Pioneering Biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the Poetics of Curiosity, the Crucial Difference Between Understanding and Explanation, and What Makes a Scientist
By Maria Popova
As a teenager, long before he became a pioneering biochemist, Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) learned English from two women who ran a small school in his native Vienna. This fortuitous skill would later save his life. The year of his thirtieth birthday, Chargaff was offered a research position at Columbia University in New York, which he was able to take largely because he spoke English. “I was afraid of going to a country that was younger than most of Vienna’s toilets,” he would later recount. But there was something far more sinister to fear — the confluence of chance and choice that landed Chargaff in America spared him from the grim fate that befell his loved ones in Europe. His mother and sister — his only remaining family after his father’s untimely death — were among the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis.
As he witnessed from afar the inhumanity that made his homeland “tumble into the deepest abyss ever to engulf a civilized people,” Chargaff sought solace and meaning outside the human realm and immersed himself in science. He went on to discover base-pairing — a principle instrumental in identifying the double helix structure of DNA and thus a centerpiece of our understanding of genetics.
But Chargaff was also an extraordinary writer — not only an eloquent explainer and champion of science, but a lyrical memoirist and an incisive, erudite philosophical thinker. A master of what could best be described as biopoetics, he writes with infectious wonderment and tenderness about nature and human nature, about knowledge and mystery, about the electrifying joy of slicing through the darkness of being with the luminous saber of curiosity.
His 1978 autobiography, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature (public library), is one of the finest books I’ve ever read, on par with Oliver Sacks’s On the Move. In reflecting on his own life, Chargaff speaks not only to what it means to be a scientist and how science in its highest form is done, but also to what it means to be human and what it takes to persevere on our most perennial quest — to understand reality and make sense of our place in it.
The discovery of this uncommonly wonderful book is a supreme testament to my longtime assertion, only half-facetious, that literature is the original Internet: A passing mention in an interview with trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin in a forgotten book “hyperlinked” me to the autobiography of the great mathematician Mark Kac, in which he extols Chargaff’s as the gold standard for a scientist’s autobiography. The praise is more than merited, and anything said about the book here or anywhere is bound to belie its true splendor, which comes alive only with reading. The pages of this small, enormous book radiate layered and beautifully articulated wisdom on the many strands of life — psychology, philosophy, politics — absolutely inseparable, yet artificially segregated, from science.
From the fortunate and far-seeing platform of seven decades of life, Chargaff writes:
I came to biochemistry through chemistry; I came to chemistry … partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditius, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.
Nearly half a century before physicist Sean Carroll coined his beautiful notion of poetic naturalism, Chargaff considers the historical development of our quest to know reality:
It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature — or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists — has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.
In the same era that Buckminster Fuller made his case for the genius of generalists, Chargaff speaks to the immense yet endangered value of a robust and indiscriminate curiosity in grasping the big picture:
Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.
Writing a few years after Hannah Arendt’s timeless meditation on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning, Chargaff considers the cause and the consequence of this artificial fragmentation of curiosity:
It is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten… These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s ideas on how our question shape our answers and direct our orientation of mind, Chargaff adds:
In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formation! … Science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification.
He considers how science is done (in the era’s gendered language on which Ursula K. Le Guin has made the finest, sharpest comment there is):
For a scientific concept to be formulated successfully, a concerted interaction of many requisites must occur. First of all, the right [person] must ask himself the right question. This may well be a random event that occurs much more often than we are aware… Less fortuitously, this [person] must find an audience, i.e., he must be able to publish and to find readers; and this may not have been so easy even in the bucolic days of the last century. But, most importantly, the times must be ripe for both question and answer.
Echoing Saul Bellow’s assertion that “only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world” and reminding us, half a century after Bertrand Russell did, of the value of critical thinking in accepting interpretations of reality, Chargaff writes:
If art represents the highest form of reality that man — or at least modern secular man — is capable of attaining, the many instances in which great creations were rejected initially, and often with incredible malice, show how reluctant we are to grasp reality. We accept only what has been predigested for us by the so-called tastemakers; but this is then a spurious reality.
Considering the different ways in which art, science, and spirituality explain reality, Chargaff cautions against the blinders with which specialization obscures the full scope of reality:
Our understanding of the world is built up of innumerable layers. Each layer is worth exploring, as long as we do not forget that it is one of many. Knowing all there is to be known about one layer — a most unlikely event — would not teach us much about the rest. The integration of the enormous number of bits of information and the resulting vision of nature take place in our minds; but the human mind is easily deceived and confused, and the vision of nature changes every few generations. It is, in fact, the intensity of the vision that counts more heavily than its completeness or its correctness. I doubt that there is such a thing as a correct view of nature, unless the rules of the game are stated clearly. Undoubtedly, there will later be other games and other rules.
With a concerned eye toward the discouragement of curiosity-driven research by the institutions of modern science — a concern that has only swelled in urgency in the decades since — Chargaff writes:
When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published — and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print — I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed.
Decades before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser made his elegant case for how to accommodate mystery in the conquest of knowledge, Chargaff considers the true measure of science:
It would seem to me that man cannot live without mysteries. One could say, the great biologists worked in the very light of darkness.
What is success in science? Illuminated darkness is not light. We find ourselves in the cavern of limitless possibilities. Take a flashlight with you, and you may find you are only in a lumber room. If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.
Chargaff reflects on how the allure of uncertainty animated his own foray into science:
What I remember of my beginnings is the truly lyrical shudder with which I contemplated nature. I am not sure that I even knew what I meant by nature. It was the blood and the bones of the universe, its dawn and dusk, flowering and decay, firmament and graveyard. The alterations of the spiritual and the material tides, the oscillations between future and past, the mysterious fates of everlasting stone and short-lived fly: they filled me with admiration and reverence. Nature, it seemed to me, was almost the entire non-I, the entire non-small-boy… A small boy begins by being unable to explain the explainable, but when he grows old he often looks away from what cannot be explained. I am grateful that fate has preserved me from this form of blindness. Surrounded by a surfeit of solved riddles, I am still struck by how little we understand.
In a sentiment of supreme pertinence to our present struggle to wrest wisdom from the age of information, Chargaff echoes Thoreau’s insistence on the value of not-knowing and adds:
I would not go so far as to claim that knowledge and wisdom are mutually exclusive; but they are far from being communicating vessels, and the level of one has no bearing on that of the other. More people have gained wisdom from unknowledge, which is not the same as ignorance, than from knowledge.
Returning to his formative years, he considers once again the different paths to wisdom, those different modes of illuminating reality:
Should I not have thought of becoming a painter or a poet? But I was entirely ungifted for the first and not courageous enough for the second… I was a monad searching for a destiny that did not exist… What I had at the time — and it has never left me — was a dream of reality that we could only touch tangentially, an awe of the numinous of nature whose power rested in its very unattainability. It was a feeling for the necessity of darkness in the life of man. In the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts the creation of man, God’s finger and that of Adam are separated by a short space. That distance I called eternity; and there, I felt, I was sent to travel.
That this may be a voyage without a destination was no concern of mine … Only the road counted, not the goal… When I floated into science, a naive young man could still imagine that he was devoting himself to the study of nature… For me nature has still remained a synonym for the highest form of reality.
Radiating from his recollection is a sublime definition of what makes a scientist:
The feeling that there is always more than he can find, that he is only pulling shreds out of an unfathomable continuum, forms part of my definition of scientist.
It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If he has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist. The blacker the night, the brighter the light.
Heraclitean Fire is a book so magnificent as to make it almost criminal that commercial forces have swept it out of print. Perhaps a publisher who prioritizes cultural stewardship over such forces will take mercy on this forgotten treasure and bring it back to life.
Published June 13, 2016