Monday 6 May 2013

Lynn Margulis

Back in January I wrote in passing about James Lovelock.  He came to give a talk and promote his latest book in Dublin several years ago and I went along with a couple of pals.  Afterwards we all queued up to buy, and get signed, a copy each.  When I got to the table, I diffidently said that we'd met before, in Boston, in about 1982, in the office of Lynn Margulis.  He brightened up (if that's possible for such an ebullient chap) and said that he thought I'd looked familiar.  I demurred: we'd met for about 3 minutes nearly 30 years previously.  But he insisted that he never forgot a face and we chatted briefly about Margulis before I made way for the next Gaiagroupie.

Margulis was famous for relentlessly promoting three iconoclastic ideas that each became something obvious to all thinking people, at least partly because of her efforts on their behalf. 1) Serial endosymbiosis - mitochondria and chloroplasts and maybe cilia were once independent organisms that were engulfed and co-opted by nucleated cells. 2) That it was fatuous to talk about the Plant and Animal Kingdoms and shoe-horning every-living-thing into one bin of the other. She championed RH Whittaker's idea of not two but Five Kingdoms. 3) Lovelock's concept of Gaia.

A few years after that I bought a second hand copy of a 1st edition of John Brockman's When We Were Kids: how a child becomes a scientist, mainly because one of the contributors was the same Lynn Margulis.  After that I decided that it was time to write her a thank-you letter because she had enriched my experience in graduate school more than anyone except my mentor.  She taught a course BI504-Evolution that was, shall we say, eccentric.  Dinosaurs were not mentioned, indeed the whole of the phanerozoic was bundled into the last two weeks of the semester.  As the phanerozoic comprehends everything since fossils appeared about 600m years ago, most of the material on the course was novel.  But Lynn's position was that as all fungi, animals and plants are 'essentially the same" in their biochemistry, enumerating their differences was a form of stamp-collecting and so unworthy of real scientists.  But she did insist on us each-and-all embracing the reality of the natural world by designating one mid-term class as Organism Day when everyone had to bring something alive to class and talk about its ecology and evolution for 5 minutes.  I can barely remember what she told us about the Entner-Douderoff pathway but can remember pretty much everything I found out for myself about Sphagnum moss for Organism Day.  And when I came in turn to teach a course about Evolution I hosted an Organism Day too.

The response to my letter was a parcel of books from Chelsea Green Publishers including Luminous Fish: tales of science and love by Lynn Margulis and a note in her almost illegible scrawl to say that she was shortly going to be on sabbatical in Oxford and we might meet up.  As Spring turned to Summer the following year, I piled my daughters into the car and took the ferry to Wales, having invited ourselves to dinner with Lynn.  I didn't know if either of them was going to be a scientist but I did know that they were both going to be women and that it was going to be relentlessly more difficult for XX-them to make their way than it had been for XY-me or was for their XY-brother.  So an encounter with a role-model as positive as Margulis would do no harm.
I wrote yesterday about taking the girls to visit the Earthmother at Silbury Hill and them thereby becoming women, but that was a tad disingenuous.  We drove straight from Silbury to Oxford to spend the evening with the midwife of Gaia.  And she didn't disappoint: cooking dinner for eight while rattling on about Ireland and Amherst, 9/11, HIV, Emily Dickinson and violin concertos.  So the girls did meet her and I'm grateful they got the chance because Lynn died in November 2011. She had a stroke and died with dignity and no intervention at home a few days later her daughter having to insist that the NFR terms of Lynn's living will were strictly adhered to.  I miss her.

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