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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lynn Margulis: Scientist, Teacher, Friend

   Distinguished University (of Massachusetts) Professor and my long time advisor - of more than eight years since taking her course 'Environmental Evolution' as an undergraduate - Lynn Margulis passed away yesterday after suffering a severe stroke five days earlier. This was indeed sudden, as Lynn was full of energy, as usual, right up until the hour of her stroke. After initially being treated at Worcester Medical, it was decided by her family, based on Lynn's explicit living will, that she be taken home to die in peace. It was just that: peaceful. Surrounded by family and her favorite classical music, the sun beat through Lynn's bedroom window onto her beautiful face as she lay in a deep sleep. I was lucky enough to have seen her the day before she passed, and was able to thank her for myself and those of her students who didn't have the chance to say it themselves. It was a difficult moment, but one that I'll cherish forever. Her body will be cremated and scattered along one of her favorite research areas, close to her home.
   To say Lynn affected thousands and contributed significantly to science is a gross understatement. Countless graduate students of hers have gone on to tenured professorships where her ideas and teaching style have been - and continue to be - perpetuated through them. Her lasting legacy will assuredly be her contributions to evolutionary biology and to the Gaia Theory. She was a unique, inspirational polymath who may never be equaled again. She took a scientific approach to everything - from symbiogenesis to environmental evolution to whether HIV caused AIDS to the events of 9/11 - and always quoted David Bohm telling us that "science was the search for the truth, whether we liked it or not". 
   Lynn's two greatest scientific contributions, endosymbioses leading to the evolution of eukaryotes and the Gaia Theory, changed the way in which we understood the natural world and the ways in which we taught our students. Lynn resurrected the early 20th century ideas of Merezhkovsky and Wallin and developed the modern theory of endosymbiosis, essentially the process by which nucleated cells evolved from prokaryotic, or bacterial cells. Considering four out the five kingdoms of life are comprised of one or more eukaryotic cells, including us animals, her ideas are fundamental to understanding the evolution of all non-bacterial life. And Lynn had plenty of ideas regarding bacterial life as well, as her theories involved species of bacteria forming consortia that led to the evolution of the first nucleated cells (eukaryotes). She developed the Gaia Hypothesis, now called the Gaia Theory, with James Lovelock. The Gaia Theory, in part, states that the Earth is a "cybernetic system with homeorhetic tendencies" due to the origin of life and the co-evolution of life and the Earth. 
   Lynn was a decorated scientist: The Presidential Medal of Science; The William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement; The National Academy of Sciences; The Russian Academy of Sciences; The Darwin-Wallace Medal; and too many honorary doctorates, life achievement awards, and distinguished teaching awards to list. She has made many "top something" lists regarding the most influential scientists, and even people, of the 20th century. Her papers, and even personal notes, are archived in the Library of Congress. She was an evolutionist, a biologist, a geologist, a microbiologist, a swimmer, an eager astrology student, a mother, a grandmother,  a biker, a teacher, a mentor, an inspiration, and a friend. She was the single most influential person in my life besides my parents and my wife. In fact, it was my wife who said, as my recently "appointed" girlfriend at the time, "let's take her sounds really interesting." It was. So were the eight years I spent with her following that semester. Interesting. Life-changing.
   I will miss my dear friend and mentor, as will thousands of people whose life she influenced. She will never be replaced. I will dedicate my career to perpetuating her ideas and teaching style, as I'm sure the aforementioned thousands will as well; that's what she would have wanted. The scientific community and indeed the world at large lost one of its great inspirations and wells of knowledge, but she has been returned to the Earth that she cared so deeply about.

"That it will never come again is what makes life sweet." - Emily Dickson (Lynn's favorite poet and next door neighbor)

Lynn Margulis (March 5, 1938 – November 22, 2011)

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry to hear of her passing. I recognize her importance and significance to the scientific community, and know that she'll be missed. I enjoyed your warm remembrance.

    I'll see you at MSG.