Erwin Chargaff and I

What an unequal comparison!!

Sure, grossly unequal it is. Chargaff happens to be the pioneer of modern biochemistry and particularly the chemistry of DNA, evidently underappreciated by science historians about which he himself was quite aware and somewhat apprehensive; contrasts with the small man that I am with my science that I can’t evaluate myself. If at all I contributed anything that will be seen only 20-30 years from now. But I am still tempted to compare my experiences in the field of science with his, after reading his book “Heraclitean fire: Sketches from a life before nature”. Although I had heard the name Chargaff vaguely before, as every biologist does, I was not aware of this book until Prof. Niranjan Joshi, from whom I mainly learnt the art of making simple but insightful models, referred to it in a thread of Facebook messages. Fortunately the book was free online, but I found it extremely hard to read. The 200 and odd pages took me about a month to finish, I mean only the first reading.

Although the book is supposed to be an autobiography of a scientist, it is far from what one can imagine by the word autobiography of someone who is far from what one can imagine by the word scientist. A stark difference between scientific writing and poetry is that in the former every sentence has only one possible meaning. A characteristic of good poetry is that every time you read it, you perceive a new meaning. “Heraclitean fire” belongs to the latter. You need to read many of the sentences repeatedly and find a deeper meaning every time. That is why I took so long to read.

The reasons I kept on finding my own reflection as I read through are multiple. Chargaff often calls himself a teacher more than a scientist. He says, “A good teacher can only have dissident pupils, and in this respect I may have done some good.” He has a fascination for literature, music and poetry which we share qualitatively but not quantitatively since he knew classical literature from 15 languages and he cites so many paras and phrases from all of them so often.  He could easily have been a celebrated writer or poet. What is evident throughout the book is his deepest engagement with science and at the same time a deepest unhappiness about the working of science organizations and the behaviour of the scientific community.

He thinks that the scientific community is becoming increasingly more arrogant. Peaceful and insightful quest of the mysteries of nature has taken a back seat and dazzling advertisement of ephemeral “breakthroughs” is aggressively on the forefront. He is particularly unhappy about the way in which Universities and Institutes are administered. He is critical of peer reviews and big mega-funded projects which are distorting the spirit of science.

Resentment, bitterness and sarcasm but at the same time a philosopher’s detachment trickles through every chapter of the book. I used to think, believe and experience that when one develops a detachment with oneself, bitterness vanishes. But Chargaff’s case is more complex. You feel the detachment along with bitterness. Bitterness is there everywhere and not there at all.  He sounds sarcastic too often but his sarcastic statements are astonishingly true and convincing. 

A number of times I could find exact parallels between what he writes and what I have written earlier in my talks or in my writing, prose or poetry. So many times I have said in the first year class that I don’t want to teach Biology, I want to teach the principles of science only giving examples from biology. But most students attended to complete the biology curricular course. Chargaff says, “… people came to me not to learn about the chemistry of life but to learn about nucleic acids.” In a blog article earlier I wrote my distinction about doing good science versus doing a successful science career. Chargaff writes, “Here I must immediately make a distinction between science as a profession and science as the expression of some of the faculties of the human mind. The two are not necessarily connected.”

In another blog article I wrote about institutional rituals in science which I thought were not different from religion. He writes, “There can, however, be little doubt that the whole complex of the natural sciences has become a substitute religion, fulfilling the double role of mysterious incomprehensibility to the lay public and a means of livelihood for its practitioners.”

I was uncomfortable with the IISER protocol of selecting PhD candidates. I thought hunting for brilliance alone was not enough. PhD is like marriage. The two need to click. Others cannot tell me which qualities I should be looking for in a student. Chargaff says, “It so happens that I have never been very fond of brilliancy. I have been looking for entirely different qualities and I have often found them in people who were not outstandingly clever.”

One thing he repeatedly says is, “Once you embark, you never land. You will, in fact, after a short time, forget that there is such a thing as land; ever changing unattainable horizons will lure you into the unknown that few people, it is true, really want to know. But you are paid to know.”

“How often have I said that only the road counted not the goal”

“I was a monad searching for destiny that did not exist”

Quite independently I too wrote repeatedly

मंज़िल जिसकी अनजानी वो सिरात अभी है मुझमें (A road that does not know a destination is still there in me)

राह जब मंज़िल बने रफ़्तार बेबस हो तो क्या है (When the road itself becomes the destination, how does speed matter?)

What I like the most is his vision of a dark night. He does not think that science is about illuminating the unknown. He thinks it is a search in the darkness. Darkness is what a researcher always lives with and therefore is a friend of. Throwing dazzling lights is not in the spirit of science. “The great biologists worked in the very light of darkness. We have been deprived of this fertile night.”

“Illuminated darkness is not light”

My own favourite couplet is

जुस्ते हक़ की रहगुजर में जो सियाही है, मेरी है

उस मजाज़े आराइश में तेरा ही बस हो तो क्या है

(The darkness on the path to truth is my home-ground. If the dazzling lights in the rest of the world are under your command, why should I care!!)

At many other places, I felt, this is precisely my experience too, but may be I wouldn’t have expressed it this way.

“The sciences are extremely pedigree conscious, and the road to the top of Mount Olympus is paved with letters of recommendation, friendly whispers at meetings, telephone calls at night. From all this I have never been able to benefit. I am, to an unusual extent, my own product.”

“A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself; and this no one has done for me.”

“At the time the publication appeared, most people – including the Nobel Prize Committee, as it was then constituted – did not pay the slightest attention to it. Those who should have known were all too busy spinning their own tops through the corridors of power. Never having found the entrance to the useful burrows, I was not one of them”

He describes himself as, “…imaginative rather than analytical, apocalyptic rather than dogmatic; brought up to despise publicity; uncomfortable in scientific gatherings; fleeing all contacts; always happier with my younger than with my better….but ever conscious, day and night, that there is more to see than I can see, more to say than I can say and even more to be silent about.”

One characteristic of the Gazal from of poetry is that every couplet is modular. You can interpret it independent of other couplets. Every statement of Chargaff has this modularity. So I will now take the freedom of simply copying some of his lines. There is no risk of interpreting anything out of context.

“Child though I was, I soon became a non-observing spectator, for my eyes had been opened early.”

“My long life in the midst of explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations”

On the aura created by the DNA double helix model “The orderly, loving and careful study of life had been replaced by a frantic and noisy search for stunts and “break-throughs”.

“Among the thousands of practitioners of science I have met in my life, there were perhaps twenty or thirty to whom I should have granted the name of scientist.”

“The modern American University has become a monstrosity.”

“When I first went to Yale University in 1928, the conviction that wisdom was cheaper wholesale had not yet penetrated to the surface.”

About today’s scientists, “Slaves or prisoners of NIH or NSF, of Xerox and Beckman – they are really the narrowest, the dullest kinds of experts or specialists, they are essentially molecular podiatrists: people who know about the fifteenth foot of the centipede.”

“At the end of the war, hundreds, yes, thousands of “pure scientists” had been used to working in scientific concentration camps.”

“The library is burnt.

……. And still it is too cold here.”

“You always saw both faces of the coin at the same time.

…………. No I was looking for the third face of the coin.”

“The do-gooders have done so much evil that not to do this kind of good has become a virtue”

“Our present natural sciences have nothing to do with nature”

“Every day I am a different man but I wear the same overcoat and that’s what people see.”

“Do you want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

………. Yes but they have made science into something that they deserve”

“I am sure the dinosaurs also had their biohazards committees and they were as effective as ours.”

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