Monday, 19 July 2010

Chargaff looking back - Extinction of tradition, lost human pace and scale

Referring to his first twelve years at Columbia University, USA:

“The more than sixty regular papers published during that period dealt with a very wide field of biochemistry, as it was then understood; and a few of them may even have contributed a little to the advance of science, which, at that time, was still slow, i.e., it had human proportions.

(…)

“Nevertheless, when I look back on what I did during those twelve years, there come to mind the words ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas: Omnia quae scripsi paleae mihi videntur. All he had written seemed to him as chaff.

“When I was young, I was required – and it was easy – to go back to the origins of our science. The bibliographies of chemical and biological papers often included reference to work done forty or fifty years earlier. One felt oneself part of a gently growing tradition, growing at a rate that the human mind could encompass, vanishing at a rate it could apprehend.

“Now, however, in our miserable scientific mass society, nearly all discoveries are born dead; papers are tokens in a power game, evanescent reflections on the screen of a spectator sport, new items that do not outlive the day on which they appeared.

“Our sciences have become forcing houses for a market that in reality does not exist, creating, with the concomitant complete break in tradition, a truly Babylonian confusion of mind and language.

“Nowadays, scientific tradition hardly reaches back for more than three or four years. The proscenium looks the same as before, but the scenery keeps on changing as in a fever dream; no sooner is one backdrop in place than it is replaced by an entirely different one.

“The only thing that experience can now teach is that it has become worthless.

“One could ask whether a fund of knowledge, such as a scientific discipline, can exist without a living tradition.

“In any event, in many areas of science which I am able to survey, this tradition has disappeared. It is, hence, no exaggeration and no coquettish humility if I conclude that the work we did thirty or forty years ago – with all the engagement that honest effort could provide – is dead and gone.”


Erwin Chargaff – Heraclitean Fire, 1978.

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Comment:

Pure gold.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Note: “the advance of science (…) was still slow, i.e., it had human proportions. (…) One felt oneself part of a gently growing tradition, growing at a rate that the human mind could encompass, vanishing at a rate it could apprehend.”

*That* is the pace of real science.

“…in our miserable scientific mass society, nearly all discoveries are born dead; papers are tokens in a power game, evanescent reflections on the screen of a spectator sport, new items that do not outlive the day on which they appeared…”

But “our miserable scientific mass society” does not operate at the pace of real science, but at the pace of management – and what is more, a management suffering from ADHD. Six monthly appraisals, yearly job plans, three yearly grants and so on. (All evaluations being determined by committee and bureaucracy, rather than by individuals.)

Note: “Our sciences have become forcing houses for a market that in reality does not exist…”

Nobody really *wants* what modern science provides, there is no real market for it; which is why modern science is dishonest – from top to bottom: modern science must engage in public relations, hype, spin – lies – in order to persuade the ‘market’ that it really wants whatever stuff the ‘forcing houses’ of modern science are relentlessly churning-out.