My big sister, Barbara, who is not only older than I but much wiser, decided that I needed a book to read as a way of taking my mind off Obama's plummeting poll numbers, so she suggested three or four things [she is an insatiable reader], and I chose Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb, and other tales of love, war, and genius, as written by our genetic code. Faithful Amazon.com delivered it almost immediately, and I am now more than a hundred pages into it.
Kean is not a practicing evolutionary biologist [Barbara, who knows an enormous amount about such things, tells me that on occasion he gets the genetics wrong], but he has a magpie mind that has collected up an astonishing array of stories, gossip, scandals, and fascinating tidbits to go with his very engagingly expounded genetics. The result is a simply delightful book, which I recommend to all of you.
One chapter in particular quite unexpectedly hit very close to home, the chapter devoted to the great early twentieth century geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan and his research assistants. Hunt won the Nobel prize for his work, which focused on the common fruit fly, drosophila. [Fruit flies were the perfect objects of study by early geneticists because they have unusually large chromosomes, which could be seen rather clearly with the microscopes of the day.]
What did all of this have to do with the Wolff family? Well, my father, Walter, after graduating from C.C.N.Y. in 1923, went to Columbia [a short bus ride down Amsterdam Avenue] to do an M. A. in Biology. He dreamed of getting a doctorate, but since he was by then married to my mother, he left school and began a career as a biology teacher in the New York City high schools. With whom did he study at Columbia? Yup. Thomas Hunt Morgan.
The basement of our little house in Queens, which my father himself finished into a rec room, had an old microscope and several boxes of slides in it. Barbara and I would peer through the monocular scope at stained slides of all manner of stuff. In high school, first Barbara and then I studied Biology with Paul Brandwein [Dr. Paul Brandwein, as we were reminded], who had at one point been a teacher in the High School Biology Department chaired by my father. Brandwein seized on the newly established national competition called, after its sponsor, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search [now the Intel Science Talent Search], and pushed his very best seniors into entering the competition. Students had to take a written exam on science and do an original research project. The forty best competitors were brought to Washington D. C. for a week, where one boy and one girl [as they were then referred to] were selected as grand national winners. Each of them got a $2400 college scholarship, which in those days was enough to pay four years of tuition [eat your hearts out, young people!]
My sister chose to study a species of fruit fly -- drosophila melanagaster. She produced in them phenocopies -- bodily changes [eye color and such] that mimicked mutations, but were induced by shining a special light on them. Bobs did her research in the basement, but as all of us have found, fruit flies are pesky critters with no sense of decorum, and every evening at the family dinner table a little cloud of migrants from the basement would hover over our meal.
Sure enough, Barbara was the grand national girl winner her year. I even got into the act, because Barbara was supposed to make a presentation of her research at a New York science fair on the same day that Swarthmore had scheduled her for an on-campus interview. So little Robby put on some presentable clothes and stood in for her, speaking knowledgeably about something he knew almost nothing about [a harbinger of my eventual career, I fear.]
I knew all of this from childhood, but until I read Kean's chapter on Hunt, I had never put it all together in my mind. I felt, as I went through the chapter, as though I were reading our family history.