Paul Fox page

From The Land Online
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Paul Fox page

How I got to The Land and became a molecular biologist in one swell foop

I came to northern California in 1971 to work at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Carl Sagan. I was helping to write computer programs to study the pictures and data from the Mariner 9 satellite that orbited Mars looking for signs of life, among other things. In the hills around Woodside I saw my first redwood trees and thought: that’s where I need to live. On a visit to the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park I met Annie, who said there might be a place for me in her house on Skyline Drive, which turned out to be Earth Ranch (Rancho Diablo). I drove up that day on my monster Honda motorcycle and ran into Kim (then Darrell) who seemed to be in charge of things. He didn’t look very happy to see some Easterner on a motorcycle until I mentioned I had a 4-wheel drive pick-up truck, and then all was cool. I moved into the garage where the Whole Earth Catalogue had been produced. After about 6 months we all got tossed out, and a group of us moved to the Backlands of The Land (see Kim Myers page for details).

Growing up, I had little interest in biology. In grade school there was too much rote memorization of phyla and species for my taste. And everything seemed much too complicated to really understand. I was drawn to less complicated things like math and physics. Everything changed when I moved to California. At Earth Ranch, there was a lot of discussion about food - its nutrition, its freshness, its organic-ness, etc. Jeff Justice (known as Jeff Juicer) insisted that carrot juice must be drunk within 10 seconds of preparation (he had an electric juice machine that cost several hundred dollars) or else the "enzymes will die". I heard a lot about “live” and "dead” enzymes. I had a strong feeling this was a crock, but unfortunately, I didn't know what an enzyme was. I was pretty sure Jeff didn't know either.

On a trip to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena I happened into a used bookstore and bought for $5 "Biological Science" by Keeton. I knew about the textbook since my roommates at Cornell used to talk about it and about Keeton, their professor. I wanted to find out what an enzyme was. Fortunately for me, the book left the phyla and species stuff to the end, but I was amazed and thrilled by the ideas about DNA, RNA, and proteins. I couldn't put the book down. I finished it at Earth Ranch (except for the phyla and species part which I still couldn’t get through), and after moving to the Land, I picked up Watson’s “Molecular Biology of the Gene”. I read it cover-to-cover by a kerosene lamp in the home-made camper on the back of my blue Ford pick-up truck (“Spencer Light Trucking Co.”), or in the tent I set up where I started to build the A-frame that Evie finished. I was hooked.

In 1972, I returned to Ithaca, left Carl Sagan and the astronomy business, and got a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. About 35 years later, I’m a molecular biologist at the Lerner Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, and I’m still hooked. I have been fortunate as my work is an adventure that gets better every year. I returned to work with Carl Sagan for a short time to help out with the biology pieces in the Cosmos TV series, and co-wrote (with Sagan and Steven Jay Gould) the segment on the evolution of phyla and species.

Carl Sagan’s visit to The Land

One day, I invited Carl Sagan to visit the Land and give a talk. I think it was the summer of 1972. He kindly obliged and brought some Stanford faculty with him. (Is it possible that Josh Lederberg, the Nobel prize winner, came up that day?). Mark reminds me that the space artist Don Davis showed some slides, too. I had invited Don to meet Sagan, and they hit it off right away. Don later illustrated some of Sagan’s books and I think the Cosmos TV series. Here are Don’s recollections of the Sagan visit to the Land:

I don’t remember any details about Carl's talk. I heard him speak so many times around that time, and about so many topics and ideas, that they have merged together in my mind. However, I remember the scene very well. I had invited folks from the nearby communities, Black Mountain, Struggle, and Pacific High School, so everyone could share the adventure and knowledge. A lot of people came and we crowded around on the floor in the Long House. Carl started his slide show, and as the afternoon was warm and the room even warmer, most people took off an item or two of clothes. When the talk ended and the lights came on, I was relieved that Carl didn’t appear fazed by the nakedness all around him. I’d guess he appreciated it.

I remember Carl answering questions after the talk. The first few were good, smart, probing questions and I was glad that both my worlds could communicate so well. Another question, from a visitor to The Land who fancied himself a guru of sorts, was not so good - more metaphysical than scientific. After a few attempts, Carl said something like “it seems we cannot communicate about this topic since we are using different languages”, and went on to the next question. Carl was a very spiritual person (a book on his quest for God just came out last month), but the questions he asked were always specific, scientific, and potentially answerable.

Carl Sagan has had a profound influence on my life. His generosity with ideas (and everything else), creativity, enthusiasm, boundless curiosity, and of course intelligence, remain an inspiration to me. I visited him not long before he died and I was very pleased that he was proud of me in a fatherly way.

Anyway, those are my memories of that day. I have many more, and I look forward to sharing them with you all.


photos by Neil


At work, 2008