The Heraclitean Fire Quotes

Heraclitean Fire
Sketches from a Life before Nature
Erwin Chargaff
The Rockefeller University Press
New York 1978

There were a number of quotes I made note of while reading The Heraclitean Fire. Here are some that did not make it into the review:


There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun. [….] It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishable, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

On Hearing Karl Krauss:#

And what a voice his was! To describe it I should have to use some of the sonorous adjectives with which the German baroque writers, drunk with the expressive abundance of their language, embellished their paeans: freveltrotzig, grimmbewehrt, zornblind, but also holdselig, liebreich, lustreizend. (The English language now is too desiccated to welcome onomatopoeia born of the inner core of the sound and meaning of words. Translation would involve a long and dull paraphrase. Let it be enough to say that the first group of words thunders of compounded hatred, anger, wrath, whereas the second series whispers of loveliness and bliss and charm.)

On Choosing a Career#

The future scientist should be able to tell stories of his early past, how he always knew that he wanted to be a chemist or a lepidopterist; how he could be nothing else, having blown himself up at six years of age in his basement laboratory or having captured, in tender years, a butterfly of such splendor and rarity as to make Mr. Nabokov blanch with envy. I can offer nothing of the sort. Being gifted for many things, I was gifted for nothing. Indolent, shy, and sensitive, I had laid my traps where no game would ever pass.

At the Kaiser Wilhelm Institues:#

At that time, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in green and pleasant Dahlem lived through their greatest period: physics with von Laue and Einstein; biology with Correns and Hartmann; physical chemistry with Haber, Polanyi, Freundlich; cell physiology with Warburg; and there were a few more small principalities, with Neuberg, Herzog, Hess, and others. I met most of these men and many of their collaborators, for the freemasonry of science was never wider open than at that time, and never again would I have the feeling of belonging to a worthy and reasonable community of scholars. It is absurd to say-but I cannot help it-as I look back on those days, I get the the impression that the last rays of the setting sun of the civilized nineteenth century were falling on my head. And this in 1931 or 1932, when the “long knives” had begun growing at a frightening speed. The Haber and Warburg colloquia were of particular distinction. Fritz Haber had a marvelously Socratic skill of drawing the best out of speaker and audience. Many of the talks were way over my head. But how great was my relief when Haber got up at the end and declared: “I haven’t understood a word.” And then, turning to his paladins, “Herr Polanyi,” or “Herr Weiss, could you perhaps explain to me what it was all about?” There followed a brilliant dialogue, or rather a polylogue, through which everything seemed to be clear, even to me. But when I went home opaqueness had reassembled. Otto Warburg’s seminars were of a different character. It fell to me to give one, and, as is usual, my extempore talk was prepared carefully. My wife and I walked for hours in the Tiergarten, rehearsing my improvisations. All went well, despite the formal atmosphere. The great man sat in the first row and seemed to be arrogantly asleep. But when I had finished, he asked most intelligent questions. I realized that geniuses learn by a form of osmosis; a gift entirely denied to me.

On Goal-Directed Science:#

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 goaldirected attitude had prevailed.

The Difference between Science and Art:#

There may also be profounder reasons for the general triteness of scientific autobiographies. Timon of Athens could not have been written, Les demoiselles d’Avignon not have been painted, had Shakespeare and Picasso not existed. But of how many scientific achievements can this be claimed? One could almost say that, with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men. What A does today, B or C or D could surely do tomorrow.

On Clarke:#

When I first saw Clarke in 1935, I met a rather tall, aristocratic-looking man with a human face and friendly eyes. His British upbringing, or perhaps his innate temperament, had endowed him with the special kind of shy aloofness that has baffled continentals in their dealings with the English upper class since times immemorial. In his case, it did not go all the way to stammering, the true attribute of the empire-builders who, while the rest of the world looked at them with bewilderment, managed to stutter away entire continents. For this reason, Clarke was not a good lecturer. But he was a very good organic chemist of the old observance; one of those who liked to putter around in the laboratory with test tubes and small beakers and watch glasses and who was happy when crystals appeared. He belonged to a vanishing species, when science was young and adventurous, when real experiments could still be performed, when the sense of smell still served to identify classes of compounds.

On not getting tot he Double Helix First:#

Later, when molecular prestidigitation ran wild, I was often asked by more or less well-meaning people why I had not discovered the celebrated model. My answer has always been that I was too dumb, but that, if Rosalind Franklin and I could have collaborated, we might have come up with something of the sort in one or two years. I doubt, however, that we could ever have elevated the double helix into “the mighty symbol that has replaced the cross as the signature of the biological analphabet.”

What I did not want to acknowledge is that nature is blind and reads Braille. In fact, even now I am not entirely reconciled to it. Thus, I missed the opportunity of being enshrined in the various halls of fame of the science museums.

I do not believe that my article, published in Experientia in 1950,12 made much of an impression. Even the principal beneficiaries of my findings did not refer to it; but this may have been deliberate. All in all, I should think that the scientific climate was not yet ready to accept ideas on biological information, its conservation and transfer, and that an enormous publicity effort-or, to put it more gently, an enormous educational effort-was required to bring this about. Such an effort could not have come from me.

Actually, this was not of great consequence. What I did not then realize was that we were on the threshold of a new kind of science: a normative biology in which reality only serves to corroborate predictions; and if it fails to do so, it is replaced by another reality. And as to dogmas, they are in no need of experiments. What is currently considered as the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid was established by people who required no recourse to actual DNA preparations, whether polymerized or degraded.

On Science’s Negative Qualities :#

I am afraid I shall be misunderstood if I say that all great scientific discoveries-or, as some would say, all great scientific advances-carry a Herostratic element, an irreversible loss of something that mankind cannot afford to lose. This may have been less noticeable as long as the sciences were small and powerless, and the greatest of all scientific minds-the discoverer of fire, the inventor of the wheel, the brains that first formulated such concepts as time or force-remain hidden, as benefactors of humanity, in ancient mist. Whether Prometheus deserved to be tortured by the eagles cannot be decided; the creators of the myth obviously believed that the gods had a case.

Considering the role of science in our time, generally agreed to be flourishing as never before, I have not been able to decide whether its enormous ascendancy was the cause of, or was caused by, the disappearance of the religious sentiment. There can, however, be little doubt that the whole complex of the natural sciences has become a substitute religion, fulfilling the double roles of mysterious incomprehensibility to the lay public and a means of livelihood for its practitioners. The first function could easily be taken over by another creed or pseudo creed, but not the second. The institutionalization of science as a mass occupation, which began during my lifetime, has brought with it the necessity of its continual growth-similar in that respect to such mythical entities as the “gross national product” not because there is so much more to discover, but because there are so many who want to be paid to do it. Any attempt at reform is, therefore, met by insincere cries about the “freedom of scientific inquiry”; and this will be followed by the immediate constitution of all sorts of pressure groups, marching under the banner of Galilei. Entrepreneurs disguised as freedom-fighters may look ludicrous, but they are usually effective….

Science had become a spectator sport, even if one that had no real spectators. It had, it seemed to me, become one of the most effective tools for mass cretinization.

Science as a profession, the concept of scientific research performed by large numbers and often in large teams, originated, I think, in imperial Germany, which had been late in joining the imperialist ranks. There were no Indies to be had any more; all lucrative colonies had been grabbed by more ancient greed; it was left to the Reich to direct its colonialist fervor against nature. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes would do what Kaiser Wilhelm could not.

… “method” has led to what could be called by an excellent neo-German term the Kleinkariertheit (piddling pedantry) of much present-day biological research. The availability of a large they publish in other journals. The appearance and the growth of the natural sciences in their present form is nearly contemporary with the emergence and the ascent of the bourgeoisie; and it is not accidental that, if one historical event could be said to mark the onset of modern science, it is the French Revolution. The tiers etat, which has not enjoyed a good reputation among the creative minds that suffered from it I do not believe there ever existed a bourgeois genius -has always been able to point to the flowering of science and technology as its greatest triumph. Since we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this progress-drunk epoch, it is to be expected that a new historical era will give rise to an entirely different kind of science; a science that we, looking out from the jail of our notions, could hardly recognize as such.

My life has been marked by two immense and fateful scientific discoveries: the splitting of the atom, the recognition of the chemistry of heredity and its subsequent manipulation. It is the mistreatment of a nucleus that, in both instances, lies at the basis: the nucleus of the atom, the nucleus of the cell. In both instances do I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate. As happens often in science, the first discoveries were made by thoroughly admirable men, but the crowd that came right after had a more mephitic smell. “God cannot have wanted that!” Otto Hahn is reported to have exclaimed. Did he ask Him beforehand, did He remain silent? I have the impression that God prefers to be left out of these discussions.

For I felt that no man has the right to decree so much suffering, and that science, in providing and sharpening the knife and in upholding the arm, had incurred a guilt of which it will never get rid. It was at that time that the nexus between science and murder became clear to me. For several years after the somber event, between 1947 and 1952, I tried desperately to find a position in what then appeared to me as bucolic Switzerland, but I had no success.

On the Fall of the University:#

It must be admitted, even under the best of circumstances, there is something bizarre about the modern university, that caravanserai of disconnected specialties, in which the patrimony of the West is being dispensed in innumerable tiny vials of many different colors to hordes of mostly reluctant recipients. This grotesque feature is reinforced in the United States, where the concentration of the “campus” establishes even more clearly the character of a spiritual hotel. The European universities functioned-in my time, at any rate-more as offices for the issuing of various licenses.

…. the “revolution” of 1968, from which the University never recovered. In order to guard themselves against both justified and groundless attacks, the universities have grown a heavy administrative carapace. At the same time, they have been invaded by a particularly malignant form of bureaucratic cancer: the numerous newly created administrative positions show no form of contact inhibition and keep on sprouting additional jobs, most of which produce no revenue. For this reason, the so-called “overhead” charged by the institutions to their outside supporters has climbed to fantastic proportions, in some cases 100 percent or more of the grant. The universities have taken on the appearance of transient motels in which one rents a laboratory or office through the overhead of a research grant ….