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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

In the life sciences, progress works incrementally.

The cell theory, for example, began in the 1600s with the observation of a cellular composition of cork bark with one the first microscopes. There was no cell theory (all the organisms we see are composed of cells) until 1838. The cell doctrine (cells arise from preexisting cells) came a generation later in the 1850s. A decade later, stain technology was introduced. In the 1930s electron microscopes were introduced. Molecular biology wasn’t introduced until the 1950s.

With each incremental advance, new tools, new data and new experiments are carried out. This can result in new insights on how life works, and it can be applied to disease in humans and other living things.

We manipulate life when we treat it because nature has no doctors or living things are at the whim of luck for their survival and evolution allows the healthiest, the most adapted, to survive and pass on their lucky genes. But today’s scientists can use a great deal of that incremental knowledge and apply it to our benefit.

One lead I find very exciting to read about and I am confident the next generation of science students will be excited by the advances taking place — It is now possible to begin a field of molecular neurology. The physiology of nerve cells is well worked, and we know how nerve impulses are transmitted and how reflexes form, and many other experimental approaches have provided an understanding of normal and diseased functioning of the nervous system. But the genes involved have been elusive.

Two fields have been added to the arsenal of approaches for exploring this. One is the field of stem cell research. The other is the use of fruit flies as model organisms to study the molecular genetics of fruit fly brains. Flies have the advantage of a limited number of activities that can be explored. They have courtship rituals, they have innate responses to gravity or to light, and they have vision, hearing, and taste as well as response to pain.

Some of the biochemical pathways in fruit flies are also found in humans and there is a surge of interest in using two approaches. One is finding chemicals  that shift slumbering stem cells into active nerve cells. This would allow treatments in coming years for neuromuscular disorders like multiple sclerosis. It could also slow down the aging process in which our stem cells lose the capacity to replace aged and dying neurons in the brain causing senility and other neurological disorders like Parkinson disease.

I am also a realist and historian of science. I know that such imagined future worlds can take decades or generations to achieve. We do not live in a totally known universe, and we only know a fraction of the way life has evolved over 3 billion years on earth. But by studying gene mutations involved with neuron formation and function, of stem cell activation, and of how humans can devise interventions for our health, we can feel confident that a lot more useful knowledge will emerge.

My realist side also tells me that all knowledge can be abused and we have learned to enact legislation to regulate most of our scientific and technological and malevolent intentions or warped values so that some do not exploit new technologies and shut down the progress needed to enlighten us and benefit us in an always troubled world.

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

Charles T. Davis
Elof Axel Carlson

By Elof Axel Carlson

When I went to NYU on a scholarship in the Fall of 1949, I was assigned to a freshman English class. The first day when I walked in, I was surprised to see my instructor was African American. He was getting his PhD in NYU’s English Department.  

Each week we prepared a one-page theme.  Mr. Charles T. Davis would grade these and add his notes on how effective our themes were. He read short stories and essays by published writers pointing out what made them a delight or informative to read. He then would use our themes and do the same analysis for them, always emphasizing how to write well and to get one’s ideas across as gracefully as we could summon our skills. 

Professor Davis selected one of my essays for an annual publication titled Good Themes that the English Department gave to all the students taking freshman English. He would greet me over the next three years whenever we ran into each other. He would often invite me to have a cup of coffee at the Chock Full o’Nuts across the street. 

He helped me when I was discouraged and began to think of switching to an English major. He told me not to; that I would discover graduate school was a very different experience and more creative. He asked what I was reading and said that most of my reading was in non-fiction, especially the sciences and this is where  my interest really was even if I was down in the dumps at this time.  

Over the years I followed his career. He was the first African American Professor hired at Princeton. He went on to head and develop the African-American studies program at Yale. His most famous student was Henry Louis Gates Jr. with whom he edited two volumes of works by African American authors. 

When  my son John was accepted to Yale, I introduced him to Professor Davis who mentored him in his first year. Sadly, it was my son who broke the news that Mr. Davis was dying of cancer. 

I owe to Charles Davis many habits I used in my own relation to students. I took them to coffee or lunch and insisted on paying the tab. I encouraged those who came to see me during office hours. I tried to be a mentor and a scholar and  lived up to the model Davis exemplified. He showed that no race has a monopoly on the goodness, compassion, intelligence, or talents that are within all of humanity and can be nourished by those who model themselves on the best of what  humanity can offer.  

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

Some of my friends and relatives since I was a high school student have told me that I know a lot. In one sense I do because I have an excellent retentive memory and can recall isolated facts that struck me as interesting at the time. 

In my high school history class, my teacher Mr. Emil, was groping for the name of a German reverend who opposed Hitler and was imprisoned for his preaching. I raised my hand and said, “Was it Pastor Niemöller?” I was looked upon as a freak by my classmates because I recalled this from listening to a radio program with my father and brother called This is the Enemy. 

I identified this talent as having “a flypaper memory.” If it’s significant to me, it sticks in my head. Of course, I also read a lot and since my father bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was born in 1931, I browsed through it on rainy days and amassed enormous trivial knowledge from Japanese bonsai gardens to a graveyard (necropolis) of embalmed cats mummified by ancient Egyptians who worshipped a cat goddess, Bubastis (or Bastet).  

What I have learned over all these years of reading widely is that it would take centuries to read all there is to know of the known world and that as much as I have learned over the 88 years of my life so far, only gives me a small amount of the knowledge that exists.  

Furthermore, we don’t know how much of the universe works, whether it is life or the earliest stages of the birth of the universe. We don’t even know how many laws of science are yet to be discovered. 

But look at it this way. We live at best some 90 years today. Of recorded history (3000 years), that’s about 3 percent of the time humans have accumulated knowledge and written about it. No single person can read all the books in the Library of Congress, or the British Museum or the Vatican Library. This means when we try to solve concerns in our own lives and times, we are limited in the resources we can reasonably read relevant to what we want to do or solve. 

In a democracy we are diverse and have competing needs and priorities. We do as best we can with what we already know or with the help of others who know more than we know because their interests are slightly different from ours. It is this pooling of knowledge that allows us to do better than trying to “reinvent the wheel” each time we come across something new in our lives or our country’s experience. 

Complicating our ability to solve problems is the way we accept or reject evidence or information. We filter knowledge through mental prisms that include our religious beliefs, our ideological beliefs (liberalism versus capitalism, democracy versus authoritarianism, patriotism vs  criticism of government policy), or our professional habits (debate and amassing one sided briefs for those in legal professions including politics) and the apparently inconsistent findings science provides through experimentation and evidence (radiation is good for diagnosis and treatment but it also can cause harm to healthy cells or mutate genes in our gonads and pass them on to future generations.  

We like to have simpler ways of seeing things and doing things. But reality is often more complex, more intertwined with other things that make a simple approach difficult and often strewn with unintended consequences.  People who dump waste in rivers and lakes I believe are sincere when they feel that nature heals itself. But being sincere is not the same as being right and we have numerous episodes of smog, polluted rivers that kill off fish and other life in them and make our drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals. People are sincere also when they feel God looks after us or that the virtuous are spared in natural disasters .

Would 500 people huddle in a church during a tornado or would they rather be in several hundred separate underground shelters? The more complex the issues are in society, the more likely is it that there are no simple responses to them, and we need to listen to many and go with the best that we have available from our collective knowledge.  Unfortunately, informed debate is not always what we experience at the political level where decisions are made.  

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

Nedra and I have been in self-quarantine at Indiana University’s retirement community where we settled in November of 2019. The lockdown, if I may call it that, began in mid-March and continues until the President or Governor calls an end to staying at home as a health precaution during the pandemic of 2020. 

I consider myself extroverted and certainly my students think I am extremely extroverted because who else would stand before 500 students and share the pleasures of learning science? As a child, however, I was insecure, terrified of being called on in class, and would hide my head behind the person in front of me so I wouldn’t be called on. 

I like being with people, but I also like times of solitude. I learned to appreciate solitude when I read Michel de Montaigne’s essays. On his estate he had a silo constructed not to store grain but to have his books in a circular library that lined the structure’s lumen. He had his desk and writing supplies and would seclude himself to write his essays and read his treasured collection of books, most of them reflecting the civilizations of Greece and Rome. 

I also appreciated novels about solitude, like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and how Edmond Dantès spent his years in prison before his escape. Or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and how the title character had to reinvent the skills of survival as a shipwrecked sailor. I also enjoyed reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, his journal of his self-imposed solitude in the woods and a lake near his home in Massachusetts.

Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is another masterpiece of writing during a round-the-world trip using his cramped shipboard quarters as a place to write from his field notes and away from contact with his scientific colleagues and friends in England.  

In February, before we were forced into solitude, we read for our monthly book discussion group Amor Towle’s The Gentleman in Moscow, a novel about a Russian leisure class survivor of the Revolution who was under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for some 20 years and who managed to fill his life with adventures and the mental treasures of civilization.  

The hard part is not seeing our children and grandchildren except through Zoom or reading their comments on Facebook and seeing pictures they send. The easy part is using the time to write. Since the quarantine I submitted the galleys for a book in production, signed a contract for a second book, and got my editor to agree to look at ten works I had abandoned over the years when I was too busy teaching and doing research to complete novels, scholarly books, and other writings.

I am sending her a summary of each of these ten books and at age 88 I am in a race with the Grim Reaper to see how many of them I can get published before the scythe is swiped. While this sounds morbid, I am a realist and my life is so filled with the pleasures of living and having enjoyed so much mentoring with my students and solitude with my creative works, that I have no fears or terrors of the Reaper winning the race. 

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

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.