What Mendel tells us about thinking

Find quietude. Observe whatever is around you. If it seems banal, discover it to be fascinating and mysterious. Ignore distractions, otherwise known as ‘everybody else’. Ask simple questions that puzzle you. Be patient in pondering them.

That is how I imagine Gregor Mendel might answer us today if we asked him: How  — I mean how! — did you achieve your stunning intellectual breakthroughs, on which we today base our understanding of biology?

Put differently: Let’s pretend that Gregor Mendel were alive today instead of in the 19th century, and that he were not an Augustinian monk in the former Austrian Empire but a wired and connected, über-productive modern man with an iPhone, a Twitter account, cable television, a job with bosses who email him on the weekend, etc etc.

Would this modern Mendel be able to achieve his own breakthrough in those circumstances?

So far in my rather long-running thread about the greatest thinkers in history, I’ve featured mostly philosophers and historians, with the odd scientist and even one yogi. But it occurred to me that Mendel belongs into that pantheon — not only for his thought but also for his thinking. I think he offers us a timely life-style lesson, an insight that fits the Zeitgeist of our hectic age.

So: First, a brief recap of his breakthrough. Then my interpretation how his life style and thought process made that breakthrough possible (and why ours might make such breakthroughs harder).

1) Mendelian genetics

Mendel was an Augustinian monk in what used to the Austrian Empire (and what is now the Czech Republic). He had an open and inquisitive mind and, as a monk, wasn’t all that busy, so he had plenty of spare time. He liked to breed bees. Then he began breeding peas. That’s right. Peas.

Peas intrigued him. (Would they intrigue you? What else does not intrigue you?) He found peas interesting because they had flowers that were either white or purple and never anything else. (Would you find that interesting?)

Mendel contemplated what peas could therefore teach him about how parents pass on traits to their offspring, ie what we would call genetics.

At the time, conventional wisdom held that the traits of parents are somehow mixed in their children. If parents were paint buckets, say, then a yellow dad and a blue mom would make a green baby bucket, and so on. (It’s interesting that nobody spotted how implausible this was: After several generations every bucket, ie every living thing, would have to end up mud-brown. Every creature would look the same. Instead, nature is constantly getting more colorfol, more diverse, with more and stranger new species.)

So Mendel, in the late 1850s and early 1860s, started playing with his peas. Pea plants fertilize themselves, so Mendel cut off the stamens of some so that they could no longer do that. Then he used a little brush and fertilized the castrated pea plant with pollen from some other pea plant. He thereby had total control over who was dad and who was mom.

He was now able to cross-breed the peas with purple flowers and the peas with white flowers. So he did. Then he waited.

Surprise #1:

Already in the next generation, Mendel could rule out the prevailing “paint-bucket-mixing” theory. No baby pea plants had lighter purple (or striped or dotted) flowers. Instead they all had purple flowers.

So he took those new purple-flowered pea plants and cross-bred them again. And again, he waited.

Surprise #2:

In the next generation, most pea plants again had purple flowers. But some now had white flowers. Wow! How did that happen?

Moreover, the ratio in this generation between purple and white flowers was exactly 3:1. Hmm.

Mendel kept doing these experiments, and kept thinking, and then inferred the simple but shocking conclusion:

  1. Each parent had to be contributing its version of a given trait (white vs purple, say) to the offspring.
  2. Each baby thus had to have both versions of every trait, but showed in its own appearance only one version, which had to be dominant.
  3. The other (“recessive“) version, however, did not go away, and when these pea plants had sex again, they shuffled the two versions and randomly passed one on to their offspring (with the other coming from the other parent), so that their baby again had two versions.

This looks as follows:

In the second generation, every pea plant has a purple (red, in this picture) and a white version, one from each parent, but since the purple is dominant, every flower looks purple.

In the next generation,

  • one fourth will have a purple from dad and a purple from mom (and look purple),
  • one fourth will have a purple from dad and a white from mom (and still look purple),
  • one fourth will have a white from dad and a purple from mom (and still look purple), and
  • one fourth will have a white from dad and a white from mom (and look white).

The rest, you might say, is history. With all our amazing breakthroughs in biology in the 20th century, we merely elaborated on his insights, in the process explaining the mechanism of evolution (Darwin, coming up with that idea at the same exact time, had no knowledge of Mendel’s breakthrough.)

In today’s language, Mendel

  • showed the difference between genotype and phenotype. (Your genotype might be white/purple, for example, but your phenotype would be purple.)
  • understood the basic idea of meiosis (the division of a cell into two haploid gametes — a sperm cell or egg with half of the mother cell’s chromosomes, randomly chosen),
  • described how two gametes then merge sexually to form a diploid zygote (ie, a cell with all chromosome paired up again, one member of each pair coming from each parent),
  • explained how some versions of the gene pairs, called alleles (such as purple or white), are expressed and some not, even as those not expressed can re-emerge in the phenotype in the next generation.

DNA, RNA, ribosomes and all that were merely detail.

2) How was it possible?

Let’s make ourselves aware, first, of what it must have been like for Mendel during these years (this is purely conjecture):

  • He got up.
  • He prayed.
  • Had breakfast.
  • Went into the garden.
  • Looked at the pea flowers for a long time.
  • Watered them.
  • Took a break.
  • Watched the peas some more.
  • Thought about them.
  • Dozed off for a nap.
  • Woke up and had an idea, still inchoate in his mind.
  • Went to bed.
  • Thought about it some more….

You get the idea. Not exactly stressful. Few interruptions. Lots of waiting (how long is one generation of peas anyway?).

He was, we would say, switched off. He was not multi-tasking, he did not have adrenaline coursing through his veins as he answered a text message while watching a video stream while writing a Powerpoint …

Compare his time with his pea plants to Einstein‘s time at the Bern patent office, where he was utterly underemployed and could easily have been bored, but instead did thought experiments and had his “miracle year”.

Or compare it to Isaac Newton‘s time after had to leave the action of Cambridge (because plague broke out) and returned to the isolation of his family farm with nothing to do except watch apples drop from trees….

Or compare it to the time when Gautama Siddhartha (aka the Buddha) withdrew from all action and sat, just sat, under a tree, with the birds pooping on his head until there was a pile of guano on his hair, with his flesh melting from his bones because he was too deep in concentration to eat…..

Lesson #1:

Good stuff can happen during downtime (even if you didn’t volunteer for it).

Corollary: Can good stuff happen during uptime? You may have to take time out to be creative.

Lesson #2:

Be amazed.

Corollary: Don’t assume the things and people in your daily life are boring.

Lesson #3:

Turn the devices off.

Corollary: Distraction not only kills people, it also kills thought.

Lesson #4:

Be patient.

Corollary: You can’t breed peas in internet time. Nor novels, scripts, songs, paintings…

Lesson #5:

Look for the simple.

Corollary: The more bewildering the complexity observed, the simpler the solution.

(See also: Gordian knot.)

Lesson #6:

It doesn’t have to be complete to be original.

Corollary: It took us a century to explain the process Mendel grasped; an idea is good even if it “merely” starts something.

(See also: Incompleteness theorem. Mr Crotchety’s favorite — need I say more?)

Lesson #7:

Don’t expect the world to get it right away.

Corollary: If it took us a century to understand Mendel’s breakthrough, we might take a while even for yours. 😉

56 thoughts on “What Mendel tells us about thinking

  1. What a timely post. As I watched the halftime show, I was wondering what would happen if someone crossed the Black Eyed Peas with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. How many generation would it take to get Red Eyed Chili Peas?

  2. WOW!!! and what!!!! Wow!!! I am confused at first.
    I am confused with thought vs thinking and bees vs peas. Not to mention ‘the more bewildering the complexity observed’….. I don’t know about the solution being simple!!! Well I guess it should 
    Hmmmm!!!! Would peas intrigue me? Let me think….!!! Sure…not just because they have flowers but those are hidden in a pea pod is what would intrigue me.
    Oh yes…!! I really am intrigued by the paint bucket family!!
    Aaah!!! Those were the good old days…(I am sure I was there), so carefree and plenty of time to think….(about what….have no idea) with no multitasking just thinking, watching apples fall and just thinking, let the birds poop on the head while thinking….
    What did we achieve so far…bottom line… we still need to think more.
    Don’t you think?

    Excellent post!!. It really made me think 

    Thank you Andreas.


    • “…I don’t know about the solution being simple!!!”

      Crikey. Did I make it sound complex? It takes a lot of words, but the basic idea is elegant and simple. (Not “easy”, necessarily, just simple.)

      Thanks for … thinking! 😉

    • Hi Andreas,
      Yep…thinking…that is one thing I rarely do. As the lesson #3 states…”Distraction not only kills people, it also kills the thought.” too many distractions, hence no thinking due to dying of the thought.
      Talking about simplicity from complexity or vice versa……
      As someone once put it, “A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.” This sentence may seem complex but in reality it does not make sense to make it complicated. It is way too simple. Yet we make it complicated. Just because we can. 🙂

      If a man does not think, then he does not think for himself.
      If he does not think for himself then he does not think at all…
      If a man cannot think for himself, can he think for someone else?
      If he can think for someone else does that count as thinking?

      Why do people think too much?

      Alright, my brain is getting heated right now with all this thinking.
      As Buddha once said “What we think…we become”!!
      I am afraid I have become senseless.

      I look forward to your next amazing post. I love this one 


    • @Aruna

      Regarding “A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.”

      Is simply (you did want “simply”, didn’t you?) “Don’t let others think for you.”

      Or, as my mother often said “If Jimmy jumps off a cliff, would you do it too?”

  3. Alexander Pushkin (really, really great Russian poet) was quarantined in Boldino (not a happening place) for three months in the fall of 1830 during a cholera epidemic. He wrote. A lot.

    A poor man’s Macdowell.

    • Andreas, the long Russian winters necessary downtime explain most of great Russian novels imo: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn etc.. They took Russian winters to be written (and unfortunately Russian winters to be read.)

  4. Mr. C’s ears must be burning.
    it’s the third time today his name has been invoked. perhaps you already knew that.

    as for your topic, my mother has often said the reason for so many actors and singers coming from the midwest (specifically Akron) is because there was nothing else to do but create.

    lesson #6 deserves a “track back” to richard’s most recent post “time” – a thought experiment.

    • Poor Akron. I don’t even know it (isn’t that where tires come from?), but now I want to not go there.

      Gotta ask my wife about your mom’s midwest theory. She’s from there….

  5. Very interesting but a little disconcerting when you think about typical behavior today. Lessons 1-6 are somewhat out of favor and possibly downright frowned up on some circles, i.e., your competition will come up with the next killer app if you aren’t working 24×7 to beat them. Some people would view Lesson 3 as heresy and the entire system has engineered Lesson 4 out of existence. Every investment of time, money, resources needs a payback and the payback has to be now.

    And I love Lesson 7. If the world doesn’t get it, it’s not marketable, so forget about it.

    Sorry if I appear cynical.

    • I like your cynicism. Maybe that was my point, actually. We frown upon the conditions that used to make us human and creative. In my previous beat, I used to have to hang around the Googleplex and places like that. Allegedly, it was meant to be a creativity factory, with bean bags and foozball and this and that — oh, and Google’s 20% time (ie, you can spend 20% of your time working on anything you want). But they’re all busy distracting one another and “brainstorming” (Mendel did fine without brainstorming), and conference calling, and what not. And, I can’t help but notice, Google has NOT been terribly creative of late.

      (By contrast, the story of how Larry and Sergey STARTED is actually rather similar to being a pea garden…)

    • Fitting. I quite like the image of MPs walking to the House of Commons to vote.

      Oh, and up pops an alternative image: The Magna Carta … being tweeted to King John….

  6. This post fascinates me at various levels. I’m often upset about modern fast pace or harsh competition in companies that can kill concentration (problem being, once you compete you’ve got to keep dancing.)

    Allow me some reflections.

    When in 1989 the Berlin wall crumbled down West Europeans were literally invaded by East-Europe musicians who were better, cost much less & were profound in ways we had forgotten and which reminded us of 19th century slow-paced life. Basically, they had lived in a sort of hibernated, stuck society where ‘downtime’ was kind of a norm.

    If someone loves classical music pls listen to Konstantin Scherbakov’s piano playing (he’s from Barnaul, Siberia): you’ll get a ‘feel’ of how depth and calm may be expressed in music. I can well imagine what a small town life in today’s Siberia can be (!): more boring a place possibly than Mendel’s laboratory, which after all was located in Vienna, the centre of the Austrian Empire.

    On the whole, I believe there must be some link between relaxation and creativity.

    There’s been a lot of studies on the scientific discovery process. I’m sure you know about the three Bs law: Bed, Bath and Bus, which appear to be those idle-mind situations where great discoveries are favoured. I’ll build-up on this with an anecdote.

    I remember this Roman top advertising agency where, at the end of the 80s, extremely well-paid copywriters and art directors were walking around in robes or catching the sun on a very elegant terrace overlooking Parioli-district-haute-bourgeoisie Rome. I was puzzled at the time but I later reflected on how ideas actually may come out brighter this way since, as it has been observed, they are often presented ‘suddenly’ to us when we are relaxed (Eureka!) and not when we are actively striving for them (true for remembering things as well btw: the more we strive to remember, the less we succeed: don’t TELL me this lol).

    Probably Buddhist meditation (or any meditation) with its proven effect upon creativity works much in the same way.

    • With your recommendation, I’m listening to Mr. Scherbakov right now (while making dinner and drinking wine and looking at the mail and blogging…). Thanks for the tip. The cats are feeling it.

    • Re the three Bs: In America they don’t have buses. Bath, bed and bumper-to-bumper would work.

      Archimedes was in a bath when he Eureka’ed.

      Now you got me thinking: when do I ahve my ideas? Do I even know that I’m having an idea when I’m having one?

      Relaxation: Utterly crucial to creativity, I would think. At a brain chemistry level. You need different neurotransmitters (vis a vis the glucocorticoids beings poured out during stress) to make new synaptic patterns, otherwise known as “ideas”.

    • Mr C, you were quick. I advice also Beethoven’s symphonies played by him (via Liszt’s excellent transcriptions): it may sound weird, I know, but they are excellent, like totally new musical adventures. Also Godowsky’s Bach’s piano transcriptions: excellent also.

      Andreas, I wondered if you knew anything about the Buddhist meditation / creativity relationship. I only read a few things here and there.

    • @MoR: Re Buddhist meditation and creativity: I saw a spate of studies a few years ago showing that meditation does cause the brain to “fire” at lower frequencies. So it changes the brain physically. But I’ve not seen any studies as to whether that then makes these relaxed brains more creative. “Creative”, of course, is a slippery term to construct an experiment around….

      Anecdotally, though: I usually write better after I do yoga.

    • @Andreas

      That you write better after doing yoga is fascinating. I asked because some time ago I read about some experiments and dialogues scientists had with the Dalai Lama. I guess it was the Mind & Life Institute, where scientists together with the Dalai Lama explored the effects of contemplative training on human behaviour. But I didn’t have time to proceed any further.

      It should be here, although I don’t know if it is serious research or not: http://www.mindandlife.org/

  7. I think the comments (and your own analysis, Andreas) are as interesting as the results Mendel found. But I also think the story says something about focus. Let’s call it an “art” because we have not yet clearly defined it, analyzed it, and labeled it a “science” or a “discipline” by itself. Even though Mendel did his prayers, studied a couple of other things (I am sure more than just “a couple”), and advanced up the hierarchy of his order he kept returning to the peas.

    Mendel shows us that the human brain is quite capable of multi-tasking over an extended period of time. That one can take a bit of curiosity and follow that to a conclusion even while following other bits of curiosity as well.

    For some reason, I was reminded of the Desiderata poem. Or the admonitions to “be still and listen” I have heard throughout my life. The stillness allows one to contemplate.

    I am also reminded of a habit of some writers to keep a pad and pen/pencil by their bed so that they would be able to write down a thought that came to them during sleep (or, more likely, as they awoke).

    • Focus: yes, the habit or discipline of staying on a chosen course long enough to see whether it leads somewhere interesting. Focus and patience might belong together. We today want results too quickly, so we “switch” focus, which is a euphemism for losing it.

      Pen by the bedside: Doesn’t work for me. I decided a while ago that any idea I might have is worthy my attention only if it reappears spontaneously.

  8. Did Mendel just have his hierarchy of needs truncated? Maybe he didn’t have the slightest desire to make little Mendels. Because of this, ironically, he could think clearly about gene propagation. That’s why he didn’t skip breakfast, too.

    So, let’s suppose Mendel did NOT have those wandering-mind desires. This would have done two things; (1) free up A LOT of brain power, (2) make being a monk MUCH easier.

    So he became a monk.

    Because he was a monk, he probably had great (eternal?) job security and no commute. He never had to drive to soccer practice. So add three more things; (3) he didn’t need a mortgage, (4) he didn’t have to spend time talking to Bank of America, (5) he didn’t need a car.

    You get the idea. All the trouble starts with wanting a little pea of your own. If people stopped procreating, we could make some real progress.

    Do you think Olivia Judson still loves me?

    • First of all — and I admit I cannot prove this — I have a hunch that Olivia Judson yearns for you at a deep and unacknowledged level. In a dark, lower-chakra kind of way.

      Second — and I explicitly exclude Mendel from this comment — are monks known for truncated hierarchies of needs? As I recall — and I don’t just mean the superb breweries they left behind — they lived quite proactively through their lower chakras.

      Maybe Mendel was just breeding peas to catch a break….

  9. Monks were very busy from medieval times onward. They were quite the horse breeders and did a brisk business in 12th-century France. Today, a number of monasteries also raise and sell dogs. I am wondering if our notions of monastic life are accurate–that is, that being a monk is like being a yogi. Do you know?

    Just finished reading The Ash Wednesday Supper by Giordano Bruno, who as you may know, left the monastery in Nola to become (in his own mind) “the Nolan,” his alter ego who promoted Hermeticism in Italy and Europe. Bruno’s ideas germinated in the monastery. Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, though.

    • Oops, I meant that comment to be yet another reply to Cheri.

      On a completely different note, I recently figured out the guy who wrote that Nietzsche intellectual biography you read (Julian Young) happens to teach philosophy at the university I attend. I’m a philosophy (and economics) double major, so now I feel a little extra motivation to take one of his classes. I hear he’s a Pantheist.

  10. Francis Crick, in his autobiographical “What Mad Pursuit,” tells this story about his former Nobel-winning boss’s need for gardening downtime:

    “The current Cavendish Professor was Sir Lawrence Bragg (known to his close friends as Willie), the formulator of Bragg’s law for X-ray diffraction … Bragg was one of those scientists with a boyish enthusiasm for research, which he never lost. He also was a keen gardener. When he moved in 1954 from his large house and garden in West Road, Cambridge, to London, to head the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, he lived in the official apartment at the top of the building. Missing his garden, he arranged that for one afternoon each week he would hire himself out as a gardener to an unknown lady living in The Boltons, a select inner-London suburb. He respectfully tipped his hat to her and told her his name was Willie. For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window, said to her hostess, ‘My dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?’ ”

    Notwithstanding all of the instances of thinkers doing their best work while enjoying a respite from intellectual society—Heisenberg at Heligoland, Schrodinger on a romantic getaway, Alfred Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, Thoreau ruminating at The Pond—thinkers generally crave connectedness, gravitate towards centers of learning, and prefer, at most, to alternate between isolated and stimulating environments.

    Nor was Einstein intellectually isolated in Berne. He sought the company of fellow students, was married to one, was a member of his derisively-named “Olympia Academy,” worked on both Special and General relativity with Michelangelo Besso, who he lured to the patent office, and Einstein credited for making “several valuable suggestions” regarding Special Relativity.

    So why was Einstein uniquely creative during his Berne years? Perhaps in part because, as a non-academic, he felt that he had little to lose? His career at the Swiss Patent Office would not likely be derailed by some errant idea he might publish in the Annalen der Physik. Mendel similarly had little to lose, but his genuine isolation ultimately worked against him: it wasn’t until sixteen years after his death that his plant experiments became instantly iconic.

    • “‘My dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?’ ”

      I love that story.

      You make two great points: To be creative, we ALSO need to feel connected (not in the digital or gadgety but in the human way). And perhaps we need to feel we “have nothing to lose”, ie we need to be accepting of failure.

      I guess my meditation on mendel was more simple: let’s eliminate distraction in order to “go deep”, to “get into the zone”. I don’t imagine that Mendel was socially cut off.

      Regarding your story about Sir Lawrence: It reminded me of antoher great story I heard somewhere about an eminent black judge in the South.

      One day he was gardening in his own yard. A white lady in a big car pulled up and asked out of her window how much he charges for this kind of work.

      Oh nothing, said the judge. I just get to sleep with the lady of the house.

      The white woman sped off.

  11. Andreas, isn’t all this quietness sort of disquieting? Are we to believe that Mr Mendel really has been as quiet a character as you’re picturing him? Praying, pondering, watching peas grow and taking a nap? Can’t you imagine him feverishly walking up and down the path between his pea lots figuring out some unexpected outcome; laughing heartily during supper with his brethren; quickening his pace to his shed in the morning to inspect his seedlings?
    He must have been young and eager, once, and he must have been simply human, as well.

    • Well, you’re reminding me that I should probably try to find out what he was really like. I don’t know if there is a good biography of him.

      In short, we don’t know. Which is why I said “conjecture”.

      But “feverishly walking up and down the path between his pea lots”? I cannot imagine that. He was at it for so many years, after all.

    • I believe I can speak with some authority on the topic of Austrian character in general, and the description of Mr. Mendel as taking turns between pondering, watching his peas grow, and taking naps rinks perfectly authentic to my eyrs.

      Austrians are laid back, patient, and they love to cross stuff. As you can see, I just crossed rings with looks and eyes with ears, and within only one generation I got rinks and eyrs.

      A few years ago, I inserted two batteries of different brands into my remote to see how this would alter my TV-viewing experience over time, relative to the years before where my remote had been powered by two batteries of the same brand. Even though, thus far, I haven’t been able to detect any difference, I’m not exactly “feverishly walking up and down” my living room. When the change comes, it’ll come. Or maybe it won’t. All I can do is wait and see.

      Nothing unusual about such attitude. Just very Austrian.

    • Andreas, I just read wikipedia on Mendel. His portrait shows a proud and ambitious man, a man of authority.
      Gregor Mendel
      I see he became abbott of his monastery and kept this position for over a decade, until his death. He had an argument with the secular branch of authority about taxation. He didn’t budge for all those years. He must have been of a rather stubborn character.
      As an abbott, he can’t have been taking naps when it pleased him. I think he had neither the time, nor the inclination for taking naps, nor would he have been sitting by quietly watching peas grow. As the master of the House, the man of ideas, he would have instructed his brethren to tend his precious peas and do as he saw fit.
      I grant you, it’s quite a bit of Hineininterpretierung, but I also noticed he – as a boy at his ancestral farm – had to cope with an older and a younger sister, so he must have developed a strong personality. 😉

    • Cyberquill
      I bet you’re right on the typically Austrian disposition, but Mendel wasn’t of Austrian stock, though the place of his birth was situated in the then Austrian Empire.
      From Wikipedia:
      Mendel was born into an ethnic German family in Heinzendorf bei Odrau, Austrian Silesia, Austrian Empire (now Hynčice, Czech Republic), and was baptized two days later.
      Now, a German from Silesia, that’s quite a different cup of tea. Don’t you think so?

    • You mentioned stock, so you probably mean a different cup of soup, not tea.

      Anyhow, the very same Wikipedia defines “ethnic Germans” as those who are considered, by themselves or others, to be of German origin ethnically, not necessarily born or living within the present-day Federal Republic of Germany, holding its citizenship or speaking the German language.

      Since Austrians speak the German language, they fall under Wikipedia’s definition of ethnic Germans. And Silesia, at the time, used to be located within the Austrian empire.

      Case closed. I must get back to my batteries now.

  12. @lagedargent:

    I now read the same Wikipedia article on Mendel (how sad that we should be using it as our main source). And I came to a very different conclusion:

    Mendel did his pea experiments between the ages of 34 and 41.

    He was promoted to abbott later, at the age of 44.

    The sentence in the Wikipedia piece that gives it away is the following:

    “After he was elevated as abbot in 1868, his scientific work largely ended as Mendel became consumed with his increased administrative responsibilities, especially a dispute with the civil government over their attempt to impose special taxes on religious institutions.”

    This would prove my point: He made his breakthroughs while he was (relatively) undistracted and unstressed.

    Once he had responsibility, his creativity was suffocated under what we would today call a mountain of paperwork. Death by conference call, as it were.

    • Look, I had no intention of spoiling the party. Your list of seven stands unchallenged. I only had an inkling of Mr Mendel not being the dopey monk you suppose him to have been. I’m still unconvinced by the points you bring up.
      I think he was a man of vigorous disposition and with a German “Tüchtigkeit”. Why was he made an abbot in the first place? Those were difficult times for the Austrian Empire. It kind of disintegrated after its defeat by Bismarck in 1866. Was Silesia annexed by the Prussians? Four years later, Bismarck defeated the French Empire as well and stood at the cradle of das Reich in Versailles. Rome, and the archbishop of Silesia(?), must have looked for a strong character to run the affairs of the monastery of Brunn, some one who wouldn’t bow to the new Prussian, i.e. Lutheran, administration. And Mendel didn’t disappoint them. He kept haggling for over ten years.
      But in the meantime, did that make him less creative? I doubt it. Look at that ironic smirk around his lips. He had these Prussians raw for dinner, and having finished with his peas, apparently, he started a new project: bees, which had intrigued him from childhood.
      This man was thirsty for knowledge, he couldn’t desist from learning. Certainly not a ‘Biedermeier’, he was a 19th century scientist, full of optimism and endeavor. His position as an abbot suited him well under the circumstances.

      By the way, Bismarck, wouldn’t he be a fitting candidate for your hero list? Only a “Junker”, he steered the fate of Europe for half a century, and kicked off the welfare state.

    • Ah yes, that’s the character in “Human Stain” with a white phenotype but a black genotype who gets into trouble for etc etc.

      I would add, though: “Race” is not a trait like a pea plant’s flower color. We don’t even know what it is. Probably thounsands, or millions, of proteins interacting to give slightly different characteristics along a broad spectrum. Each protein is coded for by one gene, so we’re talking about unspeakably many alleles interacting in unspeakably many permutations….

  13. Richard Feynman on Teaching (from “‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!’ Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard Feynman):

    I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, “At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I am making some contribution” — it’s just psychological.

    When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

    Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

    In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say “I’m teaching my class.”

    If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

    The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

    So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.


    • Wonderful passage from a wonderful man, Jim M.

      (As an aside, somebody burned a DVD for me with grainy old lectures of Feynman on it. A masterwork of humor and insight. Insight is best delivered in a bun of humor. That’s another big topic, I guess.)

      I totally agree with Feynman’s sentiment above. My guess is even Mendel would agree. (I don’t know what sort of interaction he had during the pea years).

      There seems to be a key distinction between the dumb distractions we have today (“Where r u? LOL”) and the simple but unconsciously profound “distractions” by Feynman’s students:

      One sort takes you away from deep thought and serendipitous insight, the other sort leads you toward it. How might the latter do that? There were articles on that recently. Apparently, we learn and ideate through memory. And students’s questions demand the teacher’s recall in different permutations. As the teacher’s memory works to deliver the answer, the teacher himself understands something new….

  14. Monastic leisure well spent with the ratio of attention to effort well in favor of attention.

    His respectful presence with his eye and his own thought makes me like him intensely.

    The article was like a piece of cake with cream and a strawberry on top. Thank you.

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