Mary Beth Writes


Everybody loves zebras! Several years ago, we took a little grandkid to a zoo and when she saw the zebras her eyes got big and she blurted out. “Zeee-baaa!”

I bet “zebra” is one of the first fifty words most kids learn. If animals evolve to fit into a niche in the environment, did zebras evolve so toddlers would have something to say?.

Of course, the real question is, how did the zebra get it’s stripes? There actually is an answer and it is a clue to life on earth and the arrangement of the universe.

First of all, did you see “The Imitation Game” about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine? If not, watch it. It’s the story of one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century and how, because he was (quietly and discreetly) gay he was hounded by the British government to the point where he (probably) committed suicide when he was 41. QEII granted a “mercy pardon” in 2013 but obviously, Turing didn’t need a pardon. Western civilization did and still does.

Some historians say Turing was as important to the Allies winning WWII as Churchill. Maybe more so. Decoding the Enigma machine in 1940-41 enabled the Allies to know, among many things, where the German submarines were and thus to avoid them. Figuring out how to decode the Nazis who changed their codes daily, allowed the world to supply the European and Russian allies with food, military hardware, and soldiers.

But back to Zebras and their stripes:

in August of 1952 Turing published his only research paper in the field of biology; entitled ‘The chemical basis of morphogenesis.” He had noticed that the way the biology of living things works is through symmetry and asymmetry, so where do change and variation i.e., patterns come from? He worked on this conundrum. He was one of the first people to delve into biology via mathematics, to use mathematics to describe biological processes.

Example: think about zebras. They are all the same and they are all different. I have three kids with blond hair; each kid’s tone is slightly different and their cowlicks are different. If we closely study leaves and flowers, they are all the same and yet, each one unfolds and unfurls slightly differently.

This was what Turing was considering. What is the principle going on that allows for ‘same and different’ in the development of biological entities? How does one write this mathematically?

Turing theorized that biology happens when the early chemicals of life encounter each other. Depending on which two (and more) chemicals encounter each other, each chemical or chemical combo has its own signature rates of diffusion. When it encounters the other chemical/chemical comb the two substances will react in individual ways. It will always produce the same thing, but it will produce them in unique ways that are predictable if one has profoundly tuned instrument for observing the process.

Scientists call these encounters the ‘reaction–diffusion’ systems. Based on theoretical calculations – which we now call biological mathematics - these developments of patterns are known as Turing patterns.

So back to Zebras and everything else. Sure, it’s observable to all of us who are not geniuses that there are patterns going on all around us all the time. We also see that among every living thing there are differences that are, to our ability to see and understand the world, constant yet inexplicable.

What I think is so cool is that this process, Turing patterns says nothing is written in stone, not even stone. It’s ironic that Turing, the inventor of a formula of change, was not allowed to veer from obsolete ethical conventions. The man who spearheaded the fabrication of the first computer systems, whose genius would save millions of lives – that man was not allowed a safe space in which to be his own unique self.

Zebras exist for their own sakes and also as a metaphor for how change is the very framework of life.

Don’t miss this…










You made it through Z. I’ve really enjoyed your alphabet journey, dipping into every letter in a way that satisfied your curiosity and piqued mine. Thanks!
Mary Beth's picture

Hah! Thanks. I have some ideas for what comes next, but I'm going to let them stew a while...

Ta Da! I second everything Mary said above!
Mary Beth's picture

I got interested in diffusion gradients and their role in developmental biology back in grad school. I read Turing’s paper on gradients, and I read the later published paper by Lewis Wolpert. The latter drew upon Turing’s work on gradients and published a theoretical paper on the French Flag Problem, which addressed how morphogen gradients could set up a field with 3 different characteristics. I’d had just enough of differential equations, as an undergrad, to not get thrown by the fancy looking equations (there weren’t really that many in the papers). I think that I had even considered doing a postdoc with Wolpert, but didn’t. I can’t remember the exact reason(s) why. He might have written back that he had no money for another postdoc; plus, I was a bit uncertain as to whether or not J and I should head off to the UK for a couple of years (I was the dutiful only child who worried about my aging parents, near Boston). The problem with the kind of work that Wolpert was doing, at the time, was that the morphogens had not been identified. Thus, there was no way to gather any experimental information about the proposed concentration gradients. In later decades, some actual morphogens were identified. Here is a review of the French Flag Problem:

Very interesting!

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About My Memorial Day Story


Today my story ‘Memorial Day’ is posted at Substack. Read it here. 

Courage, Big & Little



I’m writing fiction this week. I started a story in December that, along the way, turned into a Memorial Day story. It will be my Substack story this Saturday.

This morning I looked for an old newspaper column to rerun and found this one about a time when one of our kids needed to have four teeth pulled.

Cholesterol Numbers & Squirrels


Years ago I was out to dinner with friends. We were all just entering our 40’s and thus were all beginning to get the fun medical tests about this and that and cholesterol. I said, to a friend next to me, that I’d started eating oatmeal everyday for breakfast and my cholesterol had dropped …..

The room went silent.

Everyone heard “cholesterol dropped” and stopped speaking. Everyone wanted to hear how much it had dropped – which was about 8 points. In our twenties the conversation stopper was gossip about sex. Now the secret sauce was HDL and LDL

Hum & Read


First of all, the Cute and Curious. Apparently we humans can’t worry while we hum - because humming requires too much bandwidth. When we hum, we don’t have enough power left in our head engines to think about other stuff. I don’t know if I believe this is always true but I’m sharing it in case it is.

I read a lot this week. It’s what I do when there is way to much to think about and I don’t know where to start. Read or eat. I haven’t gained any weight so you know it was a heavy reading week.

The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Mahsood 

Three Things


Three Things except it’s really more than that.

1. Earlier this year I read these two books by Palestinian writers and I recommend both. If you’ve read good books by Palestinian writers, maybe tell us about them in the comments?

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