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Happy Birthday, Stephen Jay Gould, Paleontologist and Science Writer

September 10, 2010
by Rachel Balik
Renowned for both his revolutionary contributions to evolutionary biology and his ability to make science accessible to the public, Stephen Jay Gould drew upon science, sports, pop culture and art to craft a remarkable career.

Stephen Jay Gould’s Early Days

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Stephen Jay Gould was born in Queens, N.Y., on Sept. 10, 1941, to a court stenographer and an artist. His interest in paleontology began when he was 5 years old during a trip to New York City’s Museum of Natural History with his father.

Gould moved away from New York City to study geology at Antioch College in Ohio. Writing was a vital component of the curriculum, and the education prepared Gould to become a renaissance man of science, famous for drawing on literary, cultural and historical themes in his scientific papers.

Gould’s Career in Science

Gould essentially began his professional career at the very same institution that inspired his path. While his PhD is officially from Columbia, the program he entered was a joint one between Columbia and the American Museum of Natural History. During this time, he formed a partnership with Niles Eldredge, a fellow paleontologist and the man who shares the credit for the development of punctuated equilibrium, a theory of evolution.

Immediately after completing his doctorate, Gould went to Harvard to teach. However, his relationship with the museum continued, and many of the columns he wrote for Natural History magazine were published as essays in his popular compilations. Gould wrote on many topics, and was famous for making science accessible to an intelligent but untrained public. However, most consider the theory of punctuated equilibrium to be his greatest contribution to science.

Gould and Eldredge’s theory was able to explain apparent gaps in evolution that had flummoxed Charles Darwin, who had attributed such gaps to missing evidence. Gould and Eldredge suspected that it was evolution itself that did not actually happen at an even, gradual rate. They posited that long periods of relative genetic stability are “punctuated” by short periods of rapid changes, resulting in new species.

The Rest of the Story

In later life, Gould became absorbed with the art and ideas of Marcel Duchamp; he said he struggled to convince the public of his more controversial theories, and empathized with Duchamp in this area. He founded the Art Science Research Laboratory (ASR Lab) with his wife, Rhonda Roland Shearer, to encourage interest in Duchamp’s work. 

Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a form of cancer, in the 1980s, but managed to recover from it. He succumbed to a second, unrelated form of cancer in the lung on May 20, 2002.

The ASR Lab has information about the memorial service held at New York University for Gould after his death. A eulogy, delivered by photographer Jill Krementz, is accompanied by her photographs of the great scientist and humanitarian.

She describes how once, when she was on the phone with Gould, her 1-year-old daughter fell down the stairs. Gould patiently explained to her the science that enabled children to survive falls better than adults, and she said his ability to make science real, relevant, comprehensible and human was what defined this brilliant, caring and sincere scholar.
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