Denaturing the Mind for Discovery – Remembering Kary Mullis through the Voice of Italo Calvino

Sarah Baker

Photo courtesy of the Foundation Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Nobel laureate Kary Mullis passed away on August 7, 2019 at the age of 74. Although a controversial scientific figure due to his climate change denial, rejection of the fact that HIV causes AIDS, strong belief in astrology, and open use of hallucinogenic drugs, it is impossible to deny the importance of his contribution to biology: the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. I wrote this piece for Stephen Hall’s Advanced Science Communication course a couple of years ago that asked students to imitate a famous author’s distinct writing style to narrate a well-known scientific discovery. Intrigued by the idea that Mullis thought up PCR while under the influence of LSD, I tried to inhabit Mullis’ mind during this time. The style of the Italian post-modern fiction writer Italo Calvino, with its overly elaborate and somewhat mystical style, seemed to be a perfect fit for the story of the invention of PCR. The following is a fictionalization of Mullis’ insight.

Photo Courtesy of nobelprize.org

Well this is the story I will tell you and this is how I remember it. There I was, driving up and down the winding road, my beautiful Jennifer sleeping beside me, and I was in love with each turn as I headed towards my cabin. And by love I do not mean romantic love in the truest sense. It was the kind of love that comes from the full joy of being in the moment, hands gripped on the wheel. If I am being perfectly honest, I was not completely sober, but I am pleased to say that I felt as if I was in complete control of that vehicle. Or to represent the situation more truly, the LSD in my system could’ve been gone at that point. But, you know, in reality it was always there. You must understand that this was the type of road where everything looked the same, even if you had made the drive along the two-lane highway dozens of times before, as I had.

I remember it well how each redwood would try to pass by in a blur, but I would not let them do that to me. What I would really try to do was to shift one into focus, and then the next. I did this to try to understand their beauty, as you must admit that you have tried to do before too. Maybe I was driving too fast, but to be honest about it, I did not care. There was no point in worrying about it. I had to stay focused on each second to comprehend that road. I looked over and she was awake, asking me how much further, but I did not know. If I think about it, you know, it felt like only a few seconds since we were in Cloverdale. But then I saw the mile marker coming into view, and I realized that we passed Cloverdale 50 miles ago. The rolling hills had swallowed me, or rather I had the feeling that I was coming out of a deep abyss. But then, as sharply as the feeling of falling deeper and deeper, I had this feeling of serenity because I came out anew on the other side. When I try to describe it more accurately, it felt as if I was controlling my own body as I travelled as a roller coaster through the trees. There was this pulsing feeling as my brain was ebbing and flowing with the car, expanding and contracting with my thoughts.

Now really up until now I have been setting up the space in which I was existing in this moment. But to help you understand better, let’s go to the real beginning. Throughout the upward and downward tree-filled monotonous drive, my mind shifted to my work, as it tended to do. I made it so that DNA was passing by in my mind. And as I usually did, I boiled it in the heat of my mind, denaturing A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s. As my concentration cooled, the DNA retook its shape. I could do this over and over and it pleased me to watch this process to pass the time. This is not something I ever really wondered about, but it was just something that I did. So what I am speaking of is that my mind can see itself, as I am sure you have felt before. To be more precise about it, this is something that I had probably done thousands of times and I would play this process on repeat. First of all, I added heat to separate the helix. Then I watched closely as the strands came apart. Then I added my oligotide and the polymerase cut as it had been designed by nature to do.

But to make this point clear, up until now, it was always the same in my mind. So to follow my story, you must understand that as I was rocked by the rolling of the road, I suddenly thought of adding another oligotide. I let this oligotide slip into the slate of my mind and now there were two oligotides on the surface right in front of me, dangling right before my windshield. Then, as I had thought of countless times before, polymerase entered and polymerase copied. Now, if you are imagining it like I am, there were two DNA strands. But here is where this played again in my concentrated mind. All I had to do was denature and then cool once more, over and over again. If you see it with me, four DNA strands will be lying before you. Now you do it again. You see eight strands, and then sixteen, and on and on it goes. If you follow me now, you know that I extended this process to the limits of my mind, until my mind was full of DNA. Then there were too many DNA strands and they were leaking out. I was becoming aware that as I lost count, I had stumbled upon a significant discovery.

Coming back to the reality before me, I wondered how I had arrived at the cabin. This wonder hit me with fury as I was daunted by the realization of the redwoods towering over me again. Here I must explain that even with the awareness that I was more tired than ever before, and maybe less conscious, I had never felt more alive. The need for a pen overwhelmed me and I had to draw outside my mind to see what my mind saw. Where was that bottle of Cabernet that I brought with me? I poured out a glass and drew out the DNA as it amplified. This was undoubtedly a computer propagating numbers faster than I could think them. I was replicating, over, over, over—and it is difficult to describe in precise terms whether I was awake or asleep. I was totally lost and the wine had my consciousness in and out. But as I daydreamed and night-dreamed, what I saw clearly in my mind was a chain reaction. I was taken over by the thought that others had surely done this chain reaction? But then I knew this was not the case or I would have heard about it. It is difficult to say when I suddenly realized that Jennifer was out taking in the sun by the pond. Was it morning?

Biologists Call for Open Science, but Competition Creates Challenges

Audrey Goldfarb

Transparent and thorough communication of data has the potential to streamline major scientific advances. For Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam, open science practices like these would have transformed her Ph.D. thesis. “While I was at Rockefeller, I was scooped five times,” she said.

As a student in Nina Papavasiliou’s lab, Zaringhalam aimed to develop a method to map the RNA modification pseudouridine throughout the transcriptome. However, she was stopped cold by the simultaneous publication of several similar methods.  Had her field been more communicative and forthright about work in progress, she could have redirected her time and energy to other pursuits.

Zaringhalam pivoted her focus to a comparative analysis on these techniques and encountered another frustrating development: the methods were difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce.

Due to the problems she encountered in her field, Zaringhalam developed passions for both transparent science communication and ways to improve reproducibility. She published her Methods paper “Pseudouridylation meets next-generation sequencing” in September 2016 and graduated the following spring with an offer in hand to become an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science policy fellowship.

Though many biologists may support the concept of open science, including open access publishing, many are also apprehensive. This contradiction is a product of our academic culture, which tends to assess the worth of data by the journal it is published in, rather than evaluating robustness on a case-by-case basis. In an increasingly competitive field, publishing in Cell, Nature, and Science has become the expectation at elite institutions. Scientists at all career stages want to change these policies and practices, but fighting the system is risky for trainees and untenured professors. Established heads of lab and scientists working in science communication and policy, however, can leverage their influence and security to promote a move towards open science.

As an AAAS Fellow, Zaringhalam specialized in open science and data science policy in biomedical research. “Policy is really exciting for me because I can keep learning, which is the reason why I, and a lot of people, wanted to become scientists,” she said. “I see how that learning applies to how research is ultimately done, in academia and beyond.”

A big part of Zaringhalam’s work focuses on reproducibility and equipping scientists with tools to generate reproducible research. Using electronic laboratory notebooks like Jupyter and version-control software like GitHub, for example, facilitates easy access to data and pipelines necessary to reproduce and repurpose data.

Zaringhalam recently led a workshop in which scientists were asked to reproduce data from several papers, which proved difficult. The group then discussed ideas such as introducing reproducibility as a criterion in the peer review process. “We had some nice discussions and ideas coming out about what needs to change within our culture to create a research environment that’s more collaborative rather than competitive,” Zaringhalam said.

Zaringhalam recently transitioned into a new role as a Data Science and Open Science Specialist at the National Library of Medicine, where she will continue to tackle the reproducibility problem. “This is the first time I’ve had a job that wasn’t a fellowship,” Zaringhalam said. “I will have a lot more opportunity to be thinking long-term about what kind of presence and impact I can have.”

Scientists tend to focus their efforts on communicating positive, exciting results because it is difficult to publish negative results in high-impact journals. Zaringhalam argues that this culture impedes progress. “The publishing space is very competitive, and people don’t necessarily want to read about the things that didn’t go right even though there’s a lot of value in that,” she said.

“We do have this responsibility to show what we’ve done, whether it’s positive, negative, or non-confirmatory,” Zaringhalam said. Cleaning up the data to make it sharable and reusable allows it to be repurposed. Moreover, if an experiment does not work, that is good for the next person to know. “There’s some work to be done to think about how we can change that culture and how we can see negative and non-confirmatory results as being useful,” Zaringhalam said.

Recent developments to ameliorate these issues include open access journals and pre-prints, which allow researchers to publish primary research manuscripts without being subjected to an extensive review process that favors high-impact results.

“You have to have these results published where researchers are already looking if you want them to encounter them,” Zaringhalam said. BioRxiv, a pre-print server, has become increasingly popular, with over 1 million papers downloaded as pre-prints every month, many to later be published in peer-reviewed journals. ASAPbio, headed by biochemist Dr. Jessica K. Polka, is another organization that encourages pre-prints in biology and calls for the publication of peer review to make the publication process more transparent and accountable.

Dr. Harold Varmus, co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on retroviral oncogenes, has been influential in shaping science policy and promoting open science. He has served as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and President and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and currently heads a lab as the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell. Varmus co-founded  Public Library of Science (PLoS), and headed several successful efforts to make papers publicly available. “Science should be shared,” he said.

Varmus, Zaringhalam, and many others share the belief that the pressure to publish in prestigious journals undermines the accessibility of science. “In the biomedical world, we are not very open,” Varmus said. “We all work hard, but our values have been distorted.”

Still, a rigorous peer review process is important. “If you believe that peer review does something, you can’t be satisfied by only the preprint form,” Varmus said. “Work needs to be subjected to stiff statistical analysis and validation that people have been lax about.” The goal is to judge data more on its robustness and reproducibility, and less on bold and flashy claims.

Although most scientists may agree with this in principle, trainees and untenured investigators hesitate to sacrifice prestige and potential career advancement. Refraining from the opportunity to publish in elite journals might not result in an impact big enough to be worth the risk. It may be that real change needs to come from people with career and financial security. “The government and other funders have the real power here,” Varmus said.

For trainees and junior faculty, Zaringhalam recommends using electronic laboratory notebooks to record protocols; she also emphasizes the importance of designing clear presentations. These practices gear lab culture towards reproducibility and collaboration. “Even if it’s on a small scale, it still matters,” she said. “Science is something that fundamentally builds on itself.”

Fighting Fatigue

Emma Garst

Sometime in the last ten years, Jess got a tick bite. Maybe it was at our local park, where we would sometimes have picnics and watch the deer stroll by. Maybe it was that time we spent a night in Big Sur, our lopsided tent parked on a thicket of brambles. Maybe it was at Point Reyes, when she waded into a field of perfect golden grass for a picture. In the picture her hands are raised up in a classic Facebook “yay!” position, her face lit-up in a happy cackle. The grass tickles just under her armpits. It would be years before she looked on these forays into nature with any scrutiny. In the meantime, she became a scientist.

Jess knew at an early age what a scientist looks like. Her parents, first generation Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants, met at MIT, and they tried to instill a love for science in their children. “People ask me if I felt pressured into science–but I actually feel grateful to my parents for making it a very clear option.” She smiles across the kitchen table where we are whiling away a morning. “Sometimes it amazes me that anyone can get into science because it’s so intimidating. There’s this very specific idea of what it looks like to be a scientist, what it is to be a scientist.”

Making good use of our proximity to Stanford, in high school she began working in a lab that uses fly genetics to study how the brain develops. She learned how to mate flies and how to pull out their brains under a dissecting microscope. But the real impetus for her interest in neuroscience came from the community around her. “We were all super sleep-deprived, even in ninth grade. I just saw how it was affecting people.”  Our high school was known for its high achieving students, but it was also known for less happy things – anxiety, depression, suicides. “I was curious why teenagers were like this – I knew the one thing that really defined us as teenagers in Palo Alto is that we were all sleep-deprived.”

Jess continued her studies in neuroscience at Princeton. She developed tools that allowed researchers to image neural circuits, making beautiful tangles of color. She also learned how to traverse the rarified world of Ivy League science as a black woman. “In many spaces, it’s not a priori obvious you should be there,” she explains. “You have to project confidence and a sense of purpose. … I’ve sort of developed that ability to always seem like I know what I’m doing.”

Throughout, she planned to use her training to study sleep. Jess is interested in sleep on a molecular level, and how sleep and psychiatric disorders are linked. However, in her sophomore year of college she started feeling fatigued. She would be worn out, like she was recovering from a cold, and wake up every morning with a headache. When she went to the doctor, he checked her for mono. When that came back negative, he told her to sleep more. She was a college student after all.

Despite the seemingly close relationship between sleep and fatigue, these processes affect each other in complicated ways. Muddling the matter is how we use fatigue interchangeably with tiredness and sleepiness in our everyday language. These symptoms can be caused by lifestyle or sleep disorders – someone who fights strong bouts of sleepiness throughout the day might need more sleep, or they might be narcoleptic. Someone who feels persistently weak, dizzy, and listless (signs of fatigue) might need more sleep, or they might be an insomniac. Beyond sleep disorders, both sleepiness and fatigue can be caused by acute infection (think flu) and chronic immune dysfunction (think lupus). As a symptom, fatigue can be crippling. As a tool for diagnosis, it is practically useless.

During Jess’s first year as a neuroscience graduate student at Harvard, her symptoms of fatigue started to get out of hand. It began to affect her work as a scientist. “[That] was the first time I consistently had moments when I looked at people, and they were disappointed in me,” she recalled. “That experience was scary.” After a year of rotations, Jess went on medical leave. She didn’t know what was wrong with her, and her health was going downhill. “It feels like you’re on a 21 speed bike but you’re stuck in first gear,” she explains. “You can go places, but there’s no way to work up momentum.” She thought medicine just might not have a solution.

Then in 2017, one of her doctors suggested she be tested for B. miyamotoi, a tick-borne pathogen recently discovered in the United States. B. miyamotoi is closely related to the bacteria which causes Lyme disease – but unlike Lyme, an infection is unlikely to cause a tell-tail bulls-eye rash around the tick bite. The Centers for Disease Control report fewer than 60 documented cases of B. miyamotoi in the United States.

Jess had it.

After a course of horse pill sized antibiotics, there are no more bacteria circulating in Jess’s blood–yet her fatigue persists. Since the apparent root cause of her sickness has been cured, Jess is in some ways back to square one. She has that nebulous diagnosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition without a cause. Nevertheless, she is heading back to graduate school. “You know, I’m coming back from medical leave but I’m not actually better. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. No one has answers for that.”

“Right now I’m trying not to be in my scared place.”

Gender Harassment in Science: Instances of Everyday Harm

Emma Garst

*Identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

When I met her, Laura* was the sort of postdoc who exuded professorial confidence. She was charismatic, a good writer and speaker, and an excellent experimentalist. Our professor sang her praises. Why shouldn’t he? She was talented and motivated.

Some lab members started joking that our professor was “clearly in love with her.” The joke spread; it was an easy way to release tension in a very competitive work environment.  I thought Laura was laughing along with everyone else, but when this ribbing continued for a couple of months, Laura turned to me in frustration and asked, “Can’t I just be good at my job?”

In 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a study on sexual harassment in the academic sciences entitled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” The report reveals the shocking extent of gender-based harassment in the academic workplace.

Between 20-50% of female students in science, engineering, and medicine report experiencing sexual harassment. This number jumps to over fifty percent for women at the faculty level. The report further breaks down high-risk populations—women of color and LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to experience harassment than white, heterosexual women.

In total this means that, excluding the military, women in academia are harassed at higher levels than in any other sector of society.

Harassment is not just unwanted sexual attention or sexual assault; it can be a culture of belittling comments or raunchy jokes. The most prevalent but most misunderstood form of sexual harassment is gender harassment. Gender harassment is described as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender.” When I spoke with Kate Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and co-author of the 2018 NASEM report, she had a more snappy way of putting it: “we call [gender harassment] the put-downs of sexual harassment, whereas unwanted sexual advances and sexual coercion are the come-ons.”

These put-downs are all around us—they’re insidious and difficult to articulate because they are so thoroughly normalized in our culture. The women who experience gender harassment and choose to speak up about it are labeled as “sensitive” and over-reactive. But gender harassment is sexual harassment. It is, in fact, the primary form of sexual harassment.

The NASEM report found that women are leaving science due to sexual harassment, and that jokes can be just as harmful to a woman’s career as more violent forms of harassment. The negative effects of gender harassment extend beyond the subject to witnesses, labs, and entire institutions. As the National Academies’ report states, “the net result of sexual harassment is therefore a loss of talent, which can be costly to organizations and to science.”

But why is gender harassment so damaging? “For most people [an unwanted sexual advance] is a rare event. I think for a lot of folks it’s easier to externalize it and say, wow, this guy is just…trying to date me or trying to make me feel bad,” says Clancy. “Whereas put downs are really easy to internalize because one, we don’t recognize them as harassment and two, they often end up making you feel like the problem is you.”

Gender harassment can be even more difficult to spot as a bystander. This was the case with Laura’s harassment—I absolutely laughed along with the group. Despite going to a women’s college, despite considering myself a “Good Feminist,” I didn’t even see what I was contributing to until Laura told me. I hadn’t considered the implications of the “joke” —that she hadn’t earned her praise, that she had been singled out as a favorite not because of her skill but because our principal investigator might be attracted to her.

In a way, Laura’s harassment was textbook—the harassment was coming from her peers (80% of gender harassment does). It was not a one-off joke, but instead lasted for a period of months (which, again, is common). And she didn’t feel there was a way to address the harassment, either through direct confrontation or an institutional route.

So what is it about academia that makes it so toxic for women and damaging to their careers?

One major factor is a culture of male dominance. This is easiest to understand in fields such as engineering and physics, where men vastly outnumber women. However in the biomedical sciences, where women have been earning more Ph.D.s than men for many years, the concept is more nuanced. Male domination in these fields refers to the fact that men generally hold higher positions than women, and that the field has historically been male.

Academia is also hierarchical. Institutions with a strong hierarchical power structure are more likely to foster sexual harassment. This is especially true when power is concentrated in a few individuals (for example, “superstar” professors), and those who report feel that revealing harassment will have lasting effects on their careers. The nature of our system causes students to rely heavily on the full-throated endorsement of their mentors—which leaves them little to no recourse if they wish to report inappropriate behavior.

The truth is academic science is highly competitive. People can be cruel to each other in all sorts of ways, due to professional jealousy, ambition, or just general stress. Everyone has an anecdote about being humiliated at lab meeting, or getting back an eviscerating review on a paper. Everyone has experienced some incivilities (officially defined as, “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target”).

Part of this is the broader culture of academia. “We tend to equate treating people like crap with being rigorous researchers,” Clancy points out. However, these incivilities are not evenly distributed; “There’s ample research that now shows, even though incivilities don’t seem to be gendered, they are actually quite gendered and racialized.…The folks that experience them most are typically women of color followed by white women, then men of color and white men,” Clancy says. Given that women and people of color also have their gender or race routinely used against them, it’s no wonder academia has a climate problem.

In the end, organizational climate is by far the best predictor of sexual harassment. Harassment flourishes where people who report it are perceived to take on risk, where there are no sanctions against perpetrators, and where reporters’ experiences are not taken seriously by their peers or institutions.

Sure, individuals harass. But that is a learned behavior that grows out of a culture of perceived ambivalence. Frequently an institution’s priority is “symbolic compliance,” which focuses on protecting the institution and avoiding liability, instead of ensuring the safety of its employees.

Any institution serious about the success of the women it hires must take decisive action to stamp out the toxic culture that dominates the scientific workplace. Without a concerted effort to reform the workplace, gender equality will always be a fantasy for the academic sciences.

It’s the accumulation of harassment over many years that causes lasting damage to women in science. I truly think that every one of Laura’s experimental successes was, at some point or another, reduced to “because he’s in love with you.” In a job that contains so much day-to-day failure, how horrible is it to take away the successes as well?

When Laura and I talked recently, she brought up one of the earliest, most formative experiences of her scientific career. She was a technician, straight out of college, and had gone to her professor to propose some experiments.

“Woah, watch out,” he said. “Girl scientist on the loose.”

Of course this affected the way she presents herself. Of course this caused her to think about how she is perceived by the scientific community. It was a joke. And it stuck with her.

In the end I moved on from the lab where I met Laura. She moved on too— out of science entirely.

I am a graduate student now. Recently, I received a small bit of positive feedback from someone I consider to be a mentor. Elated, I flounced into lab and showed the first person I ran into.

My labmate read it, and laughed, “he should have just asked for your number.”

Get Your Hot Dogs Here

Aileen Marshall

Classic New York Hot Dog: 100% American beef with sauerkraut and onions on a soft bun. May 31, 2014. Aneil Lutchman.

Hot dog cart on East 16th Street in New York City. October 23, 2007. Rollingrck.

“Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” That was the tagline of an old commercial. Hot dogs are known for being a quintessentially American food, especially associated with sports stadiums. In New York City, hot dog carts are considered iconic.  But how American are they?

Sausages have been around since the ninth century B.C., and were even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Hot dogs are a type of sausage also known as frankfurters or wieners. This particular soft sausage, made from pork byproducts in a thin casing, was first developed in Frankfurt, Germany in the late fifteenth century, hence the name frankfurters. Legend has it that in the 1690s, a butcher in Colburg, Germany notice dthat frankfurters were similar in shape to his dachshund dog. He started calling them dachshund sausages. However, since hot dogs are also known as wieners, Austrians claim they were invented in Vienna in the late 1800s. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was a common practice to eat frankfurters in a bun. This practice was brought to America by German immigrants, not invented here, and they may have already referred to them as dogs.

There are variations of a famous story about how the first hot dogs were invented in America, but they are probably not true. The main rendition is about a man named Feuchtwanger. He was selling hot dogs on the streets in St. Louis (or some say at the World’s Fair) sometime in the late 1800s and would loan people gloves to eat them with so as not burn their hands. However most people never gave the gloves back. When he ran out of gloves, he talked to either a local baker, his wife, or brother-in-law who gave him some long buns he split down the middle. However, there is a lot of written evidence that hot dogs were already around. The writer H. L. Mencken wrote that he had been eating hot dogs since his childhood, in the 1880s, and they were not considered new then.  There are many mentions in Harvard, Yale, and Princeton magazines from the 1890s about “dog wagons” near the colleges. Apparently, they were called “dog wagons” since meat was considered low quality, but they were cheap, making them convenient food for students. So the story about the name “hot dogs” being invented in the early twentieth century by a newspaper cartoonist is probably not true either. Supposedly, Tad Dorgan was at a baseball game, polo match, or bicycle race at the Polo Grounds or Madison Square Garden, sometime between 1900 and 1906. A vendor was yelling something to the effect of, “Get your red hot dachshund sausages here!”, and it caught Dorgan’s attention. He drew a cartoon of the vendor for the New York Journal, but since he didn’t know how to spell dachshund, he just called them dogs; however, no record of this cartoon has ever been found. Ironically, wanting to serve something “truly American,” President Franklin Roosevelt included hot dogs on the menu for the visit of King George VI of England in 1939.

It seems hot dogs have been sold in New York City for well over a hundred years. There are newspaper mentions of hot dogs being sold from push carts, with sauerkraut on a milk roll in the New York City Bowery in the 1860s.  A German immigrant named Charles Feltman opened a hot dog stand in Coney Island in 1867, but it folded during the Great Depression in the 1930s. In 1915, a Polish immigrant working for Feltman slept on the floor of the restaurant to save money. A year later he had saved up $300, which he used to open his own hot dog restaurant in Coney Island. He competed with Feltman by selling his dogs for five cents, while Feltman’s cost ten cents. That enterprising young man was Nathan Handwerker, and his original restaurant is still in Coney Island to this day, with Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog restaurants located all around the country. Their celebrated hot dog eating contest started in 1972 and occurs every year on the Fourth of July.

There is a story that a friend of Feltman’s named Donovan built him a small tin-lined chest with a charcoal stove inside to boil the hot dogs, similar to the hot dog carts we know today. Another claim for the first modern hot dog cart is from 1926. A man named Frances Coffey designed a stainless steel cart with a cooking plate, steam table, and ice box, according to the website New York Tour1. Today there are regulations controlling mobile food vendors, including hot dog carts. The dogs must be pre-cooked and kept in a pan of hot water, which is why they are often referred to as “dirty water dogs.” The carts must have a cooler for storage, and sinks for washing utensils.  Most carts use propane for heating. Umbrellas are required to protect the food from the sun and dust, and there is a limit to the number of condiments carried. Vendors must be also trained in safe food handling practices and have their carts inspected by the city.

While hot dogs are much beloved in the country (we eat about seven billion per year), they are also rather unhealthy. Traditional hot dogs are pre-cooked, made from beef or pork byproducts, fat, salt, spices, and preservatives (mainly nitrates). The World Health Organization lists nitrates as Group 1 Carcinogens. There are many alternatives produced to make them healthier, such as chicken, turkey, or tofu dogs. Most hot dogs we eat are of the skinless type. They are cooked in the skin, or casing, and the skin is removed afterwards.

The customary New York City frank is a beef dog served with mustard and sauerkraut, and sometimes cooked onions in a thin tomato base, on a soft white bun. Different regions and stadiums tend to have their own signature style. In Chicago, hot dogs are buried under mustard, tomato, chopped raw onion, peppers, pickles, relish, and celery salt on a poppy seed bun. They like their hot dogs spicy in Texas; at Astros Field in Houston, dogs are sold with chili, cheese, and jalapeños. The “Fenway Frank” in Boston is boiled and then grilled, and served on a toasted New England-style (flat-sided) bun. The Atlanta Braves have their dogs topped with coleslaw. In Los Angeles, the “Dodger Dog” consists of a grilled ten-inch-long pork frank with ketchup, mustard, chopped onions, and sweet relish.

Hot dogs have always been a convenient food to eat while walking around, at picnics, or at sports stadiums. New Yorkers sometimes refer to the street carts as “sidewalk gourmet.” While not very healthy, it’s one more traditional foods to sample while in a new city, or even in your own.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye…

Aileen Marshall

Slices of New York-style pizza; Photo courtesy of Lizard10979/Wikipedia.

Pizzeria Port Alba in Naples; Photo courtesy of Alexandra Hamer/Wikipedia.

Quick, what is the most ubiquitous food you can think of? One that almost everyone around the world knows and loves, even if they have their own style? What is your go-to food to get when you want something quick and satisfying? I think pizza fits that bill. If you live here in New York City, you know that there is a pizza parlor almost every few blocks. How did pizza become such a pervasive and popular food?

Many ancient cultures had some form of flat bread, for example focaccia in Italy, naan and roti in India. The ancient Greeks made a bread called plakous, often topped with herbs, onions, garlic, and cheese. Archeologist have found evidence of baking a flat bread from 7,000 years ago in Sardinia and of pizza-making tools in Pompeii from the first century B.C. There are notations about soldiers in the sixth century B.C. Persia using their shields to bake a flat bread, and then adding cheese and dates on top.

The pizza as we know it today started in Naples, Italy. In the fifteenth century, Naples had a large working-poor population. Pizza, translated as “pie” in Italian, was a flatbread with cheese and olive oil, and sometimes vegetables. It was a popular, cheap, and quick food for these workers. In 1522, tomatoes were first imported from Peru and it was in Naples that pizza makers started adding tomato sauce to the pizza. Being a port city, many sailors and merchants spread word about pizza throughout Europe. In 1830, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, what is thought to be the first pizzeria in modern form was established in Naples and is still there today.

Raphael Esposito was a famous pizza maker in Naples in 1889. In June of that year he was commissioned to make some special pizzas for the visit of Queen Margherita of Italy. One pizza he made was covered with tomato, mozzarella, and basil, to mimic the colors of the Italian flag. Queen Margherita declared that version her favorite. Afterwards, people started calling that type of pizza “margherita style.”

Pizza first appeared in the U.S. in the 1800s, mostly among Italian immigrants. It surged in popularity after World War II, as many soldiers who had been stationed in Italy came home and raved about pizza. There is some contention as to which was the first pizzeria in the U.S. In 1897, Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery store on Spring Street here in New York City that evolved into a pizzeria, receiving a city-issued commercial license to sell pizza in 1905. Brothers Gennero and Giovani Bruno opened a pizzeria on the Loop in Chicago in 1903 that some claim to be the first U.S. pizzeria. Totonno’s Pizzeria of Coney Island was started by a former Lombardi employee in 1924 where he sold slices for a nickel.

Several factors helped drive the surge in the popularity of pizza in the mid-1900s. Several chain restaurants started in the forties and fifties, such as Pizzeria Uno, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s. The advent of frozen pizza, invented by the Celentano brothers in the 1960s, was another factor. Finally, the delivery of pizza to homes also became popular during the 1960s. The U.S. Army’s military intelligence unit reportedly used pizza deliveries to spy on politicians and reporters in that decade, according to a report issued by the City University of New York.

New York-style pizza is traditionally an eighteen-inch wide pie made in a coal oven, although many places use a gas oven today, and is known for its crispy crust and foldable slices. A “regular” slice has only tomato sauce and cheese. Some say it is the New York City tap water, used in making the glutinous dough that gives it that great, distinctive taste.

Other cities are known for their own unique style of pizza. Perhaps the most famous is Chicago, known for its deep dish pizza. The format, started by Pizzeria Uno, has high edges and uses chunky tomato sauce. In California, pizza is usually a personal sized pie that is topped with local vegetables and avocado. In St. Louis, the crust is made with a yeast-free dough and topped with processed cheese product that is a combination of cheddar, swiss, and provolone. Washington D.C., is known for its jumbo slices that can be more than a foot long and need to be served on two paper plates.

Has all this reading about the history of pizza made you hungry? The author admits to having pizza twice during the writing of this article. Luckily, in this city, there is always a neighborhood pizza parlor. In the Rockefeller area, while we have lost Sutton Pizza, there is still the popular Pizza Park on First Avenue., near 66th Street as well as Famous Ray’s on Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. What is your favorite pizza joint in the city? Next time you are there, remember the famous quote from Yogi Berra when a pizza maker asked if he wanted his pie cut into eight slices: “Better make it four, I don’t think I could eat eight.”

Bye Dakota!

 

This month, the Natural Selections Editorial Board bids farewell to Dakota Blackman. We would like to thank her for her dedication and for helping Natural Selections to become what it is today.

Dakota joined Natural Selections in May of last year as a contributor and editor. She served as the Editorial Assistant and contributed a regular column titled Word of the Month, where she provided the origins of a particular word and deftly examined the timeliness of that word and relevance in today’s society. In a short time, Dakota has made an indelible impact on the Editorial Board. She leaves us this summer in pursuit of a Ph.D. at Princeton University.

We wish her all the best!

A Little Less Laughter in the Halls! Rockefeller Mainstay Isaiah Curry Says Goodbye

 

Aileen Marshall 

 

What can one say about Isaiah Curry? Almost everyone on campus knows him. Many of us know him as “that guy you always hear laughing in the hallways.” And we also know him as the person who handles much of the hazardous waste we generate in our work. He’s always there to greet us with a smile, a joke, or even some helpful advice. If you want to know a tidbit of campus information such as where a certain room or facility is located, or who to contact to find help with different issues, or the history of how the campus has evolved, you can always ask Isaiah. He knows almost everyone at Rockefeller, past and present. After forty-four years of being a campus icon, Isaiah retired on January 31, 2018. I had a conversation with Isaiah one night in the Faculty Club and this is what I learned about his history here. Of course, several people stopped by during the interview to joke with him. 

Having grown up nearby in upper Manhattan, Isaiah had heard of the Rockefeller University through his mother, who had worked here at one time. He started in 1974, originally in the custodial department. In 1976, the Radiation Safety Department was established on the 11th floor of the Weiss Building (then known as the Tower Building), with only five people. One of them invited Isaiah to join the team, where he was trained to handle the radioactive waste. Later, the department changed its name to Laboratory Safety, to encompass more aspects of that area. Then Isaiah added the processing of biological waste to his responsibilities. The department is now called Laboratory Safety and Environmental Health, and Isaiah has been managing biological waste material for the entire campus ever since.  

In the early years, despite being assigned a large grey cellular phone, which was cutting edge technology for its time, Isaiah still had to push all those carts that transported the biological waste materials manually. Later he was upgraded to a flip phone, and eventually the university provided a Power Tug and a small electric truck to help pull and push those large grey carts that transported the material. Isaiah also learned to do his job more efficiently, such as processing the waste after pickup from each building, rather than waiting until he had picked up waste from the whole campus. He often stayed late to finish his work and came in on holidays so there wasn’t a backlog when he returned. He learned early on that students and postdocs work on holidays. “It has nothing to do with overtime, it has to do with staying ahead of the labs…I don’t quit until I’m finished.” He has noticed over the years that the radioactive waste is decreasing and the biological waste is increasing, an indicator of how research techniques have changed. He has always been trustworthy and reliable, and is always glad to help anyone with questions or errors in their waste disposal. Isaiah has returned after several surgeries over the years. Even two hernia operations, a torn knee meniscus repair, and a hip replacement could not keep him away from his duties for long.  

Isaiah is known for greeting everyone he knows with a smile and a joke. Isaiah often jests that he used to be shorter before he started picking up the radioactive waste. Over the years he has gotten to know the likes of Robert Darnell, Günter Blobel, Roderick MacKinnon, Charles Rice, Ali Brivanlou, Michael Young, and Jeffery Friedman. Friedman always invites him to his lab barbeques. Darnell, head of The Laboratory of Molecular Neuro-Oncology, commented “I will forever remember the generous, humorous, and wonderful spirit Isaiah brought to the laboratory every single day, year in, year out. He helped make Rockefeller a special place for the scientists, nurturing the feeling that we were all on the same team, friends and colleagues working together to do something important.” We all know him as one who could make us laugh during the work day. Victor Cisneros, from Information Technology, relayed one humorous episode with Isaiah. They were chatting in the hallway between Greenberg and Founders when a “well-suited gentleman” approached them and asked for directions to Founders. Isaiah gave him directions. After the man left, Isaiah wondered if the man would “get his act together.” Victor said “Isaiah! That’s our new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. It’s his first day on the job!” Susan Powell of the Proteomics Resource Center remembers how he helped her after she was mugged in 2007 on York Avenue and 64th Street. “Isaiah constantly finds me walking the halls looking downward. For years he warned me, “Look up, Sue!” meaning, be aware of my surroundings. He also showed me ways to defend myself using keys. “Carry your keys in your hand so they protrude between the fingers, and if you need to defend yourself, aim for the eyes.” She added “They say laughter is healthy, it relieves stress, it helps the immune system, it helps to heal, it contributes toward a longer life. If all this is true, Isaiah will be around for a very long time.”     

Isaiah has always been active in campus life. Some members of campus might remember Isaiah being involved in the basketball league that began sometime in the 1980s. Isaiah remembers that Patricia Murskey, then head of the Rockefeller library, donated money in memory of someone who had died to have a basketball tournament. They would play teams from other institutions, on a small basketball court, where the Greenberg building is now. And those of you who use the gym might know that Isaiah has always taught a class there. In the early 1980s, when the gym was located in the Graduate Students Residence, where the Child and Family Center is now, mailroom attendant Jose Santos would practice karate there, piquing Isaiah’s interest. Isaiah would work out with him, trained in Santos’s dojo, and eventually became a black belt. Even after Santos left, Isaiah continued to work out and practice in the gym, and other people liked what he did and asked to join him. Thus his class evolved, over thirty years ago.  He has never charged, and faithfully shows up, no matter how much work he has to do. He often goes back to work after class.  

Isaiah’s last official day at Rockefeller University was January 31, 2018. He vows to keep working out, and is toying with the idea of moving Florida. Considering that the Rockefeller is practically Isaiah’s second home, I wouldn’t be surprised if we still see him popping up here from time to time. He has always been a thread that unites us. As many people have commented “it won’t be the same here without him”.  

 

Quotable Quote

 

“It is not only by the questions we have answered that progress may be measured, but also by those we are still asking. The passionate controversies of one era are viewed as sterile preoccupations by another, for knowledge alters what we seek as well as what we find.”

 

Freda Adler, b. 1934

It Could Happen Here

 

Miguel Crespo

The-Handmaids Tale. Key Art Hulu

In late 2016, the streaming service Hulu produced a series of ten episodes based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The first three episodes dropped on April 26, 2017 and scored the biggest debut in Hulu history. In May this year, the show was renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. There have been numerous adaptations since the book was published: theater, opera, ballet, film, and radio. A graphic novel release is also scheduled by the end of the year. Given the recent interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, now is the perfect time to revisit the 1985 dystopian novel.

The story takes place in Gilead, a society organized by power-hungry leaders, according to a not-so-extremist interpretation of a biblical account. The story that was originally used as a reference was that of Jacob, who had two wives and two handmaids. In an era of declining births due to chemical pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, a new order is established where certain women are used as “handmaids”. Deprived of all of their rights, handmaids are considered objects destined to serve as child bearers for affluent families. The story is narrated in the first person by a handmaid named Offred. Interspersed within flashbacks, she provides an account of her previous life. Together with her husband and daughter, she had tried to flee to Canada, only to be abducted, brought back, and re-educated in the new values. An entire indoctrination system is revealed to the reader: the Republic of Gilead. This new society is stratified such that everybody has a well-defined position and function. As a patriarchal system, power is held by older men called commanders. They are married to wives but have the privilege of owning a handmaid for reproductive purposes. In this oppressive atmosphere, strict rules on language, daily activities, and ultimately thought are reinforced by a secret service known as The Eyes of God. One night, Offred defies the system and becomes involved in illicit activities that bring an element of risk to her life.

Offred’s story falls into the tradition of dystopian novels like Brave New World or 1984. As such, the author creates a unique language in which terms for the new social classes abound. The word “sterile” is banned, and women who fail to abide by the strict social rules are considered “unwomen” and sent to shovel toxic waste in the colonies. Throughout the story, the author also plays with the mock Latin aphorism nolite te bastardes carborundorum in a recurrent and intriguing fashion; readers have a chance to team up with Offred to try to unravel its meaning. The Handmaid’s Tale remains hard to classify. Deemed a futuristic fable, political satire, or even science fiction, Atwood prefers to consider her novel speculative fiction. In her own words, “science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” When crafting the story, Atwood purposely avoided including anything in the book that had not happened.

Like Offred and her family, Americans fleeing their own land for the neighbor to the north has become a common theme in history. During the Vietnam War, thousands of draft-age men fled to Canada. Before the Civil War, many slaves reached southern Ontario through the underground railway. Even earlier, New England Puritans left for a toilsome life in Nova Scotia. They wanted to create a theocratic utopia in America, and yearned for a city on a hill that would never be realized. The Gilead society seems remote to us, but oozes historical realism, and similarities in recent history are countless: American polygamy, slavery, baby stealing, group executions in the Argentinian dictatorship, and even book burnings, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the same way in which Bolsheviks expelled Mensheviks, the Gileadian Christians persecute Catholics and Baptists, or so are we told by the news. In Gilead, government-issued news are never reliable, just as was the case in Orwell’s 1984.

The-Handmaids Tale. Key Art Hulu

Atwood wrote the novel in 1984 in West Berlin and Alabama. At this time, the USSR governed with an iron fist, severely limiting personal freedoms not only at home, but also in their eastern European satellite states. During these years, in countries such  as East Germany, Poland or Czechoslovakia, silence was imposed among the people who lived in fear of being spied on. Within the same region, under the Romanian dictatorship of President Ceausescu, who wanted to increase his country’s population, birth control and abortion were banned after 1966. Atwood had also travelled to Iran and Afghanistan, where theocratic governments were at play and women’s rights still had some room for improvement.

The Handmaid’s Tale also reveals the importance of environmental issues and their detrimental consequences for society. It is hard to read it without remembering recent nuclear plant incidents. The depiction of Gilead’s environmental situation might sound implausible, but it does not seem so far-fetched when compared with places like China, where pollution and toxic waste have reached levels that are incompatible with human health.

These striking parallels to our current society are disturbing, and have become more palpable since the last Presidential election in the U.S. The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes how little it took for Americans to change their minds about things. It is Offred, in her inner soliloquy, who reflects on the fact that “next generations of women will not complain because they will not know better.”

In Gilead, minorities are targeted by the new regime and there is no room for dissent. In the eyes of the Gileadian society, the traumatic events that led to this new order are blamed on Islamic extremists. Nowadays, hate for certain groups seems to be on the rise, as are far-right movements with overwhelming impunity. For many, freedoms, rights and long established orders are endangered. As simplified language and prohibition of books are a constant in The Handmaid’s Tale, comparisons with emerging trends of communication via Twitter become unavoidable.

The story is rich with irony and complacency. Atwood takes this opportunity to courageously remind us that when repression replaces order, people are ready to trade their personal freedom for what they perceive of as security. Offred is a victim, a tease, and a witness. In an act of hope, she keeps a diary that she hides for future generations. Its timeliness remains unambiguous and tantalizing, as we hear her voice speaking to us. Perhaps we are at a crucial moment in our history. Perhaps we need The Handmaid’s Tale now more than ever.

Quotable Quote

 

 

Margaret Chase Smith

My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, and that honor is to be earned but not bought.

(Margaret Chase Smith, U.S. Congress Representative and Republican Senator, 1897-1995)

Quotable Quote

 

“Why are we suddenly a nation and a people who strive for security above all else? In fact, security is essentially elusive, impossible. We all die. We all get sick. We all get old. People leave us. People surprise us. People change us. Nothing is secure. And this is the good news. But only if you are not seeking security as the point of your life. Here’s what happens when security becomes the center of your life. You can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course. You cling desperately to your identity… Real security cannot be bought or arranged or accomplished with bombs. It is deeper. It is a process. It is the acute awareness that we are all utterly interdependent and that one action by one being in one town has consequences everywhere. Real security is the ability to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity—indeed hungering for these things.”

(Eve Ensler, 1953 – )

Quotable Quote

 

Follow through on all your generous impulses. Do not question them, especially if a friend needs you; act on his or her behalf. Do not hesitate! Don’t sit around speculating about the possible problems or dangers. As long as you let your reason lead the way, you will be safe. It is our duty to stand by our friends in their hour of need.

(Epictetus, 55 – 135)

An Embarrassment of Riches

Anonymous

This politically incorrect (some might even say “disgusting”) puzzle comes to you from an anonymous source, known only to Rockefeller alum (1977) George Barany, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For more about this specific puzzle, including a link to its answer, visit here and here. More Barany and Friends puzzles can be found .

Across

1. Sometimes, they’re not given

6. Burro, e.g.

9. Oscar’s U.K. equivalent

14. Straight: Prefix

15. Word after good or bad

16. Domains

17. “___ In” (Wings hit that begins with “Someone’s knockin’ at the door”)

18. Sugary drink, often

19. Carl ___, whose September 2015 endorsement of fellow billionaire 58-Across was a “no-brainer”

20. Adjective that does not begin to describe 58-Across

23. McCorvey in a landmark case

24. Pay back?

25. Paddle-wheel craft

27. 58-Across inveighing against the IRS?

32. Apprentice, like 58-Across at electoral politics

33. Woman who raised Cain

34. Universal soul, in Hinduism

36. Acts the rat

39. Lawless princess?

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Quotable Quote

Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood we live in; the school or college we attend; the factory, farm or office where we work. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

(Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884 – 1962)

Crossword

GEORGE BARANY AND FRIENDS

The three politically themed puzzles that follow come to you from a consortium of progressively-minded friends of Rockefeller alum (1977) George Barany, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  Prepare to laugh and cry.  For more information, including links to the answers, visit here, here, and here.  More Barany and Friends crosswords can be found here.

Debate and Switch

Across
1. Shack
4. Refused to make one’s taxes public, e.g.debateswitchgrid
7. Plays a sophomoric prank on, informally
10. Lennon’s lady
11. Suffix with Capri
12. Mens ___ (criminal intent, in law)
13. Bee’s channel
14. Moving to the beat
16. Field for Krugman
18. Academy head
19. Collapse an arch
21. Wing it
22. U.S. Grant adversary
23. Word frequently used by The Donald, and about The Donald
24. Lock
Down
1. Inappropriate adjective, when applied to one’s teenage daughter
2. One fine day, to Puccini
3. Proportional
4. Schmooze with the elite
5. Hughes poem reprinted on a full page in “The New
York Times” (September 22, 2016)
6. Literally, with 7-Down. catch-phrase introduced by Hillary at Hofstra
7. See 6-Down
8. Pascal collection
9. Grp. once headed by Ronald Reagan
15. One who mopes
17. Big name in elevators
18. Hang (around with)
20. “___ we can”

What Happened in Vegas?

Across
1. Escalante who inspired “Stand and Deliver”
6. Muslim leader
10. Ancient Mexican
11. Like the first 44 US Presidentsvegasgrid
12. Deportation targets?
14. Bro, for one
15. Sickened feeling
16. Got up
17. Punctual
20. “Bingo!”
23. Hillary, to Donald
25. “L’___ c’est moi” (Louis XIV)
26. Rip from the mother’s womb, rhetorically
27. Type of details
28. Goes high
Down
1. Campaign issue
2. Jai ___
3. With .com, web site for cinephiles
4. Verbal shrug
5. Campaign issue
6. Saturate
7. Opportunity visited it
8. On the quiet side
9. Large butte
13. Attack bigly
16. Quick with quips
17. What a Jewish astronaut celebrates returning to
18. Defense alliance in the news: Abbr.
19. Russian autocrat
20. “Famous” cookie maker
21. Fabled loser
22. Formicary denizens
24. Samurai’s sash

In a Blue State

Across

1. Enthusiasmin_a_blue_state_grid
5. Point of view
9. Macho military type
14. Khayyám or Sharif
15. “Goldfinger” fort
16. Certain Alaskan
17. It means everything
18. Like some rumors
19. Composition of a metaphorical ceiling yet to be broken
20. Title for 48-Across on January 20, 2017 … we wish
23. “Star Wars” princess
24. Holiday quaff
25. Bill, to 48-Across … we wish
32. DC VIP
33. Target of Cain’s mutiny?
34. Year-round quaff
35. Has ___ with (is connected)
36. Majority leader, ironically?
38. Cultivate
39. NFL six-pointers
40. Piano, to a pianist
41. “Soave sia il vento” and “”Hab mir’s gelobt,” for two
42. Anthem for 48-Across … we wish
46. Be under par?
47. Palindromic Indian bread
48. One who won the popular vote on November 8, 2016
55. In a musical key
56. Make well
57. Lesbos, e.g.
58. Jeb, to Jenna and Barbara
59. Ultimatum word
60. Hounds
61. “The View” co-host Joy(anagram of REHAB)
62. Parodied
63. Mardi ___

Down

1. Whiz (by)
2. Statue of Liberty poet Lazarus
3. Novelist who was romantically involved with Chopin
4. Dress rehearsal
5. “Let’s not go there”
6. Costumed for “La Cage aux Foiles,” perhaps
7. He had a cameo in “Wordplay”
8. Donald and Ivana, e.g.
9. Ann or Andy, e.g.
10. Profess without proof
11. Like the Grinch
12. Arrest
13. Tiebreakers, briefly
21. Cluttered condition
22. Hacker’s harvest, briefly
25. Henry of “Fail-Safe”
26. Formal “Who’s there?” answer
27. “___ in the Balance” (1992 book by Gore)
28. Draft org.?
29. Nobelist Curie
30. Distant
31. A lot of it was fake
32. Way to go
36. Cabbage
37. Frequently, in verse
38. Like the Cheshire cat
40. Ben or Jerry
41. Spicy Asian cuisine
43. “I can’t hear you!”
44. Sheathe
45. Matched, as a poker bet
48. Sharpen
49. Creep
50. Big bird
51. Website for customer reviews
52. Russian autocrat
53. Russian name meaning “holy”
54. An “Untouchable”
55. Place to soak

Culture Corner

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and the 2016 Presidential Election

Bernie Langs

I am close to finishing a masterpiece of historical and philosophical discussion written by Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), The Origins of Totalitarianism. My purpose in writing about this book is not to convince anyone to read it, because it is an extremely dense and difficult nonfiction tome. I subscribe to my belief in a “trickle-up” theory, that if certain opinions get into the public sphere, perhaps they will rise not only to the level of a wider public discourse, but eventually reach someone who has influence somewhere in the chain of actual political power.

the-origins-of-totalitarianism

Photo Courtesy of Harcourt Publication

Dr. Arendt’s book is a painstaking view on how Hitler and the Nazis and the likes of Joseph Stalin could create the totalitarian states in Germany and Russia, which depended on cooperation and coercion to their purposes of the existing political and military structures and personnel, along with crafting an agenda that would attract and integrate their general populations to their ideologies. I think that many of us believe we know how this happened. My personal narrative went something like this before I picked up this book: Hitler rode a tide of German resentment after its defeat in World War One, taking advantage of the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, economic calamities such as monetary inflation and unemployment, and utilizing as “scapegoats” the Jewish population with relentless propaganda and attacks. The choice of the Jews for Nazi hate and annihilation, I believed, was the remnant and culmination of medieval Christian anti-Semitism which basked in physical attacks on Jews for hundreds of years.

Aristotle wrote in his work, Politics “…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal…Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech…And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust…and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” I have always instinctively fought against and disliked this idea, mostly because I sense that if man is a political being, unlike the Greek’s belief that it leads to the common good, it is political nature that leads the species down the path to horrific events such as the Second World War and the Holocaust. And it was the “gift of speech” that was the incalculably helpful ally in the rise of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks that unleashed terror on the world that left countless millions dead.

After reading just the first few pages of The Origins, my idea of what caused the war (and why Hitler chose the Jews to attack) was shamefully exposed not only as overly simplistic, but downright ignorant. The first edition of the book appeared in the late 1940s and was revised over the next few decades for subsequent publications. I went in thinking I would take what I could from it, given that it is half a century old, and that in this current age of information, this is only Dr. Arendt’s view, and there are most likely many historians and social scientists who carefully refute her claims and ideas. But the real point is that Dr. Arendt doesn’t just study the post-Great War European climate to get to the causes of the unspeakable and well-organized slaughter, but meticulously traces it back to the late eighteenth century revolutions and the societies of the nineteenth century, showing how the situation slowly simmered to the boiling point of carnage. In this book we journey through France’s Dreyfus debacle and relive the nightmare of British imperialism. We follow both large and small political and social movements that are racist, jingoistic, hateful, and so on, some of which resonated with the populace of Europe, some that had no success, but all of which set the table for the rise to totalitarianism as practiced by Hitler and Stalin. There is an in-depth study of post-World War One stateless peoples of the European continent, noting how this sense of limbo experienced by millions gave rise to the horrific solutions offered by the Nazis. The Nazi ideology also finally gave an inclusive purpose to the listless masses of not only Germany, but other European nations as well, the breadth of which I had previously not been aware of.

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