I am incredibly sad to learn that Caltech professor and renowned developmental biologist Eric Davidson passed away last week. A few years back, he jokingly said to me at a sea urchin conference - “I am going to keep working till I pop.” He indeed did so, as Bill Longabaugh wrote in a comment here -
I got an email from Eric on Saturday night with a request to add new links to the endomesoderm network in time for the sea urchin conference next month; he was doing science right up to the end. Last night I raised a glass of Knob Creek in his memory. RIP Eric.
Eric’s inexhaustible energy came from realizing that modern technology could answer questions about evolution that biologists pondered for generations but had no means to address, and he came up with a framework to systematically address those questions. You can explore the gene regulatory network for early evolution of sea urchin embryo here -
Eventually scientists will build similar networks for other organisms, and only then it will be possible to ask questions about which parts of the network are conserved over time and why. An early indication of such work came in his paper with Veronica Hinman, and many additional examples were given in his latest book with Dr. Isabelle Peter (check “A Must Read Book, If You Like to Understand Genomes” and “An Email Interview with Evolutionary Developmental Biologists Isabelle Peter and Eric Davidson”). Still, Eric realized more than anyone else that the entire field is in its infancy and with enormous potential.
I wrote about his research in a number of earlier blog posts, but here I like to say a few things about his human side.
His father - the past
When my dad passed away seven years back, Eric sent me a kind message mentioning how he still missed his father. He preserved his memory about Morris Davidson, who was a well-known American artist, by using one of his paintings as the cover of the last book.
On our cover, we have reproduced a painting made about a half century ago by Morris Davidson (Eric Davidson’s father, 1898-1979), who was a well-known American artist. In the abstract relations of its patterns, this painting for us evokes the beautiful organization of the natural world.
Wikipedia - the ‘future’
Eric was keenly observant about technology and understood both the positives and negatives. About nine years back, I exchanged several emails with him extolling the virtues of wikipedia, and telling him how those modern social software would preserve human knowledge and wisdom through collective efforts of the society. At that time, wikipedia did not have much to show on the topics related to science or scientists.
Eric did not seem enamored about this ‘social’ technology and explained that high-quality documents on scientific topics could not come from random efforts of thousands of people. Being frustrated about his inability to appreciate hipster technology of the future, I decided to create his wiki page and watch its evolution. My observation of progression of his wiki page and several other collective projects (unrelated) make me believe that he won the argument.