Our Strange DNA, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Last Poem, and How the Hammond Took Over America

Good morning, everyone. Let’s start today off with a couple of pieces on the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. In The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler writes that it won’t have an on-site library: “The four-building, 19-acre “working center for citizenship,” set to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, will include a 235-foot-high ‘museum tower,’ a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, a winter garden, even a sledding hill. But the center, which will cost an estimated $500 million, will also differ from the complexes built by Barack Obama’s predecessors in another way: It won’t actually be a presidential library. In a break with precedent, there will be no research library on site, and none of Mr. Obama’s official presidential records. Instead, the Obama Foundation will pay to digitize the roughly 30 million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration so they can be made available online.” It also will be run by a foundation, not the National Archives and Records Administration. In CityLabs, Kriston Capps brings us up to speed on the legal battle over the location of the center.

Now on to the really important stuff: in Sir Walter Raleigh’s last poem is pretty darn good: “Though it’s not a 21st-century thing to say, Sir Walter Raleigh was a man of virtue. Unlike his more popular successors, he was a Lord and Gentleman, husband of one wife, faithful father of three sons—given neither to the moon, nor to drink, nor was he a philanderer, nor ruined by opium and STDs. My sense after having toured the Tower of London many years ago, and having read the inscriptions in rock that are now protected behind Lucite, is that England has valorized Raleigh more and more as time has passed. The night before Raleigh died, he wrote an eight-line poem.”

How the Hammond took over America: “The Hammond Organ was the first electronic musical instrument to become commercially successful. Just two years after it went on sale in 1935, major radio stations and Hollywood studios, hundreds of individuals, and over 2,500 churches had purchased a Hammond. The instrument had a major impact on the soundscape of both popular and religious musical life in the U.S., but it has been largely ignored by electronic music historians.”

The Atlantic hires Andrew Ferguson as staff writer.

A short history of the color orange.

Enough with the Jane Austen memorials already! The people of Winchester protest the erection of yet another statue of the novelist. “Plans to erect a statue of Jane Austen in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral have been shelved after residents baulked at the idea of another memorial to the novelist in the city. The cathedral had commissioned the sculptor Martin Jennings to create a statue of Austen for its inner close, planning for it to ‘seal her place in the rich and complex identity of Winchester and create a lasting memorial to her literary genius’ and setting out to raise £250,000 to make the proposals a reality. The project was supported by Hampshire county council and Winchester city council. But according to the Southern Daily Echo, residents and local groups submitted “a barrage of criticism” in response to the plans. ‘There is a strong body of opinion that rejects the idea of another Jane Austen statue anywhere, or any statue at all in the cathedral close,’ wrote one resident.”

Essay of the Day:

We like DNA tests because they prove the otherwise unprovable. You say your family came to America from Scotland? Take a DNA test. You say you are not the father of that child? DNA yourself and prove it. In The New York Review of Books, Tim Flannery writes in review of Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh that they tell us less than we think and maybe more than we want to know:

“In 2003 Lydia Fairchild, a pregnant, single mom of three living in Washington State, sought welfare benefits. In order to qualify she had to take a DNA test to prove that she and her former partner were indeed the parents of their kids. The tests proved paternity but, according to the Department of Social Services, showed that Fairchild could not possibly be the mom of her kids.

“Suspecting abduction or a child surrogacy scam, the court put Fairchild’s kids in foster care and charged her with fraud. A court officer was present to witness the birth of her fourth child, but even that was not persuasive; only DNA would be accepted as evidence of the child’s maternity. Even Fairchild’s father, dazzled by science, began to have doubts about his daughter’s honesty. Thankfully, her lawyer recalled an earlier, similar case that had resulted from chimerism. Through sheer good fortune a hospital had kept a cervical smear taken years earlier, and analysis of the sample revealed that the cells of Fairchild’s body were derived from two genetically distinct female eggs that had fused to form one individual. Her sex cells came from one egg, while the parts of her body used in the DNA test came from the other. The court was finally convinced, and Fairchild’s kids were returned to her, but not before severely traumatizing the family. As we contemplate the potentially dire consequences of the case, the fact that supposed scientific evidence is so persuasive that eyewitness testimony, and even the love of a parent, could be negated by it should act as a caution.

“Chimeras can also result from pregnancy. Cells from embryos regularly cross via the placenta into the mom during gestation, while her cells can end up in the embryo. It is astonishing how long such cells can survive. One woman who had given birth to a son still had cells with Y-chromosomes in her body twenty-seven years later. In another case, an entire lobe of a woman’s liver that had been damaged by disease was repaired by fetal cells that remained in her body after an abortion. A mom’s brain cells, too, can be derived from offspring.

“Recent advances in genetic analysis have revealed that chimerism is common. In fact, chimeric individuals may be the rule, rather than the exception, among mammals. One Danish study of the blood of 154 girls aged ten to fifteen discovered that around 13 percent of them had blood cells with Y-chromosomes. These cells probably originated from an older brother and had crossed into the mom, where they survived before crossing into, and taking root in, the daughter. A Seattle study of fifty-nine women who died, on average, in their seventies found that 63 percent had cells with Y-chromosomes in their brains.

“As bizarre as chimeras might seem, they represent only the surface waters of Zimmer’s deep dive into the nature of inheritance. Epigenetics, a fast-expanding area of science that explains how things experienced by individuals can influence the traits that are inherited by their offspring, seems to contradict our conventional understanding of genetics. The epigenome, ‘that collection of molecules that envelops our genes and controls what they do,’ as Zimmer puts it, operates through methylation—the process whereby methyl-group molecules are added to the molecular envelope surrounding the DNA, and so inhibit certain genes from operating (and, in some cases, from operating in descendants as well).”

You read that last paragraph right, folks. What you do and what you experience can affect what is passed down genetically to your kids. Read the rest.

Poem: J. P. Celia, “The Country Library”

Photos: Swiss cat ladders

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Author: Micah Mattix


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