If you know anything about molecular biology, you’ll have heard of Mark Ptashne, who also happens to be an accomplished violinist (see this 1998 “Scientist at Work” piece about him at the New York Times). In fact, Ptashne’s own website emphasizes violin far more than biology. Yet his biological accomplishments are formidable. While on the faculty at Harvard, he was the first person to find a protein that actually regulated gene expression: the fabled “repressor” postulated by Jacob and Monod that would turn genes off (we now know that proteins and other molecules can turn genes on, too). That accomplishment earned Ptashne the Lasker Prize, often regarded as a precursor to a Nobel. He’s also written two accessible books on gene regulation. At present Ptashne holds the Ludwig Chair of Molecular Biology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Besides being an accomplished violinist, he’s also a cat lover, and so, polymathically, he’s a man after my own heart. (As you’ll see below, he sometimes plays violin to his cats.)
Out of nowhere, but because he sometimes reads this site, Mark sent me some pictures of his two cats McCoy and Seve. They are Abyssinians—the Stradivarius of the cat world (one of the guys he plays with uses a Strad, which you can see on Mark’s website). I’ve always thought that of all purebred cats, Abys are the most beautiful, for they most resemble wild cats in grace and color (in this case, a cougar). If I could have any cat, it would be one of these, but if I were to get a cat, it would have to be from a shelter.
At any rate, here’s Mark’s account and photos of his felids:
Sorry the Seve picture is blurry – had to snap fast to get him in that reclining pose.
My first two Abs were (of course) Bob and Ray; they were followed by Nick and Nora (naturally) with Rocky (who was added on to make a threesome). When all three were gone, deep grief led to my doing the unthinkable – I saw and bought, on the spot, at a nearby pet store, the young McCoy (never do that – ALWAYS go to a breeder as you might know). He is The Real McCoy (do you know that joke about the sock-tuckers, etc)? Then Seve came from a more proper source and probably was named while we were watching a golf tournament in honor of the great Ballesteros whose memory was widely invoked at this years Ryder Cup.
PS: Neither guy likes my violin practicing anymore. Seve will sit for long periods waiting for me to stop for a moment; he then rushes in for a little snorkeling (you know what I mean).
Mark and McCoy:
Mark serenading McCoy:
Seve, the other Aby:
I asked Mark whether his own violin was a Strad, and he responded:
Here’s a photo of The Plowden graciously taken by “James”:
How can a biologist (even a famous one) afford such an instrument? Probably because Mark and other Cambridge (Mass.) faculty formed one of the first genetic-engineering companies, which proved pretty lucrative. And when I asked him, presumptuously, how good he was on the violin, he responded:
I wouldn’t quite know what to say about my “skills.” They [i.e., my readers] can get a hint from an old recording on my website (Bach Double Concerto), or on a private CD. The important thing is that I work hard at it and get better than is usually assumed possible for (aging) adults.