The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Pioneering Scientist Erwin Chargaff on the Power of Being an Outsider and What Makes a Great Teacher

Pioneering Scientist Erwin Chargaff on the Power of Being an Outsider and What Makes a Great Teacher

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and how to find oneself. But because self-reliance and loneliness are two sides of the same coin, the more independent and singular a life-path, the more like an outsider the person traveling it tends to feel — but this need not be a dispiriting thing. A century after Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt wrote beautifully about outsiderdom as a power and a privilege and James Baldwin asserted that it is the artist’s task to be the outsider disrupting society’s complacent stability. Even E.E. Cummings, one of the most influential and beloved poets of all time, was once condemned for his defiance of the accepted order and called an “arch-poseur and pretender, [a] disintegrator of language and mumbler of indecent nonsense.” Indeed, it is to the misfit, the outsider, and the dissenter that we owe every leap of progress and every shattering of the status quo in art, science, poetry, philosophy, and virtually every realm of human creative endeavor.

That’s what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) examines in a portion of Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature (public library | free ebook) — his altogether magnificent and uncommonly poetic 1978 autobiography, which gave us Chargaff’s abiding and timely insight into the poetics of curiosity, the crucial difference between explanation and understanding, and what makes a scientist.

Erwin Chargaff, 1930
Erwin Chargaff, 1930

Chargaff, who emigrated from Vienna to America just before Nazis seized power and killed his family, looks back on his childhood and writes:

When I was younger and people sometimes still told me the truth, I was often called a misfit; and all I could do was to nod sadly and affirmatively. For it is a fact that, with only a few glorious exceptions, I have not fitted well into the country and the society in which I have to live; into the language in which I had to converse; yes, even into the century into which I was born. This has been the fate of many people throughout history…

However, there accrue to the outsider great benefits, too; there is some comfort in being uncomfortable. If one is left alone in the sense of solitude, one is also left alone in the sense of bother.

Chargaff argues that despite the discomfort to the individual, this status of outsiderdom is of immense benefit to society, for it is often the misfits and the dissenters who kindle within dogma the first flames of progress. He writes:

I have often referred to myself as an outsider on the inside of science. The keepers of the flame may say correctly that they have no use for such outsiders. Well, they don’t, but science does. Every activity of the human mind has, throughout history, given rise to criticism within its own ranks; and some — philosophy, for instance — consist to a large extent of criticism of previous efforts and their conceptual basis. Only science has, in our times, become complacent; it slumbers beatifically in euphoric orthodoxy, disregarding contemptuously the few timid voices of apprehension. These may, however, be the heralds of storms to come.

He adds a lament as true of science as it is of the rest of culture, as valid of his era as it is of ours:

Our scientific mass society regards the outsider with little tenderness.

A great teacher, Chargaff argues, is one who not only refuses to press her or his students into a conformity mold but makes room for and actively encourages the virtues of being a misfit — that is, the orientation of mind and spirit that questions and opposes the status quo. He writes:

I have always tried to maintain my amateur status. I am not even sure that I comply with my own definition of a good teacher: he learned much, he taught more. Of one thing I am certain: a good teacher can only have dissident pupils, and in this respect I may have done some good.

In a passage that applies to nearly every field of human achievement, far beyond science, Chargaff revisits the subject of the great teacher’s gift to the student:

If there is such a thing as a great scientist … that greatness can certainly not be transferred by what is commonly called teaching. What the disciples learn are the mannerisms, tricks of the trade, ways to make a career, or perhaps, in the rarest cases, a critical view of the meaning of scientific evidence and its interpretation. A real teacher can teach through his example — this is what the ducklings get from their mothers — or, most infrequently, through the intensity and the originality of his view or vision of nature.

He later revisits the subject and distills the matter into a crystalline conclusion:

A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself.

In a sentiment of enormous meta-poignancy, illuminating why timeless ideas by other minds — minds like his, via books like this — can speak so directly to our time and so intimately to our private experience, Chargaff adds:

We take from others only what we already have in ourselves.

This, of course, is what makes Heraclitean Fire itself so timelessly rewarding and full of wisdom that feels surprisingly personalized to the reader. Devour more of it here, then complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on the true value of education, John Dewey on its proper purpose, and Anne Lamott on the life-giving power of great teachers.

Published July 27, 2016




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