Did biochemist Erwin Chargaff, of the famous "Chargarff's rules" originally write his memoir in German? If this is the case, I will cut him some slack for writing in the kind of way I have very little patience for - overwrought, melodramatic, and earnest. Imagine reading Frasier Crane or Ignatius Reilly's memoirs and you have Heraclitean Fire.
Chargaff actually complains at one point "purple" language is frowned upon and how English is not a language for celebrating language. Well, not if it comes out like this.
I mainly picked up this book because I wanted to read bitchy, bitter things about Watson and Crick. Chargaff did not disappoint on that front.
The impression: one, thirty-five years old; the looks of a fading racing tout, something out of Hogarth ("The Rake's Progress"); Cruikshank, Daumier; an incessant falsetto, with occasional nuggets glittering in the turbid stream of prattle. The other, quite undeveloped at twenty-three, a grin, more sly than sheepish; saying little, nothing of consequence; a "gawky young figure, so reminiscent of one of the apprentice cobblers out of Nestroy's Lumpazivagabundis." I recognized a variety act, with the two partners at the time showing excellent teamwork, although in later years helical duplicity diminished considerably. The repertory was, however, unexpected. [...]
It was clear to me that I was faced with a novelty: enormous ambition and aggressiveness, coupled with an almost complete ignorance of, and a contempt for, chemistry, that most real of exact sciences - a contempt that was later to have a nefarious influence on the development of "molecular biology."
Here's an excerpt in that Chargaff explains how he feels, getting shafted from the glory: p 103
When the Artemision - one of the world wonders of antiquity - went up in flames in 356 B.C., a man was apprehended who confessed that he had done it in order to make his name immortal. The judges, in condemning him, decreed that his name must remain unknown. But soon after, the historian Theopompos claimed that the name was Herostratos. Whether this really was the name or whether Theopompos merely wanted to annoy, say, his father-in-law, cannot be ascertained. Recently, when I mentioned Herostratos in an article, the editor called up to say that nobody in the editorial office had ever heard of him, thus giving belated satisfaction to the judges of Ephesos. If Herostratos has earned immortality for having burned down the temple of Artemis of Ephesos, maybe the man from whom he got ht matches ought not to be entirely forgotten. I am that man.
It is kind of sad to read that instead of wonder at all of the discoveries that had been made in the fields of molecular biology and cell biology, Chargaff felt only alienation from practicing science (and from his colleagues) and grim forebodings about the implications of biotechnology.
But back to the bitchy things! p 156-157:
What is science? Truly a big question about which large books have been written that I have great difficulty in reading. I shall give a simple answer. Science is the attempt to learn the truth about those parts of nature that are explorable. Science, therefore, is not a mechanism to explore the unexplorable; and it is not its task to decide on the existence or nonexistence of God or to measure the weight of a soul. It is very unfortunate that science has become extremely arrogant - this started at the time of Darwin, but is getting worse - and that scientists arrogate to themselves a special right to speak out loudly, and often stupidly, on almost any topic. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences, which is, after all, only a sort of chamber of scientific commerce into which some very funny characters have entered through various backdoors, is widely regarded as the true receptacle of wisdom. But when you spend your life watching a bubble chamber or running cesium chloride gradients you may become an expert bubble or gradient runner, but there is little likelihood of your thus acquiring much wisdom. There is, in fact, a good chance that such people will turn into very dull fellows indeed, wasting their lives by trying to outrun ten other dull fellows with whom they are in competition.
As a (relatively) young person with hopes of pursuing a PhD in biology, it is interesting to read some of the sad but eerily prophetic things Chargaff had to say about the state of science research in academia, with the constant pressure to publish ("publish or perish!") and the constant pressure to get funding when the sources of funding are shrinking every year. (This book was published in 1978). p 162-163
Our kind of science has become so dependent on public support that nobody seems to be able to do any research without a handout. If their applications are turned down, even the youngest and most vigorous assistant professors stop all work and spend the rest of their miserable days writing more applications. This continual turning off and on of the financial faucets produces Pavlovian effects and a general neurasthenia that are bound to damage science irreversibly. It would have been much better if it had never got so rich before getting so poor, for in the meantime many young people have been lured into a career that may never materialize.
The first half of the book was straight-up smut, though nicely written smut. Apparently this was due to the demand of the publisher. The second half w...moreThe first half of the book was straight-up smut, though nicely written smut. Apparently this was due to the demand of the publisher. The second half was an interesting reflection of the beatnik lifestyle back in the 1950s, with large groups of young people living in poverty as they made their art. It ended with a rather impressive orgy involving Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.(less)