Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Prophet or curmudgeon?

Erwin Chargaff, the great biochemist who discovered rules of chemical combination that led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, grew up in Austria in what seemed to him the last golden days of a more civilized era. He was watching the younger sons of Kaiser Wilhelm II play tennis when news came of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that plunged all of Europe into darkness. He spent the years between the wars in Vienna, where he took his academic degrees. Torn between science and the study of literature, he drifted into chemistry, as later he drifted into biochemistry. He was forced to leave Europe by the rise of the Nazis. Again darkness descended. His mother was deported from Vienna into oblivion.

Chargaff came to the US in 1935, and became a US citizen in 1940. He died in 2002 at age 97.

In his autobiography, Heraclitean Fire, Chargaff says of his life: "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." At every moment of his life, Chargaff was aware of the immensity of the darkness that is nature. As a scientist, he made the darkness a little bit brighter. As a nonagenarian, surrounded by solved riddles, he still remained struck by how little we understand -- and frightened by how much we do understand.

In certain contemporary research, particularly the science of incipient life, Chargaff felt that science comes dangerously close to bridging the gap between God's finger and the finger of man. In a 1997 essay in Nature, the grand old man of science asked for restraint. "Scientific curiosity is not an unbounded good," he wrote. "Restraint in asking necessary questions is one of the sacrifices that even the scientist ought to be willing to make to human dignity."

Chargaff's philosophy was marked by paradox. He believed humans cannot live without mysteries, yet he devoted his life to unraveling the greatest mystery of all, the mystery of human life. He contributed mightily to discovering the secret of DNA, and yet worried about the use to which that knowledge would be put. He was a man of reason who agreed with Goya that "the dream of reason brings forth monsters."

Recognizing these paradoxes in Chargaff's life, many scientists dismiss his critique of genetic research as cantankerous obfuscation. Unbounded scientific curiosity, they say, has proven its worth; light is invariably better than darkness; in turning his back on the search for knowledge, Chargaff would have us return to a time when human life was the helpless plaything of disease and death.

Chargaff answered: "A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh. A man who does not tremble cannot live."