VV: What have you learned from science?

EC: Only one thing: that one ought to wash one’s hands before touching nature.

VV: You want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

EC: Yes. But they have made science into something that they deserve.

VV: What is the remedy?

EC: There is no remedy.

VV: At the place where you are now it is not for you to blow the trumpet of the Apocalypsis. Another tuba will spread its miraculous sound. I repeat my question.

EC: The first step would have to be to make science small again and to disengage it from technology and from the pursuit of power.

VV: How would you do this?

EC: I don’t think it can be done according to a blueprint, and it will not take place without a series of catastrophes of a dimension that would make mankind stop and look. Our kind of science has become a disease of the Western mind. We were taught that by digging deeper and deeper we should reach the center of our world. But all we find is rock and fire. So we take the stone as our heart and the flame as our hope.

VV: Is that all that has been found?

EC: We have been lured into a search for the ever-diminishing dimensions. Each new decimal opens a new grotto of delights. Drowning in precision, drunk with controls of controls, we lose ourselves in the quick and dead sands of eternity. It will be too late when we finally become aware of our error. The center of our world is not where we have been looking for it.

Erwin Chargaff, Liber Scriptus Proferetur (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).



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I CAME TO BIOCHEMISTRY through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and 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 absconditus, 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.

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.

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.

Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. 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. What has become of an enterprise that started as an exploration of the gesta Dei per naturam?

To follow the acts of God by way of nature is itself an act that can never be completed. Kepler knew this and so did many others, but it is now being forgotten. In general, 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: a sleight of hand that I have considered in a recent essay, Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: “The ununderstandable about nature is that it is understandable.” I think he should have said: “that it is explainable.” 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 formulation! Lately, many tricks have been discovered about nature; but these tricks seem to have been specially produced by nature for the imbeciles to find out; and there is no Maimonides to guide them out of their confusion. In other words, science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification. It is written in the Analects of Confucius (XII, 19): “The Master said, Heaven does not speak.”

Erwin Chargaff, The Silence of the Heavens (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).


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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

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.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. 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 undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).