early 1900s believed there were classes of people who were social failures. They called them paupers or degenerates. They falsely believed that they had defective heredity although genetics was not a science until the twentieth century. Some believed this defective heredity was caused by bad environments and could be reversed by good environments. Some believed the damage was irreversible except through draconian measures by laws forbidding their marriage or even worse, by sterilizing them as unfit to reproduce. It led to the “negative eugenics” movement that we reject today.

Very different was the “positive eugenics” movement that led to a conscious use of assortative mating, urging those who were successful, healthy, long lived, and talented to marry similar well-endowed spouses. Even W. E. Dubois embraced this positive eugenics outlook in 1903 calling it the “talented tenth” who would lead Black people out of the subjugated state most found themselves to be through neglect and bias of white society.

I believe we need to weigh a lot of issues in making decisions about renaming buildings, putting person’s portraits on currency, and naming our cities, high schools, and other public places. Should we avoid buying Volkswagens because Hitler wanted German automakers to make a “people’s car?” Should we avoid eating cream puffs because they were Hitler’s favorite dessert?

Humans live with diversity and not all that diversity is what we choose for our own lifestyle. We live with contradictory values, sometimes having rigid rules of behavior where right and wrong are clear-cut (don’t lie, cheat, or kill others) and other times we practice utilitarian ethics and go with “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sometimes we trample on basic human rights in our self-serving interests like dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities filled with mostly noncombatant men, women and children.

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