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Five Times Siddhartha Mukherjee Blew Our Minds: Words from the 2018 AAB ’89 Speaker that Will Make You Think

In reflecting on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, author Andrew Sullivan claimed, “Rarely have the science and poetry of illness been so elegantly braided together as they are in this erudite, engrossing, kind book...he locates with meticulous clarity and profound compassion the beautiful hope buried in cancer’s ravages.”

Digging into either of Dr. Mukherjee’s works provides an opportunity for understanding, a chance to confront science’s mysteries armed with the knowledge that comes from his years of research and work in the field of oncology. His reflections will always make you think, but sometimes, they will truly blow your mind. Here are a few of our favorites:

“It is hard to look at the tumor and not come away with the feeling that one has encountered a powerful monster in its infancy.” ― The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

“In the folklore of science, there is the often-told story of the moment of discovery: the quickening of the pulse, the spectral luminosity of ordinary facts, the overheated, standstill second when observations crystallize and fall together into patterns, like pieces of a kaleidoscope. The apple drops from the tree. The man jumps up from a bathtub; the slippery equation balances itself.

But there is another moment of discovery—its antithesis—that is rarely recorded: the discovery of failure. It is a moment that a scientist often encounters alone. A patient’s CT scan shows a relapsed lymphoma. A cell once killed by a drug begins to grow back. A child returns to the NCI with a headache.” ― The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

“In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice that the world keeps shifting so quickly under her feet that she has to keep running just to keep her position. This is our predicament with cancer: we are forced to keep running merely to keep still.” ― The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

“All humans—male or female—must have inherited their mitochondria from their mothers, who inherited their mitochondria from their mothers, and so forth, in an unbroken line of female ancestry stretching indefinitely into the past. (A woman also carries the mitochondrial genomes of all her future descendants in her cells; ironically, if there is such a thing as a “homunculus,” then it is exclusively female in origin—technically, a “femunculus”?) Now imagine an ancient tribe of two hundred women, each of whom bears one child. If the child happens to be a daughter, the woman dutifully passes her mitochondria to the next generation, and, through her daughter’s daughter, to a third generation. But if she has only a son and no daughter, the woman’s mitochondrial lineage wanders into a genetic blind alley and becomes extinct (since sperm do not pass their mitochondria to the embryo, sons cannot pass their mitochondrial genomes to their children). Over the course of the tribe’s evolution, tens of thousands of such mitochondrial lineages will land on lineal dead ends by chance, and be snuffed out. And here is the crux: if the founding population of a species is small enough, and if enough time has passed, the number of surviving maternal lineages will keep shrinking, and shrinking further, until only a few are left. If half of the two hundred women in our tribe have sons, and only sons, then one hundred mitochondrial lineages will dash against the glass pane of male-only heredity and vanish in the next generation. Another half will dead-end into male children in the second generation, and so forth. By the end of several generations, all the descendants of the tribe, male or female, might track their mitochondrial ancestry to just a few women. For modern humans, that number has reached one: each of us can trace our mitochondrial lineage to a single human female who existed in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago. She is the common mother of our species. We do not know what she looked like, although her closest modern-day relatives are women of the San tribe from Botswana or Namibia. I find the idea of such a founding mother endlessly mesmerizing. In human genetics, she is known by a beautiful name—Mitochondrial Eve.” ― The Gene: An Intimate History

“Like musicians, like mathematicians—like elite athletes—scientists peak early and dwindle fast. It isn’t creativity that fades, but stamina: science is an endurance sport. To produce that single illuminating experiment, a thousand non-illuminating experiments have to be sent into the trash; it is battle between nature and nerve.” ― The Gene: An Intimate History

Want to hear more? Dr. Mukherjee will be presenting a public lecture at Lincoln School on Thursday, October 18 at 6:30 p.m., thanks to the support of the Alexis Allen Boss ’89 Endowment for Community Accord and Public Service. Seats are limited, but still available–reserve yours here!