“A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native.”
By Maria Popova
“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her timeless, increasingly timely meditation on the immigrant experience and the meaning of “refugee.” But discrimination is also a self-inflicted wound by which the society perpetrating it bleeds internally — not only because it lacerates the moral fabric of the culture, but because it is a means by which a society cheats itself of the vital polyphony of voices necessary for symphonic polity.
That is what the great Serbian-American physicist and chemist Michael Pupin (October 4, 1858–March 12, 1935) illustrates with his life in his Pulitzer-winning 1923 autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor (public library).
Born in a Serbian village so tiny as to be missing from maps, Pupin immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. Having sold all of his belongings — his books, his clothes, his watch, his beloved yellow sheepskin coat — to pay for the fare, he made the long journey across the Atlantic aboard an immigrant ship with just the clothes on his back and “a red Turkish fez which nobody would buy.” He landed at Castle Garden — New York’s first immigration station, predating Ellis Island by nearly half a century — on a sunny morning in the first days of spring midway through his fifteenth year.
Pupin recounts the electric elation of his arrival into a new life of possibility:
On the fourteenth day, early in the morning, the flat coast-fine of Long Island hove in sight. Nobody in the motley crowd of excited immigrants was more happy to see the promised land than I was. It was a clear, mild, and sunny March morning, and as we approached New York Harbor the warm sun-rays seemed to thaw out the chilliness which I had accumulated in my body by continuous exposure to the wintry blasts of the North Atlantic. I felt like a new person, and saw in every new scene presented by the New World as the ship moved into it a new promise that I should be welcome.
Nine years later, Emma Lazarus would channel this ethos of unconditional welcome in her iconic sonnet “The New Colossus,” giving voice to the newly erected Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
Nearly a century and a half later, as this country made of and by immigrants suffers a tragic kind of auto-immune policy failure, Pupin’s words burn with searing pertinence:
He who has never crossed the stormy Atlantic during the month of March in the crowded steerage of an immigrant ship does not know what hardships are. I bless the stars that the immigration laws were different then than they are now, otherwise I should not be among the living. To stand the great hardships of a stormy sea when the rosy picture of the promised land is before your mind’s eye is a severe test for any boy’s nerve and physical stamina; but to face the same hardships as a deported and penniless immigrant with no cheering prospect in sight is too much for any person.
With the hindsight of half a century and a lifetime of uncommon accomplishment, Pupin looks back on that pivotal moment when he arrived to America as a penniless boy full of promise:
I had only five cents in my pocket. Had I brought five hundred dollars, instead of five cents, my immediate career in the new, and to me a perfectly strange, land would have been the same. A young immigrant such as I was then does not begin his career until he has spent all the money which he has brought with him. I brought five cents, and immediately spent it upon a piece of prune pie, which turned out to be a bogus prune pie. It contained nothing but pits of prunes. If I had brought five hundred dollars, it would have taken me a little longer to spend it, mostly upon bogus things, but the struggle which awaited me would have been the same in each case. It is no handicap to a boy immigrant to land here penniless; it is not a handicap to any boy to be penniless when he strikes out for an independent career, provided that he has the stamina to stand the hardships that may be in store for him.
Insisting that immigrants must never lose sight of “their meaning and their vital importance in American life,” he adds another sentiment of harrowing relevance today:
If the present standards had prevailed forty-eight years ago I should have been deported. There are, however, certain things which a young immigrant may bring to this country that are far more precious than any of the things which the present immigration laws prescribe.
The greatest gift a young immigrant confers upon their new home, Pupin argues, is the gift of perspective — of seeing the landscape of culture with new eyes. “An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” he writes. Our ways of seeing are invariably shaped by our formative experiences, which factor into the combinatorial nature of our creative contribution. Pupin illustrates this by drawing a beautiful coiling line between his formative experience as a peasant boy in the fields of rural Serbia and his field of scientist endeavor:
The light of the stars, the sound of the grazing oxen, and the faint strokes of the distant church-bell were messages of caution which on those dark summer nights guided our vigilance over the precious herd… Enveloped in the darkness of night and surrounded by countless burning stars, we guarded the safety of our oxen. The rest of the world had gone out of existence; it began to reappear in our consciousness when the early dawn announced what we boys felt to be the divine command, “Let there be light,” and the sun heralded by long white streamers began to approach the eastern sky, and the earth gradually appeared as if by an act of creation. Every one of those mornings of fifty years ago appeared to us herdsmen to be witnessing the creation of the world — a world at first of friendly sound and light messages which made us boys feel that a divine power was protecting us and our herd, and then a real terrestrial world, when the rising sun had separated the hostile mysteries of night from the friendly realities of the day.
Sound and light being associated in my young mind of fifty years ago with divine operations by means of which man communicates with man, beast with beast, stars with stars, and man with his Creator, it is obvious that I meditated much about the nature of sound and of light. I still believe that these modes of communication are the fundamental operations in the physical universe and I am still meditating about their nature.
Pupin would go on to become one of America’s most prolific inventors. The recipient of eighteen doctorates, he would make significant contributions to early X-ray imaging and would revolutionize telecommunication with his invention of a loading coil that greatly extended the long-distance range of signal transmission across telephone wires. A founding member of NASA predecessor NACA, he would preside over some of the country’s most esteemed scientific institutions, including the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A lunar crater bears his name.
In praise of the invisible heroisms and unglamorous triumphs of nature and the human spirit.
By Maria Popova
The Universe in Verse was a highlight of my year — a beautiful evening celebrating the improbable yet wondrous intersection of science and poetry, raising funds for the defense of science and the arts from political assault. Artists, writers, and scientists read poems about trailblazers of science, many of whom women, and about scientific discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the universe and of our place in it.
Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, himself the product of two scientists, prefaced his reading of poet Pattiann Rogers’s tender ode to single-cell creatures with an homage to his mother’s persistence in studying a single protein for thirty-five years — a testament to the unglamorous, invisible heroisms that have propelled the vast majority of humanity’s scientific endeavor, proof of what pioneering microbiologist Erwin Chargaff extolled as the value of unremembered work. Please enjoy:
ADDRESS: THE ARCHAEANS, ONE-CELL CREATURES by Pattiann Rogers
Although most are totally naked
and too scant for even the slightest
color and although they have no voice
that I’ve ever heard for cry or song, they are,
nevertheless, more than mirage, more
than hallucination, more than falsehood.
They have confronted sulfuric
boiling black sea bottoms and stayed,
held on under ten tons of polar ice,
established themselves in dense salts
and acids, survived eating metal ions.
They are more committed than oblivion,
more prolific than stars.
Far too ancient for scripture, each
one bears in its one cell one text—
the first whit of alpha, the first
jot of bearing, beneath the riling
sun the first nourishing of self.
Too lavish for saints, too trifling
for baptism, they have existed
throughout never gaining girth enough
to hold a firm hope of salvation.
Too meager in heart for compassion,
too lean for tears, less in substance
than sacrifice, not one has ever
carried a cross anywhere.
And not one of their trillions
has ever been given a tombstone.
I’ve never noticed a lessening
of light in the ceasing of any one
of them. They are more mutable
than mere breathing and vanishing,
more mysterious than resurrection,
too minimal for death.