The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.

There’s a chapter three-quarters of the way through Maelstrom— “Mug Shot”, it’s called. It’s an executive summary of the apocalyptic microbe βehemoth.  It contains such gems as

βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. βehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including…

It goes on like that for almost four pages. Some might even say it stops the plot dead, but after two decades I still kinda like it. Maybe the issue it addresses would only ever occur to one reader in ten thousand— assuming I even had ten thousand readers— but that’s what makes this SF hard, right? Respect for the science. Respect for the fine print. Coming up with cell entry via receptor-mediated endocytosis (thanks to its Blachford genes, βehemoth can fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane) is actually something to take pride in.

The Man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

The man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

Or it would be, if I’d come up with it myself. As it is, I have to thank a dude called Denis Lyn for making me even think about it in the first place.

Denis died a couple of weeks ago. Apparently he was collecting samples from a tide pool out on the west coast and a freak wave took him out, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. He was 71.

Denis assumed a faculty position at the University of Guelph about the same time I arrived there as a student. Rumors kicking around the department said that just a few years earlier he’d been a real hippie— hair down to his ass, marched on Washington at the height of the Viet Nam protests. By the time I met him, though, the man was Dr. Ciliate: he went on to be President of the International Society of Protistologists, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. He was an impossibly nice, generous, helpful guy, strangely out of place in a department loaded with backstabbers and infighters. (At least one online memorializer remarked that they’d never heard Denis utter an unkind word about anyone. I can’t say the same; down at the St. Andrews field course one summer, upon hearing that UoG’s widely reviled president Donald “Ducky” Forster had snuffed it, Denis raised his beer and softly toasted “Ding dong, the Duck is Dead!”. Honestly, though, that only made me like him more.)

I fell out of touch with him when I headed west to do my Ph.D. Fell out of touch with pretty much everyone else when political bullshit sent me screaming from academia entirely.  But Denis looked me up when the release of Starfish was imminent— a mutual friend had pointed him to the first home-built edition of this very website— and I, of course, didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick his brain about the sequel. And of course he said yes. And his responses to my (frankly naïve) thoughts about my fake microbe were, well…

… what happens once the vesicle is internalized?  Usually, these vesicles are destined for the GERL pathway (Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Lysosome) and end up fusing with lysosomes and digestion occurs.  Can B subvert the signal molecules on the outside (=cytoplasmic side) of the vesicle so that the vesicles don’t fuse with lysosomes?  This would be a trick much like Toxoplasma uses to survive in the parasitiphorous vesicle…

…detailed.  The man also sent me a free copy of Lodish et al‘s Molecular Cell Biology— a real doorstop, 1400 pages. Twenty years later I still use it.

Denis’s last email to me was sent on January 21, 2002.  It ends: “P.S. I wouldn’t turn down a beer even in the daytime, but NOT BEFORE 1130h.”

I don’t remember if we ever had that beer. All I know is, that’s the last documented contact I had with him. After that he retired from Guelph, moved to the west coast, became an adjunct professor at UBC. And got killed, absurdly, by a stupid wave while sampling stupid mussels from a tide pool, leaving our species— by his absence— just a tiny bit more deserving of extinction.

I can’t claim to have ever been close to the man. That’s kind of my point, though; far as he was concerned I was just another dumb student passing through the system— ultimately, someone who didn’t even stay in the system— and still he bent over backward to lend a hand. He was that way to everyone. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s kind of cool that a teensy bit of his essence has been uploaded into Maelstrom.

And if you find that maudlin, well, I can just say fuck you. Because Denis Lynn never would.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday July 11 2018at 10:07 am , filed under eulogy . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.”

  1. Great words Peter. I had forgotten Lynn’s words about the death of Ducky. But I do remember him putting big Ducky style glasses on the bust of Huntsman. If I remember correctly, which is by no means certain, we had a big aducky wake.

    Lynn was on my advisory panel but I talked to him more than I did my actual supervisor.

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  2. Please quickly ignore this post if you find it distressing.

    I’m sorry to read of Doctor Lynn’s death. I must say that being killed by a rogue wave while doing actual science is a pretty great way to die when one finally must. Has quite a bit more cool factor than say spending months fighting and losing to one of the various nasty cancers we are susceptible to. Much cooler than necrotizing fascitis, even. I’m confident it beats dying while testing your hand built experimental airplane.

    I’m sorry for all of you who won’t have a chance to share a beer one more time with this scientist but what a great life and what amazing ending.

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  3. What bad news. I haven’t seen Denis since the early 90s, but I knew him when I was in high school and he was a student at U of T. And yes, you could have called him a hippy then, I guess, but I think that that impression was largely due to his low-key, mild-mannered but determined tendency to follow his own bent. And at the time I saw the most of him, he was living in a cockroach-ridden commune down near the campus, with actual hippies, so the confusion would be natural.
    Like you, Peter, I remember his good nature, kindness and patience, especially with a teenager who, on reflection, must have been rather tedious company at times (most of the time, actually). I would have looked him up the next time I got to Guelph, never thinking that of course he was old enough to have retired. But it was something that I was looking forward to.
    This really puts a damper on the day, although I’m glad I heard it from a sympathetic source. He was one of the good guys and I’m awfully sorry to hear that he’s gone.

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  4. Sorry to read this, Pete. My condolences.

    Those “Maelstrom” bits I vaguely remember reading back when the book came out. I remember thinking: this guy must be a scientist!

    (crowd cheers)

    Your infodump remembers Denis well.

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