On Genetics & Genius: three extra snippets from my George Church reporting

These lovely portraits were taken by Marius Bugge and appear in the May issue of Popular Science

My profile of famed geneticist George Church is out in the May issue of Popular Science. As I say in the piece, Church is super-personable, and was great fun to talk with. He treats journalists the way we wish all rock-star scientists would. In fact, he keeps a complete log on his website of all the times he’s been interviewed in the popular press. He has said that he considers these publications as important as his scientific publications. Maybe even more important, he said, because more people read the popular accounts.

He’s a great storyteller, too. Below are some tidbits that I couldn’t squeeze into the main piece.

ONE

I’m sitting in George Church’s office, listening to him give a telephone interview to a radio reporter. She’s already asked him about genomic medicine, and how he sees himself as a scientist. Now she’s moving onto the personal stuff: why he repeated ninth grade, and how he flunked out of Duke as an undergrad.

Church, who is as much teacher as he is engineer, answers these questions the same way he’s answered all the others: matter-of-factly, and without condescension. “Those were different failures for different reasons,” he explains. The school system in Florida, where he grew up, was very poor. He repeated freshman year when he transferred to Andover Academy up in Massachusetts — not because he had failed out, but because he had aced it without learning much. Likewise, the Duke thing: he had raced through the undergraduate curriculum there, completing two degrees in two years. At 19, he felt ready to move on to full-time lab work. But the administration wanted him to take more classes.

“We had a culture clash,” he says. “And they won.” But then, he got five scientific papers out of his time there, and was able to transfer to Harvard. So, really, it was a tie.

Eventually the reporter gets round to his family life. “You were adopted,” she says. “How does that impact the way you think about the genome?” It’s a silly question, I think. Maybe very silly. But it’s fair. She’s just trying to understand the same thing that we all want to understand — not just about Church, but about any interesting or exceptionally brilliant person: Where does he come from? What makes his mind work the way it does?

If you think about it, it’s the same question that’s being asked by scores of scientists in scores of labs within walking distance of where we’re sitting. Because isn’t that what all of genomics boils down to? The question of how we became who we are? Reporters just have cruder tools to ask with. Instead of sequencing machines and chemical reagents, we have pens and notebooks and tape recorders. And instead of meticulously designed experiments, lists of questions that amount to an elaborate game of Go Fish.

Church explains to the reporter that his adoption was not very traumatic. His biological father left when he was six months old; his mother remarried, and his stepfather adopted and raised him. Sure, he says. Many of the people who volunteer to have their genomes sequenced are adopted in the fuller, more traditional sense of the word. They’re missing their entire family history, and they’re hoping to fill some of that in with sequencing data. But that wasn’t the case with him.

Go Fish.

The reporter moves on to her next question. Something about hobbies.

TWO

It turns out that Church’s biological father was a total character. Church got to know him a bit as a teenager, and a bit more after he had his own daughter. And it sounds like they had some things in common. Namely a gift for communicating with the public, but also a profound originality, and a need (or ability? or desire? or all three?) to conquer many fields at once. Here’s some of what Church remembers:

My father was very proud of the fact that he never had a steady job. His brother gave him a subscription to Playboy magazine. And it wasn’t so much the, you know, girls. It was the lifestyle of being free and completely unfettered. He left home when I was six months old. He never remarried. He never had any responsibilities as a father, and he outdid Hugh Heffner in terms of his lifestyle. He was much more impressive to me than Hugh. Because he did stuff. Now less so, because I think that he could have done more with his life, he was actually a fairly decent engineer before he dropped out of college.
But he did so many things. He eventually became president of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association. He was one of the first color commentators for ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
And he was the voice of waterskiing — the main spokesperson. He was also the main judge, he wrote the rules for the whole sport for many decades. And he was inducted into the Waterskiing Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a super-athlete. He won plenty of contests, but most of the people who are inducted into the hall of fame are like the best water skier of their generation. He wasn’t really that.
But every year, Miss America would water ski. It was like a thing. And typically, Miss Americas weren’t very good at water skiing. But they could do mixed doubles, where they sat on the shoulders of the water skier. And there was a selection during those years (this was during Korean War) for Miss Americas to be very tall. And there was also a selection for the skiers to be very short because they could do the jumps better, and could do all kinds of other things better. And the problem was it looked funny to have this very tall woman on the shoulders of this very short man. My father was really tall, and so every year, he would have Miss America on his shoulders because he was the only one who didn’t look funny doing it.
I remember when I was 13 my mother sent me to stay with him for a week. I hadn’t seen much of him since I was six months old, and I think she wanted me to know him. So he was running the central exhibit at the World’s Fair in San Antonio Texas. They had this water skiing feature. And I show up and he’s like, “Sit in the audience and I’ll show you how the show runs.” I had literally just come from the airport.
It was all very impressive. He’s got his back to the show, and his full attention on the audience, but he’s describing what’s going on behind him to a T, and he’s ad-libbing and he’s joking. I didn’t know they were ad-libs until later when I saw that he didn’t really repeat himself.
And then somewhere in the proceedings, he said “We have two celebrities in the audience” and he introduced some woman, I forget who she was. And then he says “And George Church whose the southwestern water ski champion.” Which is complete baloney. [laughs]. And then he has me stand up, and he’s standing up. And at this age I’m very shy, but I see him standing up and I think, “Well if he can stand up, I can stand up. I’m not going to have to say anything.”
And then like the next day, he had me in the show. So I could barely waterski but he had two of us going off the same boat. And other skiers doing jumps over me. So I looked fairly impressive because I was part of the team. But the other guy was doing all the work.
I wasn’t with him for more than a week, but everyday was like that. We went on a double date together. With a single mother and her daughter who was my age. And that was cool. And he gave me my first legal beer. (Or he said it was legal, I never checked).
And we went to this thing called the Kinoautomat, which was a cinema where the audience would vote on how they wanted to movie to go, and that was kind of a cool thing. And he picked the time where he knew the audience would be minimal. And we spread ourselves out so we could press zillions of buttons all over the place. Using our hands and feet and stuff. He wanted to take it in a particular direction that no one would ever take it. He said, “The audience is totally predictable. They always want it to go one way. But if it’s just us, we can make it go any way we want.”
So that week in San Antonio had a huge impression on me. He made up for a lot of parenting in a short time.

THREE

On what turns out to be my last visit to his lab, Church and I get to talking about intelligence. I’m hung up on the idea that someone routinely described as one of the most brilliant scientists alive is developing the technology to probe human brains and genomes — the places where the sources of his rare gifts are most likely buried. I wonder how he thinks about his own intelligence, or if he thinks about it at all.

“I really feel there should be a law passed where all families should be composed of identical quadruplets,” he says. “And then they should be reared apart. Armadillos have identical quads so humans should too. Clearly it works.” It’s one of several off the cuff remarks that will stay with me for a while, because I get what he’s getting at. The only way to know for sure how any one of us might have turned out under different circumstances, is to do the controlled experiment.

To the same point, he tells me about a novel he once read — The Curfew Tolls by Stephen Vincent Benet — where Napoleon and his family were displaced by 30 years or so. “So he grows up trying to start wars and can’t because he lived too early for the Revolution,” Church explains. “So he’s a semi-madman playing with toy soldiers on a table. And they know he’s really smart, but he hasn’t done anything with his life… So that’s the environmental component.”

Speaking of which, Church is keenly aware of how much his own environment has shaped him. In fact, his life outside the lab seems to be almost completely ruled by external forces. He enjoyed varsity sports in high school, but only got into them because athletic participation was a requirement for graduation. He started rock climbing much later, but only because his friend needed a buddy to climb with. He enjoys cooking at home with his wife — they’re vegan, and will often prepare meals while listening to audiobooks — but when his family isn’t around he often goes an entire day without eating at all. “I’ll just forget,” he says.

I think that when all the mysteries of the genome are revealed to us, and the brain’s myriad neural networks are completely mapped, we may finally know something about what makes a mind like Church’s churn the way it does. In the meantime, though, we’re forced to ask the question. And the mind is obliged to attempt an answer. For his part, Church has made dozens of such attempts, all of which are archived on his news page, none of which are definitive. Here’s what he told the radio reporter, when she asked:

“It’s the surprise of the ideas, the ones that are truly out of the box, rather than incremental. And then, finding people who can truly appreciate it. It’s like Mozart and Salieri. They understand when a great composition has come their way. If you did it solo and nobody cared — if they just felt the technology grows on trees, or happens automatically without any innovation or inspiration, its no fun.”

My favorite answer, though, is one he gave to Harvard Magazine in 2004:

“Certain people have things in them that have to come out” he said. “I’ve felt since I was young that the computer thing — and now this personal genomics idea — are visions that are burning inside. You put together little crude things trying to get what’s outside to match what’s inside and you keep going because the images are in there and you are driven to do it.”

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Originally published at jeneeninterlandi.com on April 21, 2015.

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