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Family - Teachers - Books - Diversions


while hiking on the late spring snow of Mt. Hood, a favorite activity.

Some influences on David's life

Much to my mother's consternation, I didn't really learn to read until 5th grade, when we were given access to a school library. Part of the blame probably lies with starting school in a neighborhood school (Shattuck, Portland OR) that was designated as experimental and the teachers were forbidden from teaching phonics. Later (Lincoln, Vancouver WA), we were introduced to the library and I became an avid reader of adventure stories, especially those involving sailing ships.

I have always suffered from a poor memory, and this handicap has influenced many of my choices—in college, majoring in physics and avoiding introductory biology. Similarly, languages were my poorest subjects in college and my greatest hurdle for getting a Ph.D. To compensate for this handicap, I developed a focus on ways to compact information and render it in a visual form that revealed relationships without remembering a lot of details. Thus, I always want to combine data into tables and make graphs that render visible the important relationships.

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My family was unusual in that all four of my grandparents went to college, although three of them grew up on farms and were the first of their families to get an education. Thus, it's not surprising that my parents valued education, meeting at Reed College (on a Mt. Hood climb). Family dinner, with my sister Diane often involved trips to the dictionary or encyclopedia. Children of the depression, they pinched pennies through all the time their children were growing up, but always saving to put us through college.

Their other major interest was hiking. In college, mother was a member of the Mazamas climbing group in Portland and climbed most of the major peaks in the Northwest. While Diane and I were growing up, there were lots of family camping trips, including a backpack up the Hoh River to Blue Glacier. (I repeated this adventure over snow with college friends and climbing Mt. Olympus in May 1964, and many years later in summer with my wife Sharon). After getting their kids through college and taking early retirement, my parents turned to exotic travel and visited over 50 foreign countries.

Aunts and Uncles

My uncle Bob (left, teaching English at Lewis and Clark College) and aunt Bea (Boe) Dusenbery were my parents best friends and the most liberal and best-educated relatives. They were real intellectuals and Uncle Bob was a great storyteller. We probably visited them once a month on average at a variety of interesting houses they lived in and shared many vacations with them. From them I learned early about adademic life.

My great uncle Ernie (1883-1988) and aunt Lucy (Patty) (1880-1969) Gibbs allowed me to stay with them on their farm outside Amity OR a few weeks each year. There, I got to see people doing real work and learned where food came from. I also learned about self-sufficiency, as Ernie and his brother John built many of the things they needed. I also learned about real danger, as I was with Ernie when he cut off part of a finger in a careless moment with a mowing machine and when a wedge he was using to split oak firewood rebounded and hit him in the forehead. Another memorable adventure was using black powder to split open a large cedar log for fence posts.

Other aunts, uncles, and cousins were often visited and provided the important education that not all families are the same—in fact, each is unique.

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Influential Teachers

Teachers can have a great impact, although neither party may know it at the time. A few words at just the right time can change a life. So here are some of my reflections.

Shumway Junior High School, Vancouver WA

Ms. Campbell: In 7th grade, I apparently scored very high on an aptitude test used to decide which students would take Algebra the following year. And Ms. Campbell allowed me to work through the algebra textbook on my own. I loved this freedom and learning algebra. I even managed to solve a problem using algebra that she resorted to graphing to solve. (The problem: at what temperature do the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales read the same?) It was in her class that I first remember feeling that I could be a very successful student, if I worked hard; and I started taking school work seriously.

Fort Vancouver High School, Vancouver WA

Ms. Skill (English): although she made me very unhappy by keeping me off the Honor Roll my first semester in high school (A's in all classes but for a C in English), she provided important advice: you need a PhD to do research. Afterword, I never doubted that I would aim to get a Ph.D. in some subject.

Ms. Kracow (Math): Euclidian Geometry was my most important introduction to logical deduction and the basic structure of mathematics.

Clifford Frost (Chemistry): He motivated us to read the assignments with frequent, short pop quizzes at the start of class. And he opened his lab early in the day so some friends and I could do some experiments on our own, e.g. measuring the lowering of the freezing point of water by adding salt and thus estimating molecular weights. (Later, he and his wife became good friends of my parents and traveled with them.)

Manly Maben taught history, adding small lectures to the textbook. From these unique lectures, I learned about Leif Ericson and that Columbus was not necessarily the first European to reach North America. This may have been my first inkling that what was generally taught in school may not be true. For his class, I wrote a paper on the history of logging in the U.S., from which I learned about Americans repeatedly arguing that a natural resource was inexhaustible and then exhausting it within a few years. I have recently learned that this teacher was a serious historian and wrote a book on the short but dramatic history of the city of Vanport (ISBN 0-87595-118-X). I still have a childhood memory of adults in my grandmother (Shields) kitchen making sandwiches for refugees of the May 30, 1948 flood that destroyed the city and memories of my dad going to help deploy sandbags.

Miss Blair, taught Senior English, with valuable lessons in writing essays.

Often fellow students are important to education. My high school experience was greatly enriched by Don Mickey, Don Korbut, and Clyde Reed. Among other things, we formed a great foursome for tennis.

Reed College, Portland OR

At Reed College, the first semester of math was an introduction to the theory of numbers. And it provided a good view of what real mathematics was like. This college also reinforced the influence of my family in leading me to believe that people were fundamentally rational beings—it has taken me a lifetime to correct this error.

In college, I chose Physics as a major because it required less memorization and I had an intuitive feeling for how mechanical and electrical things worked.

Students important to my education at Reed were fellow physics majors Robert Dendy (1942-1983) and Rick Mootry. Like me, Rick lived at home and missed the social aspects of living with other students. Another member of our dozen physics majors was Ron Fox who later became a friend and colleague at GeorgiaTech.

Thinking of graduate school, the hot area of physics in 1963 was fundamental particles, but the research involved large machines with big teams of scientists. This did not appeal to me; I wanted more independence. Another subject that had gained some press was biophysics. And a Reed professor, Byron Youtz, had spent a year studying biophysics at the University of Chicago. And James MacInnes, a Reed physics major a year ahead of me, had gone to this program. These connections made it an easy choice for me, especially after I was offered a generous fellowship.

The University of Chicago, Biophysics

As it turned out the Biophysics program was the center for the new field of molecular biology in the whole of the University. I quote from a remembrance by E. Peter Geiduschek concerning 1959: “Ray Zirkle and Bill Bloom brought me and a small group of young scientists to the Committee on Biophysics at the University of Chicago and then watched over us benevolently as we went about our work. They and we (Bob Haselkorn, Ed Taylor, Bob Uretz, and Bob Haynes) managed to create a climate of excitement about science in which ideas were freely proposed and energetically dissected.” And so, I got an early training in molecular biology, along with some physics and biology. This was not an accident—many of the early contributors to molecular biology were physical scientists, asking fundamental questions, using simple organisms. Molecular biology was distinguished from previous biology by a focus on information—how it was passed between generations (heredity) and how it controlled development and behavior.

Looking beynond finishing my thesis, I was interested in applying what I had learned to studies of behavior and took a course in Behavioral Psychology from Eckard Hess (1916-1986). It introduced me to Ethology and the idea that behavior should be understood in its natural environment (and that running white rats through mazes does not teach you much about behavior). In retrospect, I feel very lucky that the course was not a traditional psychology course.

Students important to my education at Chicago were Pat Gage and David Wilson.

I wanted to study questions of how behavior was controlled in a relatively simple organism, preferably one in which the role of each neuron could be understood. My search of the literature (including Bullock and Horridge's 2-volume Structure And Function In The Nervous Systems Of Invertebrates) led me to think that the small animals that developed through a fixed set of cell divisions, leaving all individuals with the same set of cells and a nervous system of only a few hundred neurons was attractive. These animals include rotifers and nematodes. I focused on rotifers because they responded to light, which is the stimulus easiest to manipulate, and assumed genetic dissection would not be too hard.

In spite of these thoughts, I applied for a postdoctoral position with Donald Kennedy at Stanford; he replied with a nice letter saying his lab was full. In retrospect, his lab would have introduced me to electrophysiology, which would probably have been a better fit for my talents than genetics.


I approached Seymour Benzer and his genetic studies of behavior in the fruit fly at Caltech; he was not impressed by my thesis work but, since I expressed interest in animals simpler than his fruit flies with a hundred thousand neurons, he sent me to talk to Ray Owen, who was interested in genetic studies of rotifers. Ray was enthusiastic about trying this new organism, and I naively jumped in. The Owen lab was a wonderful, supportive environment, with Ray insisting that everyone gather for coffee twice a day to discuss research and other things. However, the lab and his experience were in immunology and genetics, and I spent many frustrating months trying to get the rotifers to make some responses to light that were reproducible enough to study.

Then, Dick Russell joined the faculty from Sydney Brenner's lab and started a research effort to use biochemistry and genetic dissection of the nematode C. elegans to study behavior. After a brief look at the nematodes, I switched to working with them, using both the Owen and Russell labs. This was a lucky break, because Brenner was wiser than I about the difficulties of isolating genetic mutants in diploid organisms, and he had carefully chosen C. elegans because it self-fertilized, making mutations homozygous and exposing their effects.


Teaching in a small Biology department, I rubbed shoulders with colleagues from a variety of fields and taught courses in subjects new to me. From Gary Anderson and Jim Diez, I learned a lot about how research was conducted in animal physiology before I had to teach the subject. I learned how ecologists thought and worked from Art Benke and Lloyd Dunn. From Terry Snell, I saw how a good coach could organize an effective research group and improve an academic program. But, the most important thing I got from Terry was a pregnant question: why do male rotifers not seek out females before they bump into them? This set me on my most productive research tract, analyzing the physical limits of sensation and behavior for microorganisms.

Looking back, I repeatedly finished one program and moved to a new field where my current contacts and mentors had little knowledge or influence—the Reed physics faculty didn't know about biophysics other than the one program at Chicago, the Biophysics faculty didn't know much about nervous system or behavior research, and Ray Owen's lab was a wonderful opportunity to get into immunology but I didn't. I now understand that professional connections are very important, and this jumping between fields cut me off from important support.

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Influential Books

Looking back, I think there were a few books that had major influences on my intellectual development and scientific career:

The Boy Mechanic
I inherited 4 large volumes in this series from my uncle Franklin (killed in WWII) and I later bought the Boy Electrician. Although the former were out of date in many technical matters, they all provided inspiration to make things from scrap materials or drugstore chemicals. (In those days, drugstores carried a variety of basic chemicals.) And, out of scap materials, I made a toy electric motor, a battery, a galvanometer that could measure the current between a nail and a copper wire placed in my mouth, and a solar furnace that would melt lead. Although toys such as Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and Erector Set were important, my best toy was an inherited transformer that had multiple taps with different voltages that allowed me to experiment without electrocuting myself or blowing fuses.

Scientific American
my Dusenbery grandparents gave me a subscription and I read it from cover to cover for many years.

Economics (Samuelson, 1963)
was the textbook for the introductory economics course I took at Reed, and it opened my eyes to the power of simple models conveyed as graphs. Particularly important was the concept of marginal costs and benefits, which is useful in understanding ecology and evolution.

Physical Chemistry of Macromolecules (Tanford, 1961)
was the basis of a core course in the Biophysics program. It taught me about Brownian motion and the physics of large molecules, which I much later applied to small organisms.

Mechanisms of Animal Behavior (Marler & Hamilton, 1966)
provided me with an overview of the varieties of behavior found in all kinds of organisms. I perused it on my own to help decide what kind of organism and behavior was best suited to study.

Nerve, Muscle, and Synapse (Bernard Katz, 1966)
taught me the value of a good theory. The Hodgekin-Huxley model of the action potential of nerves is a rare example of a simple mathematical model, based on fundamental physics, that explains a lot of biology. This little book is the most dog-eared on my shelf.

The Hydrophobic Effect: Formation of Micelles and Biological Membranes (Tanford, 1973)
provided me another lesson in how a simple theory based on a few physical principles can have great explanatory power. I used this book in teaching a biophysics course for many years.

An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics (Campbell, 1977)
alerted me to the complexities of the soil environment so important to nematodes. My colleague Lloyd Dunn, a plant physiological ecologist, brought it to my attention, and I learned about temperature waves in soil.

Vision (David Marr, 1982)
taught me the value of looking closely at the function of a system to gain insight into how it is likely to work.


Starting early I enjoyed and benefited from having handbooks that I consulted to find specific information on mathematical formulas, chemicals, and values of physical constants. These handy resources got me in the habit of making quantitative calculations to answer specific questions—a game I came to love.

Handbook of Chemistry and Physics
I got an early introduction to this venerable handbook using my mother's 18th edition (1933) from her days at Reed College. Over the years I purchased newer editions: 51st (1970), 59th (1978), and 66th (1985).

Handbook of Mathematical Tables and Formulas (Burington, 1958)
In the Reed College bookstore, I purchased this handy reference, and it was probably the best investment I ever made. The tabulated values have long been replaced by calculators, but I still find the volume useful for mathematical formulas.

The Merck Index
This is another old friend, with information about thousands of chemicals important in biology. I have copies of the 8th (1968) and 10th (1983) editions, although the Internet has largely replaced their use.

Popular books

A number of popular books had a big impact on my view of how my world came into being, often correcting what I learned in school.

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (E.O. Wilson, 1975)
popularized the new understanding among scientists that genetics played a big role in how animals behaved, with an emphasis on social animals. Controversially, he applied these ideas to humans, to the great annoyance of Marxists and others wanting to believe that government could fix all problems.

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins, 1976)
communicated the important point that evolution does not necessarily lead to the most successful (optimal) species. Genes may become successful for their own selfish reasons, even at some expense to the species. In this sense, some genes may act as embedded parasites. This book also introduced the world to the concept of the meme a cultural analog of a gene that selectively replicates, mutates, and evolves like a gene; examples are words, slogans, and songs.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Jared Diamond, 1997)
taught me more about why my world is the way it is than any other book I can think of.

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (James Carroll, 2001)
revealed much about the European history that defines our culture. Especially revealing is the degree to which details of Christianity were actually determined by Roman rulers and pagan traditions.

Wild Card Quilt (Janisse Ray, 2003)
this book is largely local, but emphasizes some important points regarding preservation of the natural world and rural living. I include it here, because it convinced me to start shopping at my locally-owned stores rather than the big boxes. Her previous book Cracker Childhood was also interesting, and advocated for preservation of the once wide-spread and unique long-leaf pine and wire-grass habitat of her childhood in rural south Georgia.

1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Charles C. Mann, 2005)
documented that the original people of this continent had much more sophisticated cultures than portrayed in the stories my European ancestors told each other and passed down to me.

The Better Angels of our Nature (Steven Pinker, 2011)
is a long, detailed, and thoughtful presentation of evidence for a decline in violence during the last several centuries and discussion of possible causes. It includes a hundred graphs showing declines over the centuries in various kinds of violence and related behaviors, including war, murder, group homicides of various kinds, rape, and slavery, with decreasing discrimination over race, gender, and sexual preference. As for causes, he points to several: stronger government, increasing trade, increasing power of women, including more people as "us" with sympathy for a larger group, and an increase in reason and recognition of objective reality. Many of these causes are themselves consequences of technological improvements in communication and travel.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman, 2011)
summarizes decades of research improving our understanding of how humans understand the world and make decisions. The fundamental insights are that the subconscious works quickly and automatically to create models of the world around us, while our conscious takes effort to slowly analyze specific questions. Many experiments have demonstrated regular biases in how judgments and choices are made (especially over-emphasis of rare-but-memorable events). Examples are given from an amazing variety of activities—golf to decision making by business owners and CEOs. Consequently, insurance, lotteries, and casinos are profitable, while advertizers target our subconscious emotions rather than our intellect.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Isabel Wilkerson, 2010)
an account of the internal migration of millions of African Americans out of the South, from WWI to 1970. I found it insightful on several different dimensions: the extreme mistreatments under Jim Crow, the mistreatment after migration out of the South, and the differences between individual people in what they care about. The book is mostly a detailed biography of three individuals taking different paths: Louisiana to L.A., Mississippi to Chicago, and Florida to Harlem. The book particularly resonated with me, as I was familiar with many of the places mentioned in Florida, Georgia, South Side Chicago, and L.A.

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Favorite Diversions

Here are few of my favorite activities over the years.


David, while hiking near Mt. Baker, North Cascades.

Photo credit: Sharon Worsham.

From an early age my parents took my sister and I car camping and hiking. The first I remember was a day hike to Green Lakes in central Oregon. Another memorable hike was a backpack up the Hoh River to camp in the shelter at Elk Lake, with a day hike to Blue Glacier. As I recall, like many mountain lakes, this one had a crude log raft and I paddled out for fly fishing; most exciting for me, I caught enough trout that we had food for an extra day on the trail.

Fly tying

In junior high school, twice a week we had an elective class called Hobbies. One term, I chose Fly Tying, and it changed my life. Fly fishing and fly tying became one of my main diversions through high school. The fly tying kept me busy at home and the fishing was great on camping trips. My grandfather Dusenbery gave me his 9' bamboo fly rod, and I refinished it and used it for many years. Another key aid came from my Uncle Chuck (Dudley) who informed me about the proper line necessary for fly casting.


A big event in my childhood was my dad arranging to buy a Folbot folding kayak with his father. They had had a previous generation Folbot which was packed into the Wallowa Mountains and used in the surf at Neskowin by my dad and his brothers. This second boat was taken on camping trips and carried the four of us exploring lakes and creeks. On an especially memorable trip, Dad paddled the boat with all our camping gear across Spirit Lake to a camping site, while the three of us hiked around the lake. One of the days of this trip, Dad and I hiked on up to Meta Lake for some great fishing—what an adventure. Unfortunately, it is all gone now with the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.

Dad and I also outfitted the Folbot for sailing, with a homemade rudder and leeboards, and a purchased lateen sail. I spent many enjoyable hours sailing this boat on mountain lakes.

Mountain Climbing

Reed College, had a vigorous outdoor program, and it became the focus of my diversions in college. A climbing class I took climbed Mt. Saint Helens (the former, beautiful mountain) in September 1961, and narrowly escaped a dangerous situation. The “leader” of the trip insisted on bringing up the rear to deal with stragglers. But in starting down from the top, the group seeing the lodge straight down the north side, started going down on that side and got onto some extremely hard, old ice in the shadow of the mountain. Although we all had crampons and were roped, the crampons barely penetrated the ice and there was no way to get an ice axe in for an anchor; one slip would have put all three people on the rope at the mercy of the mountain. Fortunately, everyone made it to safe footing.

Our best adventure was a graduation trip in late May 1964, when a bunch of us backpacked and snowshoed up the Hoh River. We camped at Glacier Meadows, digging down through the snow to get into the shelters. Unfortunately, someone had installed the corrugated metal roofing by nailing through the valleys and the roof leaked, so we slept outside in our tents on top of our snowshoes for insulation from the snow. Then we climbed Mount Olympus. What an adventure.


After my divorce to Ruth, I joined the Sierra Club and met Sharon Worsham. One of her attractions was that she liked backpacking and knew good places in the Southeast. I soon learned that she had a kayak and a group of friends that did whitewater canoeing. We borrowed a canoe and went to Florida the next Christmas vacation. We had a great time and she convinced me to take Georgia Tech's whitewater canoe school. It was a great learning experience and we bought an old Blue Hole canoe and went on many whitewater trips in the southeast with her friends. We were not the best of paddlers, but we had a fine time.

Later, we got a lightweight We-no-nah fiberglass canoe for flat water and have had many adventures with it in winter-time Florida. We especially like exploring small steams, and shallow lagoons, sometimes only a few inches deep, and sometimes involving alligators.

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Last revised 4 December 2015.

E-mail me: SeekingIllumination@hotmail.com