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Pioneering Biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the Poetics of Curiosity, the Crucial Difference Between Understanding and Explanation, and What Makes a Scientist

“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.”

Pioneering Biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the Poetics of Curiosity, the Crucial Difference Between Understanding and Explanation, and What Makes a Scientist

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.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

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.

Illustration from a 1967 children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s timeless parable about the redemptive power of critical thinking

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.

“Beams of Light Through Glass,” one of Berenice Abbott’s vintage science-inspired photographs of natural phenomena

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.

Illustration from The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina, a picture-book biography of the pioneering Persian polymath

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.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

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.


Einstein’s Brilliant and Unusual Life, in a Graphic Novel

From relativity to romance, an illustrated chronicle of genius.

Einstein’s Brilliant and Unusual Life, in a Graphic Novel

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius” and his groundbreaking discoveries have changed the course of science, but he was also a man of enormous and thus inescapably fallible humanity, whose confusion and conflictedness were inseparable from his genius.

This seething cauldron of brilliant complexity is what Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon explore in Einstein (public library) — the third installment in their series of illustrated biographies of thinkers who have shaped modern life, following Freud and Marx.




From Einstein’s formative childhood experiences to his arrival in America, from his annus mirabilis to his Nobel Prize, from his views on religion to his civil rights activity, the graphic novel unfolds with elegant simplicity of language and intelligent playfulness that would have delighted Einstein, who was known for his irreverent wit.





In addition to the easily digestible format, the substance of the book is decidedly nutritious — Einstein’s most important theories are explained with care and comprehensible clarity.










Complement the marvelous Einstein with the iconic scientist on the secret to learning anything, his increasingly timely message to posterity, and his wonderful letter of advice to Marie Curie on how to handle haters, then revisit On a Beam of Light — the picture-book biography of Einstein that numbers among the loveliest children’s books celebrating cultural icons.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow


Mary McCarthy on Love and Hannah Arendt’s Advice to Her on the Dangerous Delusion That We Can Change Our Lovers

“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?”

Mary McCarthy on Love and Hannah Arendt’s Advice to Her on the Dangerous Delusion That We Can Change Our Lovers

Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) remains one of the most blazing intellects of the past century, whose ideas about the crucial difference between thinking and knowing, the power of outsiderdom, our impulse for self-display, and what free will really means continue to electrify with their insight into the fabric of being.

In 1944, Arendt met the writer and political activist Mary McCarthy (June 21, 1912–October 25, 1989) in a Manhattan bar. So began an intense lifelong friendship. After Arendt’s death, McCarthy became her literary executor. Their letters, collected in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy (public library), are on par with such great epistolary friendships as those between Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan.


What makes Arendt and McCarthy’s correspondence so remarkable is its uncommon combination of intellectual rigor and unflinching openheartedness. In between offering comprehensive feedback on each other’s work and discussing subjects ranging from consciousness to politics to Kant, they also share the most irrational perplexities of the human heart — nowhere more movingly than in the realm of romance.

A decade into her marriage to her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, 46-year-old McCarthy had grown restless in a relationship founded on affection and agreeableness rather than passion. In May of 1956, she met an English book reviewer and former heavyweight boxer named John Davenport, and the two embarked upon an ardent affair. But the following spring, through a chance encounter with a friend of Davenport’s named Mr. Hughes (whom Davenport had initially introduced as his cousin but who in actually was not), she discovered that her lover was a pathological liar, an alcoholic, and an occasional thief.

McCarthy was completely shocked by the revelations, and yet what her intellect found morally repugnant her heart refused to factor into the infatuation. She wrote to Arendt, reporting this unbearable psychoemotional dissonance:

The truth is, I still care about him, just as much as ever, though perhaps this feeling would not last if I saw him in actuality. But this caring, of course, is really hopeless now. Hughes says he is hopeless and I believe him… Hughes says he started to write too late and lacks all discipline and habits of work, so that he keeps making these massive escapes into lies and drinking. Hughes says there’s a strong self-destructive urge in him and that, whatever the superficial motive, good or bad, that made him break off our correspondence, the real thing must have been that he was rejecting the one thing that could have saved him.

Oh, Hannah, isn’t it awful? I still would do anything for him … but what can I do?

In a letter from early June, Arendt counsels McCarthy on these “crooked corkscrews of the heart” (a phrase of W.H. Auden’s, which Arendt loved) and the whole romantic delusion of being able to save anyone from themselves, to love them out of their demons — a delusion responsible, I would argue, for the vast majority of broken hearts the human race has produced. Arendt writes:

When an acknowledged liar speaks the truth, he does not want to be believed… There are two things which could “save” him: either a woman, but then saved for what? Evidently for some form of respectability. Or: more than talents, namely almost genius, or a talent so compelling that it will overrule everything else. (This is of course the case of people like Brecht or Heidegger.) But if this Who they are is not matched by qualities and gifts, what can there remain to do? And then life becomes a very long and rather boring business; for the Who as such is nowhere recognized in our society, there is no place for it. Under such circumstances, to destroy oneself and become “self-destructive” can be a time-consuming and rather honorable job. More honorable and probably less boring than to save oneself. The only thing which is really not permissible is to drag other people into one’s own amusements… Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this; but then you can’t expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself.

McCarthy was eventually able to extricate herself from the relationship despite its self-mutilating magnetism. But by the spring of 1960, her marriage to Broadwater already beyond salvation, she was head-over-heels in love with another man — a diplomat named James West. In a letter to Arendt from that May, while separated from her husband and awaiting a final divorce as West was working on the same with his wife, McCarthy writes:

Dearest Hannah:

The next mail leaves in forty-five minutes, and I’m writing you this note for purely selfish reasons: because my heart is full of emotion and I want to talk. As if we were in your apartment. Bowden … has written three times in response to my last letter, and so I’ve purposely slowed down a little on answering, not to keep up a fevered correspondence with him, which would awaken all sorts of hopes. Indeed, they are awake. And it’s so sad, because I grow fonder of him as he recedes a little into the distance and all the memories become good ones; the thought of him suffering, moreover, makes me want to scream aloud. He writes that he is not sorry, in a way, that this happened because it made him realize what he wanted or loved, and that he never knew he wanted or loved anything before.


Meanwhile, and as a strange and soaring trumpet-music to this growing tenderness I feel for Bowden, my love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I’ve become conscious in myself of certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember my telling you once that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing house, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games. And that all this should happen with a U.S. government official seems utterly bizarre in a way… So I shall stop and run for the mail and only end by sending you much, much love and winged thoughts.


Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)
Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)

Arendt had cautioned McCarthy against getting hurt in that familiar way of trying to change another person with the sheer power of her love. In a letter sent three days later, while suggesting that certain kinds of getting hurt are the inevitable growing pains of love, Arendt reiterates the admonition against that particular peril:

[Some] getting hurt … is only another way of being alive. But, please don’t fool yourself: nobody ever was cured of anything, trait or habit, by a mere woman, though this is precisely what all girls think they can do. Either you are willing to take him “as is” or you better leave well enough alone.

A week later, after sharing with West some of her romantic history and incurring a fit of his jealous fury, McCarthy reflects on the incident in her response to Arendt:

Hannah, I don’t know what you meant about my getting hurt, unless (as I thought) that he had the power to hurt me, that is to use me badly, as they say. Well, he has and he could. It surprised him… It surprised me too. Our joint surprise was perhaps rather funny — naive. But it “taught” him something and me something. We’ve both been mulling this over by mail ever since — rather mulling over the implications. The problem is how to curb this tendency (which is really, with him, a form of self-laceration) without closing off certain areas. I.e., my natural tendency would be not to tell him things that I expected would bother him and his would be not to show that he was bothered, not to let me see his suspicions or jealousy. But that way you would soon land in a relation of complete falsity — manipulating the truth and each other. And the point of this love is its honesty; everything is offered, nothing is held back. It’s total, like total war, and that power or drive comes from him. I have never known another man who had it and I’ve also become aware of how prudent (in spite of being romantic) I’ve always been myself, how many precautions I take against being wounded. So there is the dilemma. If we aren’t careful, he will hurt me, for I’m particularly alive to a sense of injustice, of being wrongly suspected or accused, and if he hurts me I will start protecting myself by congealing [sic]. And yet we don’t want to be “careful.”

Echoing the assertion that Martin Heidegger, Arendt’s great love, had made in their beautiful love letters decades earlier — what makes love so transformative, he asserted, is that “we become what we love and yet remain ourselves” — McCarthy adds:

Despite your warning that nobody ever changes for a mere woman, I think we shall both change a little. What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were? If he hopes for an inner change, a release from the monotony of certain habitual reactions, that’s partly why he’s in love, why he troubled, so to speak, to fall in love instead of just having an affair. And the hope is part of the man as much as the habitual reactions. If you take him “as is” you take the hope too.

On Valentine’s Day in 1961, McCarthy and Broadwater finally obtained their divorce. She married West almost immediately and the two remained together for twenty-eight years, until death did them part.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent Between Friends, edited by Carol Brightman, with sociologist Eva Illouz on why love hurts, philosopher Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering it, and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, how we humanize each other, and her love letters with Martin Heidegger.


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