Saturday, 17 July 2010

Chargaff on a scientific career

“How is science done in our days?

“Here I must immediately make a distinction between science as a profession and science as the expression of some of the faculties of the human mind. The two are not necessarily connected.

“When someone tells me 'I am a professional scientist', it does not automatically mean that he is a scientist.

“The distinction I am suggesting here has nothing to do with the question of talent. There have always been more or less gifted scientists, and there were even a few, very few, scientific geniuses. But what I want to bring out is that as a profession science is one of the more recent ones. It barely existed when I began my studies. (...)

“One entered a career in science, just as in history or philosophy, by trying to become a teacher at a college or even a high school. There were very few jobs, and almost none that paid enough to live on, except for the position of the professor himself. And there was usually only one professor for a discipline.

“Hence the old students' saying that there were only two ways to make a university career: per anum or per vaginum. You tried to become the professor's darling or you married his daughter. Obviously, this limited the choice: some professors were very nasty, some daughters were very ugly. Girl students were altogether out of luck, but there were only a few of them.

“You may conclude - and you are right – that this was a most unpleasant system. But it had one advantage: it acted as a sieve, letting through the few who could no do otherwise. By requiring what amounted to a pledge of poverty, it kept out all those who, to use a nasty term, were not ‘highly motivated’. It produced a slightly smaller number, but probably a much higher density, of good scientists than does the present system.

From Heraclitean Fire (1978) by Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002)

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Comment: Chargaff was the best writer among scientists (of any that I have encountered). He was also exceedingly wise. And he was pessimistic.

Because of this combination, Chargaff's writing must be approached with considerable caution.