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7 Going South

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

Near the end of my undergraduate life, I set about blissfully applying to graduate schools, including Duke. There was lurking a possible slight hitch to entering this dream world; I had a commitment to serve two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy after commissioning as an ensign (the naval term for what the army calls a second lieutenant). However, the navy seemed to have had an excess of young officers entering at the time and readily allowed anyone qualified to have eighteen months in the inactive reserves to get a master’s degree before going on active duty. The master’s degree limit seemed like a constraint, but I hadn’t met Bill Byrne yet. Bill was a biochemistry professor at Duke who served as the departmental graduate program director. He was undaunted by both the department’s and the navy’s rules and worked out an acceptance for me to take a master’s degree, which the navy approved. He then produced a second letter to convince the navy that as Duke didn’t really like to give a master’s in biochemistry, it would be far better to let me stay on for a Ph.D. In a miracle of bureaucratic accommodation, they approved that too.

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6 Transformations

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

After one more family move, I did my last year before college in another new school, Gateway Senior High in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville. As many of my classmates were also new students who had just transferred there with the metastasis of suburban sprawl, no cliques of cool kids had built up and the teachers were good. Perhaps the best was our exceedingly sarcastic English teacher, who supplied just the right attitude for reading about the oddities of the Macbeth family and Julius Caesar’s unfortunate misjudgment of his friends. Two of my Gateway friends eventually took doctoral degrees in science. Tom Taylor became a mechanical engineer, and Mary Boesman became an immunologist. She died in 2007. Mary and I both read history and lent each other books. This was the best of my twelve-year run of schools, and I remember it fondly.

But that pleasant year also included the looming matter of where I should go to college. Given what my family could afford, my choices were limited. I could attend a university in Pittsburgh and live at home or attend the state university and live away. Not much of a contest. Despite the good universities around Pittsburgh, living at home would suffocate my becoming independent. After all the adventures of filling in applications, taking College Board exams, being interviewed, and sitting in on a sprinkle of college class lectures, I left for Pennsylvania State University in the fall of 1959. My parents took me to State College and helped me move into my first dorm, but I was anxious for them to leave. I now had to make my own triumphs and my own missteps (ludicrous missteps outnumbered triumphs that first year). Our first assembly as freshman students included an address by the president of Penn State. He told us to look at the person on our left and the person on the right. One of them would be gone before the year’s end. Perhaps that encouraging invitation to embarrassed sidelong glances constituted what might be described as a subtle preparation for life.

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8 Learning to Love the Bomb

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

As I was completing my Ph.D. dissertation in the spring of 1967, I uneasily awaited my orders to report for active duty in the U.S. Navy. The anticipation was tense because I was a line officer and thus could have been sent to serve in a warship cruising off the Vietnam coast, a depressing thought. The Vietnam War was every day becoming ever more obviously a futile exercise made up of empty victories and doctored body counts. Each night statistics were reported in television briefings featuring confident and heavily be-medaled generals who jabbed pointers at authoritative-looking multicolor charts. No matter how glorious the assertions, effective victories were elusive. The war was a waste of life without any claim to a valid purpose. There were fevered references to hapless countries succumbing to communism like falling dominoes if American troops went home, but in reality combat churned on only to protect the reputation of a president who couldn’t admit defeat. The fateful orders finally arrived. The envelope lying on my desk held my future – orders were orders. It seemed like the famous box containing Schrödinger’s cat, which existed in an undecided state between life and death. I opened the envelope; the cat was alive. I had been assigned to a research institute at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which had a slot for a line officer. With my assignment to active duty, Beth got a booklet in the mail called Welcome Aboard to the Navy Wife. She was incredulous at the instructions about when and how to wear white gloves and, worst of all, that she should respond to the wishes of her commanding officer’s wife as her husband did to his commanding officer’s orders. Actually, nothing of the sort happened, and we shared social occasions with friends serving similar tours of duty.

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5 In the Natural World

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

I was an inveterate naturalist. Each year I anxiously awaited the return of spring (and, truthfully, the end of the time-crawling endless school year). I felt a strong curiosity and an intense attraction for the look and feel of natural forms and creatures, the stranger the better. At various times my interests settled on hunting salamanders, insects, turtles, snakes, and fossils in the forested hills near our house. I had read that snakes had no eyelids, so I had to look a snake in the eye. Sure enough, their eyes are covered by the clear window of a single modified scale and can’t be closed even in sleep. All snakes are carnivores. I kept snakes and watched them feed using independently attached lower jaws armed with sharp, curved teeth. A snake engulfs its prey by walking each jaw alternately down its victim’s body, and there is no escape once a snake begins to swallow. It happened to me. I was handling a middling sized garter snake, about eighteen inches long and about as thick as my index finger. It bit the tip of that finger and held on. This posed a quandary to both of us. The snake couldn’t let go because of its recurved teeth, so it began to work its jaws up my finger, committing itself to swallowing a nearly full-sized human – a new frontier for a garter snake. I carefully disengaged its independently movable lower jaws, and slid my finger free without hurting the snake. Fortunately, its upper jaws hadn’t secured much of a hold because my fingernail was in the way. I got to keep a few tiny punctures as souvenirs.

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11 Evolution as Science

Rudolf A. Raff Indiana University Press ePub

When I was a kid and enjoyed collecting fossils and fantasizing about live dinosaurs, I was completely, even magnificently, ignorant when it came to grasping what evolution is, beyond a vague notion of one kind of dinosaur following another through time to their inevitable doom. There were many things I didn’t even know that I didn’t know – like what science itself is. Then there were other gaps in my knowledge, most critically of the historical origins of evolutionary biology and, most difficult to grasp, what the living science of evolution is all about. Much education happens by accident and curiosity. I have never had a formal course in evolution, and my becoming an evolutionary biologist came as a result of my reading as I became a molecular developmental biologist. I only later came to do research on the relationship between developmental biology and evolution. Now, as a whim of fate, I teach evolution to students who have no idea that I never took the course myself.

Science is about understanding the natural world. As scientists, we assume that nature operates under the actions of consistent natural forces; no miracles or other supernatural phenomena are involved. This is not to suggest that scientific reality will necessarily correspond to commonsense reality. The bizarre world of quantum mechanics makes no connection with common sense, nor can we have personal comprehension of the vast geological times we have to think about in studying evolution. Scientists assume that we can extract a consistent understanding of the natural world, and that we can test our working models, hypotheses, under tough criteria. Hypotheses should seek the least convoluted assumptions; they should not require special fudge factors; they should explain existing knowledge; and finally, they must predict the results of experimental test or new observations. Only hypotheses with a high degree of explanatory power and a history of surviving all challenges are promoted to the status of a theory. But science is always conditional. Even theories may be susceptible to being overthrown if a better model of the world becomes available. Some theories, like the rule that matter is composed of atoms, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that life has evolved, are strongly established and are unlikely to be incorrect.

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