No two plants are exactly alike.
They’re all different, and as a consequence,
you have to know that difference.
I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it.
I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t
watch the plant all the way along.
So I know every plant in the field.
I know them intimately, and I find it
a real pleasure to know them.
– Barbara McClintock
Slice of Cake:
For years she studied corn—especially the mosaic color variations of its kernels—and her careful observations led to some amazing discoveries about how genes work.
Pieces of the genetic code move around during replication.
Before this, genes were thought to keep orderly and
stable patterns along the chromosomes: “like beads on a string.” 1
McClintock found that these transposable elements—which are called ‘transposons’ or ‘jumping genes’—can lead to variations. In other words, they are a major mechanism of evolution. 2
She also found that small pieces of genetic code have the job of turning specific segments of the gene on and off, which means these small pieces are responsible for the suppression or expression of the genes around them—which in turn determines which physical characteristics do or do not show up in corn. Or in humans. 3
Unbelievable stuff! Literally. Because nobody believed her.
So, by 1953, she simply stopped. Stopped publishing her data, that is. She certainly didn’t stop working.
If you know you’re right, you don’t care.
You know that sooner or later,
it will come out in the wash.
– Barbara McClintock
In 1957, she secured funding from the National Academy of Sciences allowing her to travel internationally to research the evolution of corn. She made an extensive study of the original varieties of maize found in Central and South America—and, with her collaborators, published a landmark work: ‘The Chromosomal Constitution of Races of Maize,’ which combined paleobotany, ethnobotany, and cytogenetics.
Over the many years, I truly enjoyed not being required
to defend my interpretations.
I could just work with the greatest of pleasure.
I never felt the need nor the desire to defend my views.
If I turned out to be wrong, I just forgot
that I ever held such a view. It didn’t matter.
– Barbara McClintock
Then came the 1970s. New advances in molecular biology led to the genetic maps of viruses and bacteria, which led to proof of the existence of, what do you know, transposons. Suddenly, McClintock’s jumping genes, along with her other 30+-year-old discoveries, were not only understood, they were validated and appreciated.
In 1983, Barbara McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
“for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” 4
It might seem unfair to reward a person for having
so much pleasure over the years,
asking the maize plant to solve specific problems
and then watching its responses.
– Barbara McClintock
She was—and still is—the only woman
to receive an unshared Nobel Prize
in Physiology or Medicine.
Happy 117th Birthday
– born June 16, 1902
in Hartford, Connecticut
Been thinking this week about the power that comes from being specific.
Very, very specific.
Part of what’s so attractive to me about Barbara McClintock’s story is how she took one simple thing, the color variations in corn, and just studied the hell out of it. And that meticulousness, that specificity, that—let’s face it—extreme nerd-ism brought to light all this information that nobody else had discovered or (for years) could believe.
Science is very specific in its language as well. Which can lead to some pretty arcane jargon—spoken only within a given of branch of science and understood only by others in that same narrow field. Psychology jargon is sometimes known as psychobabble.
After more than 30 years living with a psychologist, I’ve come across more than my share of psychobabble.
I’ve actually found some of it to be very useful in regular life.
Here is my practical and unscientific analysis
of three phrases of psychobabble.
Psychobabble #1 –
Using intermittent rewards to change behavior is said to be the most reinforcing and the most effective.
This is the idea that if a kitten always gets a ball of string every time she cuddles up to her knitting human, then she takes the game for granted and figures, “Eh, don’t really feel like it at the moment, I can always get that later.” On the other hand, if she never gets a ball of string, she stops trying for it. “Why bother?” her kitty brain says. But, if she sometimes gets the ball of string, and sometimes not, then it becomes a gamble, a fascination, a challenge. “Oh yeah, let’s cuddle up to my human and see if I get lucky!”
Then she’ll try again. And again.
The question I don’t know the answer to is, what percentage of reward is the most effective? 60%? 40%?
Or 0.000001% like the lottery?
Psychobabble #2 –
Post-Decision Dissonance Reduction
Post-Decision Dissonance Reduction is a name for the human tendency to bolster our own decisions by bad-mouthing all the options we didn’t choose—even options that previously we had seriously considered. Once we’ve made our one choice, we act as if all those other choices were absolutely terrible.
“Now that she’s bought the green car,
she keeps talking about how ugly the blue car is and how tacky the red car looks.”
Now let me extrapolate a little bit on this idea…
Downplaying the quality of our choices-not-taken is not a bad thing when it comes to buying a car. I’m thinking that it’s pretty harmless to mutter to ourselves, “How can she drive that tacky red car?” But what worries me is when this tendency makes us forget that something that’s the wrong choice for us can still be the right choice for other people. And it can get ugly or even abusive if we let this internal-drive-to-justify-ourselves lead us to seriously disrespect other people at work, in our families, or in our communities—simply because their various decisions are different from our own.
Okay, here’s a very different example of post-decision dissonance reduction—although it also has to do with cars.
I remember when I worked at a lab in Fresno, there was a main road that crossed a railroad track. Nearby, an older and more roundabout road led underneath a trestle bridge—which meant that trains passed overhead, rather than ever blocking the road. During my morning commute, when a train was heard approaching, I’d often see some drivers turn off the main road and take the older road, thereby avoiding a wait for the train to pass. Fair enough. But of course it occurred to these drivers that this only saved them time if the train was long enough or slow enough to delay traffic longer than it took them to loop around on the older road.
It seemed to me it was their uncontrolled desire to reduce post-decision dissonance that led many a driver to go careening around that old road, determined to get back to the main road before the train had passed—to give them plenty of time to triumph over all the drivers who had chosen to stay and wait.
Did I ever see one of these speeding drivers crash their cars? No, I did not.
But every ambulance siren I heard near those tracks made me wonder.
Psychobabble #3 –
“Markie marks every post and every picture from every friend with the
same smiley-face tag. Who knows what he really likes.”
If every opinion we give is positive, then our opinion becomes meaningless. And soon we’ll find decisions being made and problems taken care of without anyone ever asking for input from us.
It can go the other way, too.
Here’s an example of Undiagnostically Negative:
When my mother-in-law was a teenager, her parents disapproved of every boy she dated. When she got a marriage proposal at age 18, she didn’t even consider asking her parents for advice. They had lost all credibility with her by being undiagnostically negative about her choices in boys!
“Half Cup More”
After hearing about all the years when Barbara McClintock’s work was discounted, it was nice to read her reminiscences about her graduate school days working with Professor Rollins Emerson.
It sounds like she had fun. Nerdy fun, that is…
Between 1927 and 1935 at Cornell University, Barbara McClintock had two buddies: fellow graduate students George Beadle and Marcus Rhoades.
“The three of us formed a close-knit group, eager to discuss all phases of genetics—including those being revealed or suggested by our own efforts…. For each of us this was an extraordinary period… Credit for its success rests with Professor Emerson who quietly ignored some of our seemingly strange behaviors.”
– Barbara McClintock
Asked by the Nobel committee for the most influential events of her scientific life,
the 81-year-old McClintock wrote about her two friends from grad school:
“Over the years, members of this group have
retained the warm personal relationship that our early association generated. The
communal experience profoundly affected each one of us.”
– Barbara McClintock 4
I was just so interested in what I was doing
I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it.
One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child,
because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning
to get at what they want to do.
– Barbara McClintock
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you. .
You Can Read More…
I found all the photos of Barbara McClintock and her lab
on the Nobel Prize website.
Morgan TH (1922) Croonian lecture: On the mechanism of heredity. Proc R Soc Lond, B 94(659):162–197.
Pearse, Yewande. Meet Barbara McClintock. Massive Science website, May 11, 2018.
(This site tells a story about a group of young students
who were playing baseball, and who sometimes inadvertently
hit the ball into a nearby corn field.
Out came a fierce Barbara McClintock to yell at them for
damaging her research plants.
Turns out, one of those young students was a 20-year-old James Watson.
Little did he know his ballplaying was endangering the work that he’d later
build upon for his most famous discovery: the double helix of DNA.
This was in the summer of 1948,
at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in Nassau County, New York.)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) vol. 109, no. 50. December 11, 2012
Nobel Media AB 2019. Mon. 17 Jun 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1983/mcclintock/facts/
The line drawing of corn, however, was something I was amazed to come across in a box
of old school papers. Turns out that in 8th grade, my daughter made a poster about
Barbara McClintock for her science class.
The corn and this quote are from that poster:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2022