Robert J. Robbins is a biologist, an educator, a science administrator, a publisher, an information technologist, and an IT leader and manager who specializes in advancing biomedical knowledge and supporting education through the application of information technology. More About: RJR | OUR TEAM | OUR SERVICES | THIS WEBSITE
01 Jan 2017
The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics
Henig, Robin Marantz — Houghton Mifflin — 2000
The author of numerous books (e.g., A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses) and articles on popular science and medicine, Henig here recounts the life of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century monk who laid the groundwork for modern genetics through his pea-breeding experiments. Instead of using the standard biographical form, the author, who describes her writing as "educated deduction," employs a more descriptive, narrative style a few steps removed from the currently popular fictional biography. Very little information exists about Mendel, many of whose papers were burned after his death, and Henig fills in the blanks with probable scenarios. She paints an exceptionally human portrait of the monk that falls between the inflated hero and the beneficiary of lucky accidents. Henig's Mendel is a realistic compromise, a man who experienced failures and successes through intuition, luck (good and bad), and hard work. General readers will find the story very engaging, and the introduction to genetic theories is clearly outlined. This work will not be as appealing to scientists, who may take issue with "filling in the blanks" and the simplified discussion of genetics.
A clear and engaging account of the life and times of the Moravian monk whose passion for numbers and painstaking work with pea plants laid the foundation for the modern science of genetics. Science writer Henig A Dancing Matrix, 1993, etc.) acknowledges at the start that conjecture and educated deduction were needed in telling Mendel's story, for very little of his writing (three papers, seven letters, and a brief autobiography written when he was only 28) survives. However, Henig is not telling Mendel's s tory in a vacuum. She depicts the intellectual milieu of 19th-century Europe, the beliefs and arguments about creation, spontaneous generation, and inheritance, and the storm of controversy that followed publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. Mendel's immediate world, an Augustinian monastery where teaching and research were emphasized, gave him the freedom to pursue scientific study in the fields that fascinated him: mathematics, botany, physics, and meteorology. Lacking records telling exactly how, wh en, in what order his botanical experiments were done, Henig pictures Mendel in his monastery garden, "tweezers in one pudgy hand and a camel's hair paintbrush in the other," moving slowly along his rows of pea plants, collecting pollen. While his cross-breeding experiments were meticulous, his 1865 report of his findings on heredity went largely unnoticed. Darwin never read the copy of Mendel's paper he received, and the only scientist who did acknowledge it (Nageli, a German botanist) misinterpreted it — possibly intentionally and perhaps through jealousy. A widely read horticultural textbook published in 1881 did cite Mendel's work, but it was not until 1900 (16 years after his death) that Mendel's paper was noticed by three scientists working in three different countries. Henig deftly explores the circumstances surrounding the rediscovery of Mendel's work and his subsequent enshrinement as an unappreciated genius and father of a new science. Henig not only achieves her goal of making Mendel come alive as a flawed but brilliant human being, but provides a fascinating picture as well of a scientific age when luck and personalities — and not just brains — determined success.
Henig (A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses) divides the life and reputation of Gregor Mendel, the eponymous monk in the garden, into two acts, with a 35-year interlude between. The lost-and-found genius of "The Father of Genetics" is one of the great legends of science, but it harbors many gaps and anomalies, out of which Henig has built a fascinating tale of the strange twists and ironies of scientific progress. Little is known specifically about Mendel's life and work. He left no scie ntific journals, nothing but a single article published in 1866 summarizing his experiments with peas that went completely unnoticed during his lifetime. Mendel's story is one of repeated failures, disappointments, breakdowns — "a man whose dreams of scientific acclaim are dashed again and again." However, the disappointments of Mendel's life are merely the prelude to its second act: in the spring of 1900, 16 years after his death, that single article was rediscovered almost sim ultaneously by three separate s cientists in three different countries, and within a few years Mendel was hailed as a giant of scientific discovery. Henig, who revisited the sites of Mendel's life and work (and corrects doubts about how extensive and credible his pea cultivations really were), treats Mendel less as a "creative genius who died unrewarded," and more as a case study in the relationship between scientific work and a scientific reputation. Mendel's story continues to be one of the most human and appealing in the his tory of sci ence, and Henig conveys its full value in this excellent and well-researched history.
01 Jan 2017
Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth Century Science
Brookes, Martin — CCC: Harper Collins — 2001
Like Zelig, the ubiquitous guy who turns up at historical moments, Brookes's fruit fly, "a reliable, if unremarkable, laboratory workhorse," is present for some of the great moments in 20th-century science. The fruit fly came to the American South with the slave trade and, later, to the Northeast with the growing trade in rum, sugar and fresh fruits. Around the turn of the century, Victorian biology, with its emphasis on theology and obsessive anatomical description akin to biological stamp collecting, was giving way to experimentalism and Darwin's evolution; at the same time Gregor Mendel's ideas about genetic inheritance were just coming into fashion. Enter Columbia University scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan and his fruit flies and his experiments that would, Brookes suggests, help usher in the age of experimental biology. Brookes, a popular science writer for New Scientist, BBC Wildlife Magazine and author of What's the Big Idea? Genetics, traces the fruit fly's role in the study of mutation to identify control genes, detailing Hermann Muller's X-ray experiments in the 1920s, and the Nobel Prize-winning work of Ed Lewis, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus in the 1970s. Brookes explores Russian-born Theodosius Dobzhansky's work in the 1930s that identified genetic diversity in species and genes as "the currency of evolutionary change"; he includes chapters on studies of fruit fly mating, aging and the genetics of behavior, and ends with the complete sequencing of the fruit fly genome. Brookes appears to have picked a rather narrow topic to write about, which may limit his readership. But his book's enigmatic title alone should warrant a second look, and book buyers just might get hooked. Brookes writes with humor and economy. He places the unsung fruit fly into the much broader and immediate history of the rapidly advancing fields of biology and genetics.
RJR Experience and Expertise
Robbins holds BS, MS, and PhD degrees in the life sciences. He served as a tenured faculty member in the Zoology and Biological Science departments at Michigan State University. He is currently exploring the intersection between genomics, microbial ecology, and biodiversity — an area that promises to transform our understanding of the biosphere.
Robbins has extensive experience in college-level education: At MSU he taught introductory biology, genetics, and population genetics. At JHU, he was an instructor for a special course on biological database design. At FHCRC, he team-taught a graduate-level course on the history of genetics. At Bellevue College he taught medical informatics.
Robbins has been involved in science administration at both the federal and the institutional levels. At NSF he was a program officer for database activities in the life sciences, at DOE he was a program officer for information infrastructure in the human genome project. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he served as a vice president for fifteen years.
Robbins has been involved with information technology since writing his first Fortran program as a college student. At NSF he was the first program officer for database activities in the life sciences. At JHU he held an appointment in the CS department and served as director of the informatics core for the Genome Data Base. At the FHCRC he was VP for Information Technology.
While still at Michigan State, Robbins started his first publishing venture, founding a small company that addressed the short-run publishing needs of instructors in very large undergraduate classes. For more than 20 years, Robbins has been operating The Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, a web site dedicated to the digital publishing of critical works in science, especially classical genetics.
Robbins is well-known for his speaking abilities and is often called upon to provide keynote or plenary addresses at international meetings. For example, in July, 2012, he gave a well-received keynote address at the Global Biodiversity Informatics Congress, sponsored by GBIF and held in Copenhagen. The slides from that talk can be seen HERE.
Robbins is a skilled meeting facilitator. He prefers a participatory approach, with part of the meeting involving dynamic breakout groups, created by the participants in real time: (1) individuals propose breakout groups; (2) everyone signs up for one (or more) groups; (3) the groups with the most interested parties then meet, with reports from each group presented and discussed in a subsequent plenary session.
Robbins has been engaged with photography and design since the 1960s, when he worked for a professional photography laboratory. He now prefers digital photography and tools for their precision and reproducibility. He designed his first web site more than 20 years ago and he personally designed and implemented this web site. He engages in graphic design as a hobby.
RJR Picks from Around the Web (updated 11 MAY 2018 )
CRISPR-Cas: Bringing precise editing to DNA manipulation.
Treating Disease with Fecal Transplantation
Fossils of miniature humans (hobbits) discovered in Indonesia
Science Policy & Funding
Overbuilding Research Capacity: an important editorial in which Bruce Alberts argues that the current funding trajectory is unsustainable.
Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws: Bruce Alberts and others argue that "it is time to rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research ecosystem."
Gates Foundation research can't be published in top journals
DNA barcoding shows that restaurant seafood is often not what it seems
Dinosaur tail, complete with feathers, found preserved in amber.
Dinosaurs and Feathers: A Bibliography
Mysterious fast radio burst (FRB) detected in the distant universe.
Colliding stars will light up the night sky in 2022
Big Data & Informatics
Big Data: Buzzword or Big Deal?
Hacking the genome: Identifying anonymized human subjects using publicly available data.
Using DNA as a mass-storage device for digital data.
Six-legged mouse discovered. No joke, no click-bait material. Just a real mouse with six legs.
A red Tesla convertible is launched into space, just for fun...
Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google's Assistant all can respond to commands you can't hear. Commands coming in the window or over the radio or out of the television. Oops...
Robot dogs, walking around and opening doors. Cool. What's not to like?