Monthly Archives: August 2022

Mendel’s birthday

From Mendelarium in Mendel Museum, an exhibition about Mendel’s life and achievements. Actually, not too many personal items remained after him; glasses, microscopes, telescope, some notes written inside books and on pieces of paper, that’s it.

Mendel University in Brno. Mendel Square in Brno. Mendel’s Museum in Brno, with the lawn and remnants of a greenhouse where Johan Gregor Mendel did his experiments with more than 30,000 plants of a pea. I lived in Brno for years, but Mendel’s importance passed around me, perhaps like many other Czech people. I mean, I knew that Mendel is said to be the Father of Genetics, but I never really paid attention to the details of his life. Until this summer. My colleagues from the fellow institute at National Taiwan University asked me to record a “message from Brno” for their celebration of Mendel’s 200th birthday. And I started to discover something I had been ignoring for so many years. I visited the Museum in Old Brno Town, where Mendel did his experiments while being an Augustinian monk in St. Thomas abbey. The Mendel Square just beside the museum, where should have been the statue of dancing peas celebrating Mendel’s discoveries, is currently under noisy and delayed reconstruction, as is also the greenhouse where Mendel grew his plants and which underwent archaeological excavations and now is heading toward reconstruction. I saw the lawn where Mendel grew the plants, now equipped with information boards about his experiments, and also tables belonging to the adjacent coffee shop. I visited the exhibition in the Museum, which shows historical artefacts, including the manuscript of Mendel’s famous (and the only one) article about his hybridization studies.

Detail of Mendel’s precise handwriting (a page from the original manuscript of Versuche, displayed in the museum).

During Mendel’s life, his scientific explorations remained largely ignored or not understood, partly due to that time still unusual combination of biology and math, and partly due to the way Mendel presented his findings to others, reportedly full of questioning himself. I also visited the room where Mendel was living as a monk, which is now equipped with historical furniture and includes some of his personal items like glasses and a microscope. And finally, I saw the beautifully decorated library of the Abbey, even if only the public part (the private part with many more books is behind the secret doors in a wall). I bought a few magazines reporting about Mendel’s life and also about recent discoveries related to his DNA. Researchers quietly excavated his body from the grave of Augustinians, undertook detailed examinations of his body and DNA, and then (again quietly) buried him back, with only a handful of people knowing the details, before they released everything in scientific publications and follow-up conference. I put all this together into a 20-minute long “message from Brno”, which I was recording while still having brain fog caused by COVID. The recording was fun, done partly in Brno and partly in the yard of my grandma’s house. But as my colleague who saw it told me, I seemed to be pretty “subdued” (I had to search the word in the vocabulary, but yeah, it quite fits).

Message from Brno, the video I prepared for my colleagues about Mendel. I didn’t know how to end it up, so I…

All this gave me plenty of opportunities to think about Mendel, what kind of person he could have been (obese and neurotic monk vs friendly and generous genius), and gave me a chance to follow up a bit on his life. I attended the event organized in Brno for his 200th birthday, three days of celebrations, talks, exhibitions, and also concerts and food. Since I was still quite “subdued”, I was mostly hiding in the back, but I enjoyed the repeated visit to Mendel’s museum and also the gallery in Old Brno Monastery, which was breathing the feelings of the old time. For example, I saw an outstanding painting of Jerusalem, with a blue mosque close to the centre attracting attention, and reminded myself of the rules I read in an old book about the composition of photographs – whatever scattered the content of the image is, it should have a central theme, to which everything eventually draws observers eyes. I also attended a public discussion with Simon Mawer, the British author of several books related to Czech, including “Mendel’s dwarf”. He is retired, and the discussion (organized at Museum’s yard) was relaxed and inspiring. I bought Mendel’s dwarf and another of his books right the next morning in the bookshop and dipped deep inside it. Simon Mawer is originally a researcher, later turned into a writer, and the book is an interesting combination of rather scientific parts with some very personal (and even some explicitly sexual) passages about the life of Benedict Lambert, a dwarf who is remotely related to Mendel, and who spends his scientific career searching for the dwarf’s gene. I am not quite sure how much the parts about Mendel in the book (including some rather personal details) are based on true evidence and how much it is a literary licence, but perhaps it just doesn’t matter.

Interview with Simon Mawer, the author of Mendel’s dwarf. I asked him how he does manage to keep himself busy writing. He said every day is different, once up and once down, no golden recipe.

It was interesting to think about Mendel, someone considered an unlucky genius who remained not understood until his death. A guy who should have been a farmer but instead ended up being a monk in the Augustinian order, which offered him access to the latest scientific knowledge and allowed him to pursue further education. I was wondering how he himself thought about his experiments with peas, whether he was ambitious and then disappointed that people did not understand and appreciate it, or on the contrary, he wasn’t instead flooded by neverending questioning of his results, eventually leading to abandoning the pea experiments at all and focusing on his career as Abbot. Mendel was born in 1822 and published his “Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden” article in 1866 when he was 44 years old. I also turned 44 this year, and for not very clear reasons, I found myself balancing my personal and scientific past and hesitating about my future. It could be because of that long COVID, a surprise of this summer back in Czech. After three years of hiding in COVID-free Taiwan, I came back to Europe and almost immediately caught it, as expected. Symptoms were mild, like flu. But then, the sobering tiredness lasted for another three-four weeks, and most annoyingly, the brain fog, a weird feeling of limited attention span. I got scared. What if this is it, from now on, I will have intelligence close to that of broccoli? I was always slow when it came to doing science, but I felt lucky that I didn’t suffer a shortage of interest and ideas, and really enjoyed thinking. And all this was suddenly gone. Eventually, I recovered, I guess almost completely, although I still suffer from some troubles, especially when speaking and trying to express my thoughts, but I guess it’s just a matter of time to recover completely. But it was a lesson. Nothing is given. Everything can change at any moment in a direction I cannot really influence. Better to prepare for it, at least mentally, not to be completely devastated when it eventually comes.

My COVID story

My COVID tests – the first positive one on Thursday, June 30, and the first negative again on Sunday, July 10, 2022.

Taiwan was COVID-free heaven from the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Taiwanese, experiencing SARS in 2003 and facing quite high mortality, became very suspicious when something weird started to happen in Wuhan in the winter of 2019, and started to check and eventually ban flights from China. Thanks to a quick reaction, strict anti-pandemic rules and also the perfect cooperation from the Taiwanese people, Taiwan managed to escape the first several waves which were plaguing the world, with just a few hundred positive cases and handful of deaths. At the beginning of 2021, Taiwan was even considered COVID-free heaven, a refugium worth hiding in, while the rest of the World is fighting with new waves, lockdowns and restrictions. But heaven eventually turned into a jail. Because there was no COVID, people were not eager to vaccinate, but instead became quite scared of COVID breaking in. At the beginning of 2022, when most of the world opened and rushed to return back to pre-pandemic times, Taiwan remained closed, with strict rules about wearing masks everywhere, disinfection, tracking, ban for foreigners entering the country and also strict quarantine rules on arrival for those who could enter. Terrible news from China about their enforcement of the zero-COVID strategy finally led to slowly relaxing the anti-pandemic rules and eventually abandoning the zero-COVID strategy, but it was (and still is) a slow process. I was really looking forward to leaving all this for a while, after 2.5 years of not being able to go back home or anywhere else. To experience freedom, to finally catch COVID, and to come back.

So I did. I went back to Europe, first to Czech to see my family, and then to Spain for the conference. I was careful not to catch COVID right away, because I needed to attend the conference and didn’t want to bother with it while travelling and socializing. I was careful, used respirators all the time and washed my hands as much as possible, something others around me in Europe had already forgotten (and sometimes evaluated with spicy comments like “see that dick with a towel on his mouth”). But still, on the fourth day of the conference in Spain I felt lazy, tested by rapid test, and bingo, I was positive. I isolated myself in the hotel, with pretty mild symptoms, wrote an email to all my colleagues with whom I spent time the last three days to warn them, and started to take a rest.

COVID itself was no biggie; sneezing, a bit of headache, fever, sore muscles and joints, some cough. Tiredness was perhaps the most obvious. It came in waves, and every time I felt as if I would faint instantly and had to nap frequently. Coughing became really annoying and was the reason I visited my doctor when back in Czech, to get some pills. But the scariest problem, which evolved eventually and lasted for quite a while, was the brain fog. I knew there was “something like that”, as I heard about it on the news and from some friends who experienced that. In my case, it was an almost complete inability to concentrate, causing a pretty short attention span. At its best, I was not able to concentrate on one thing for more than five to ten minutes. If I tried hard, I felt dizzy and even felt as wanting to vomit. That really frightened me. My brain is perhaps the only part of my body which is useful, at least in the long run. I need to think, concentrate, contemplate, and if I suddenly cannot, what will I do, and will it come back? My job as a teacher and researcher is dependent on my brain. How will I pretend I am capable of thinking when I am actually not? And what else could I do? I never learnt any skill, any other profession. Without my brain, I am useless. It was depressing.

These symptoms lasted long three weeks before they started to recover, and even now, when I am writing this on the flight back to Taiwan more than a month later, I feel I am not quite there. I still have troubles expressing myself, especially if it is under pressure or in English. And I get tired quickly when I am thinking about something, especially if I have to multitask. I think that I need a backup plan. Something for the situation if the brain fog comes back and does not recover. Next COVID wave (although I hope those will already be milder and milder), or simply unavoidable ageing. 

But maybe I am not alone in that? I was listening to a discussion about artificial intelligence on Economist the other day and strongly felt as if some of the speakers had the same problem as me, with longer times to find the right words and express themselves. What if, after COVID, the whole of humankind becomes a bit slower and a bit more stupid?

At least, the period of long COVID was not entirely useless for me. I rested a lot, because I had to. First in a self-imposed quarantine back in Czech, so that I don’t bring COVID to my parents. Then in Croatia, on holiday with my parents; I tried to go hiking with my Croatian friends twice, but felt like a lazy turtle unable to move. And then another week in a small room under the roof of my grandma’s house in the village, alone. It was a period of an exhaustive heatwave, but the village house was fine, cold even in hot summer. I did a lot of sleeping, some reading, a bit of diary writing, and every day I took a bike and went shopping in the neighbouring village for some goodies, an exercise which surely put me out of order for the rest of the day. I could not have such rest if I decided to have one, because, in ordinary times, I simply couldn’t afford that (and perhaps would die of boredom).

Everything bad is good for something (Czech saying). For me, COVID helped me to rest, contemplate about my life, and think about a backup plan, what to do if my brain says bye bye. Maybe I should learn how to work with wood and start making furniture…