HERACLITEAN FIRE: Sketcher of a Life Before Nature by Erwin Chargaff

HERACLITEAN FIRE: Sketcher of a Life Before Nature

Email this review


Erwin Chargaff is an elegant writer whose autobiography is a dark tale of apocalyptic forebodings lightened only by occasional flashes of sardonic wit. The temperament of the Austrian-born biochemist was ever dark, he tells us--that of an old child doomed to live, as he sees it, at the worst of times. Now retired after 40 years of teaching at Columbia, Chargaff views current developments in American science like an Old Testament Hosea. He decries the debasement of science, the fragmentation, the power drives, grantsmanship, proliferation of mediocrity. Much of the book repeats these themes in relation to two events--the fission of the atomic nucleus leading to the bomb, and the analysis of the cell nucleus leading to recombinant DNA experiments. His own role in the analysis of DNA he recounts with pride. Struck by the implications of Avery's 1944 paper on transformation in bacteria, he turned his attention to the biochemical analysis of DNA, showing that the makeup of DNA was species-specific and that the bases were paired--a major clue in the development of the double helix model. Chargaff's description of Viennese life after World War I, his settling in America, and his scientific life are embellished with frequent quotations from his masters--Karl Kraus, Goethe, HÖlderlin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Brecht--and philosophical asides, which at times dispel the underlying pessimism. Chargaff is well aware that his position puts him in a minority among scientists and does nothing for his popularity. The reader, too, may not share his views, but cannot help respect the sensitivity and erudition of the writer--and wish that reincarnation could establish him, not in the future, but in the 18th century, whose spirit he seems to personify.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1978
Publisher: Rockefeller Univ. Press