Till recently, I have not heard about Jonathan Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory (though, it seems to have been mentioned at Pharyngula). Then, while reading one of the obituaries of Seymour Benzer, I learnt about the book (and, it came with strong recommendations). I managed to check the book out from the library and read it in the last few days. It is a great book, and I am glad I got to read it.
One of the things that struck me while reading the book is how different doing science (at least, some disciplines of biology) seems to have been in the early and middle parts of 20th century as compared to today; for example, in p. 51 of the book, Weiner reproduces a figure from one of the classic papers, the caption of which, in part, reads:
This illustration comes from one of the historic papers in which Benzer reported the results of the experiment. Benzer’s caption: :The artist, Martha Jane Benzer, who graciously signed the drawing, was five years old at the time.”
It seems that such personal touch (not to mention the attitude of not taking oneself too seriously) seems to be missing in the literature today. A few pages later, I found a quote by a biologist about the non-competitiveness that prevailed in those early days, which reinforces my impression:
He spent all summer at Cold Spring Harbor talking about the rII idea. I could have stolen it. I could have gone into my lab and done it myself. We didn’t do that in those days.
It is a very frank admission too; and, there are more such passages in the book which capture the science, as it is and was practiced, which makes reading the book a real pleasure; for example, take a look at this interesting thought about top-down and bottoms-up approaches to science, and their interconnectedness:
Luria said something that seemed to him to be extremely important, although Benzer could not follow it at the time. “He said, ‘Everyone keeps going down, down, down, trying to be more reductionist, trying to see finer and finer, to find the basis of structure and function.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s time start going up again–going in the opposite direction.’
“So I was interested in that,” Benzer says now. “But of course it took a long time before I–it takes a long time of going down before you start looking to go up again. Down is much easier way to go.”
Even though the field in general had become too competitive and more business like, Benzer seems to have continued to be a maverick in his attitudes. Apparently, when his colleagues became administrators, here is how Benzer confronted them:
As Benzer’s friends succumbed one by one, Benzer presented each of them with a copy of little handbook called Microcosmographia Academica: Being a guide for the young academic politician. The pamphlet (“the merest sketch of the little world that now lies before you,” the preface explains) teaches the skills that Benzer’s former labmates would not need to learn, including propaganda, “that branch of the art of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.”
Here is an online version of Microcosmographia, in case you are interested.
There are also some passages which read like a description from some post-modern novel, like this one about Benzer’s visit to a roadside astrologer in India:
Benzer went to a meeting in India. Wandering in the street markets looking for exotica–he had acquired a taste for strange foods as well as strange hours–Benzer saw a soothsayer with a bird. Passersby would ask the soothsayer a question. Then the man would ask the bird. The bird would go into the cage, peck among the scraps on the floor, and bring out an answer. Benzer asked, “Is the genetic code universal?” The bird gave the answer “The news from home is good.”
I am wondering if the conference happened in Bangalore (and, if it is in Malleshwaram that Benzer met the soothsayer).
On the whole, a fine book, which, I have no hesitations recommending (and, reading which would make a nice tribute to Benzer too). Happy reading!