Heraclitean fire

“What I see coming is a gigantic slaughterhouse, a molecular Auschwitz, in which valuable enzymes, hormones and so on will be extracted instead of gold teeth.”

This was the judgement of Erwin Chargaff, in his scintillating book, Heraclitean Fire, published in 1978. It is a memoir of his early life (in Austro-Hungary) leading to his condemnation of Big Science, in which he became a formidable biochemical researcher — who assembled the paired ingredients for the double helix of DNA, but was omitted from the Nobel Prize. Indeed his ridicule of gawky young Watson and Crick, who had been his students, is deliciously apt. He is ungraciously stylish and wittily sharp, as he waltzes through the fields of literature, music, and high culture in a way that offends most American reviewers. For the gentleman could read at least fifteen languages.

I am not a biochemist (you may be surprised to learn), but this is theoretically a free country, and my admiration for the late sapient Chargaff (1905-2002), as also for his Pre-Socratic mentor (Heracleitus, not a professional biochemist either), is unrestricted.

“Science is not a mechanism for exploring the unexplorable.”

Chargaff was among the last scientists to grasp this, before “progress” began to explore such creations as Dolly the Sheep. He was among the first to grasp that the dependence of scientific research upon extravagant bureaucratic funding would make it more tedious than accounting, and more monstrous than crowds. The law of unintended consequences would apply to every arrogant step into “the unknown.”

The first discoveries are done by brilliant and imaginative men. But as Chargaff noted in his last year, they are trailed by the mephitic smell of a mob; by the touts and sly grins of the wizards of technology.