Thursday Apr. 6, 2017

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My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold
      A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
      Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

“My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth. Public domain.  (buy now)

Today in 1748, excavations began to unearth the doomed city of Pompeii, where nearly 11,000 people were killed in place and buried under 80 feet of ash by the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The items buried beneath the volcanic matter, including human bodies, entire buildings, household items, food, drink, paintings, lay perfectly preserved for thousands of years by lack of air and moisture. The eruption stopped everything in a moment. Because Pompeii was situated so close to the vent of the volcano, death was instant even to those within closed buildings as a blast of heat at least 480 Fahrenheit surged over the city. Ash rained over the bodies for about six hours afterward, creating a fully mummified town beneath.

Some interesting things that have been recouped from the excavation over the years: a wine jar bearing the world’s earliest known marketing pun, Vesuvinum (from Vesuvius and Latin vinum, for wine); roots, seeds, and pollens from nearly intact gardens indicating that inhabitants grew and ate wheat, millet, walnuts, chickpeas, bitter vetch, olives, figs, pears, peaches, onions, carob, and grapes; vulgar graffiti that reads much like its modern counterparts, proclaiming Gaius Pumidus Diphilus was here and Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald.

It was on this day in 1327 that Italian poet Petrarch (books by this author) (1304) first set eyes on “Laura,” the ethereal woman he would use as his muse for more than 300 sonnets. He met Laura on a Good Friday at St. Clare Church in Avignon. Some historians think she was a woman named Laura de Noves, a married woman and mother, and most agree she never responded to Petrarch’s overtures. She died during the Black Death of 1348. The first 263 poems Petrarch wrote for her are known as the Rime in Vita Laura. After she died, the remaining poems were known as Rime in Morte Laura. Petrarch’s works for Laura laid the groundwork for the sonnets of the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without Petrarch.

About his unconsummated love for Laura, Petrarch wrote: “In my younger days, I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair — my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.”

It’s the birthday of biophysicist James Dewey Watson (books by this author), born and raised in Chicago (1928). He was a curious child, and would read the World Almanac for fun. He became interested in bird-watching, and that led to an interest in genetics and inherited characteristics. He received a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was 15, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology. From there, it was on to Indiana University and a Ph.D., also in zoology. The newly minted Dr. Watson, just 22, took a job at the University of Copenhagen, where he began his research into the genetic makeup of viruses.

In the fall of 1951, Watson moved to Cambridge University, and soon he began working with Francis Crick. The two men shared an interest in DNA, and both believed that it should be fairly easy to work out its structure. Their first attempt was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t long before they hit upon it: a double helix, which looked like a twisted ladder. This model also enabled them to explain how DNA could replicate itself. The two halves of the ladder would separate, like the two sides of a zipper, and each half would serve as a template for the new strand. The two men published their findings in the journal Nature in 1953. Watson, along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery.

In 1968, Watson published The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. It begins: “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” and it is a gossipy look behind the scenes of one of the most important scientific discoveries of modern times. One reviewer called it “lucid, honest, [and] suspenseful” but also “unbelievably mean in spirit.” In 1998, the Modern Library ranked it number seven on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. Watson has also written a memoir: Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science (2007).

And: “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people [...] you must always turn to people who are brighter than yourself.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®