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This report is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.

Catchwords (6) Iain Bamforth

Molecular philology. Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002) was born, like Paul Celan, in Czernowitz, then an easterly outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now in the Ukraine. Despite his literary talent and facility for languages, he ended up as a distinguished biochemist at Columbia University in New York. His autobiographical chapter A Fever of Reason acknowledges Karl Kraus as his sole mentor and guide: he is surely the only modern scientist to pay the Viennese writer this tribute, although it is noteworthy that Elias Canetti, also a Kraus acolyte in his time, studied chemistry (as a subterfuge to prevent his domineering mother knowing that he was a writer) at the University of Vienna in the 1920s.

Despite the great esteem in which he was held as an experimental scientist, he, like Rosalind Franklin and at least a dozen other researchers in the field, did not receive due recognition for his work on nucleic acids and the base-pair composition of the DNA double helix: the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 went to Crick, Watson and Wilkins. Chargaff became a lonely and witty critic of molecular biology's assumption that the inevitable next state of the advancement of science would be the remodelling of the genetic composition of E. coli - 'the hybridization of Prometheus and Herostratus is bound to give evil results' - and on a wider scale of American education in general: 'lost souls teaching the young how to lose theirs'.

Becoming a minor prophet when the ...


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