A man from an illustrious family finds science to be the ultimate mode of aesthetic self-expression in this memoir.
Piatigorsky (Jellyfish Have Eyes, 2014, etc.), a biologist who had a distinguished career at the National Institutes of Health, tells of his extraordinarily rich but alienating family traditions and his search for independence outside them. His father, Gregor, was born into an impoverished Jewish family in Ukraine but became a world-renowned cellist, and his mother, Jacqueline, was an heiress to the Rothschild banking dynasty; after fleeing Europe during World War II, his parents and sister settled into a comfortable, fulfilling life in America, where he was born. But Piatigorsky’s boyhood memories are full of unease. Lacking musical talent, he was overshadowed by his father’s fame and was no more comfortable visiting his maternal grandparents’ palaces in France. He paints vivid scenes of glittering musicales with the most famous classical musicians and formal dinners with servants hovering everywhere in rooms decked with priceless paintings. But the lonely, slightly neurotic author “felt an outsider…as if looking through a window and tapping on the glass.” He embarked on a career as a biologist, studying at Harvard University and Caltech and finally settling at the NIH. Much of the book concerns his quirky but engrossing scientific research, which started with studies of sea urchins, moved on to “crystallins”—transparent proteins found in the eye—and eventually led to groundbreaking discoveries in “gene sharing,” the phenomenon of individual proteins performing radically different functions in different cells.
Piatigorsky’s exposition of the science that he pursued is lucid and highly accessible to lay readers. He also pens a fine portrait of science as a human activity. His anecdotes are full of mundane screw-ups, from unlabeled samples to experiments that were ruined when a test tube broke. The work was sometimes distasteful and distressing; he was initially heartsick at having to kill mice for experiments, but he eventually became nonchalant about it—and he wondered what that said about his moral character. There’s deeper angst as well; crushed when colleagues ignored his presentation at a scientific conference, he realized that his “science was not up to par” and started wondering whether he really belonged in the field. But there are also moments of exhilaration when new theories pan out and hours of quiet engagement doing painstaking but satisfying lab work. Piatigorsky insists that science is “driven by passion, like art,” and his vibrant prose is full of entrancing appreciations of the artistry in science and nature, whether it be an elegantly constructed experiment or the “angelic white form” of a jellyfish. He makes a ringing case for science as a freely creative endeavor, untethered to practical ends and guided only by the curiosity of scientists. It’s a satisfying conclusion that brings his struggle to live up to his father’s music and the Rothschilds’ art collecting full circle.
An absorbing, luminous story of a son wrestling with his family’s legacy that highlights the imaginative and emotional dimensions of scientific discovery.