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Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 (1993)

Chapter: Sense of Humour

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Suggested Citation:"Sense of Humour." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
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Page 101
Suggested Citation:"Sense of Humour." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 102

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MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 101 The urge to do experiments was always so strong that we could not get ourselves to sit down and write up the results. Delbrück had a solution for this. He assembled all who had papers to write and whisked us off to Caltech's Marine Biology Station at Corona del Mar. There, we were locked up for three days and ordered to write. Delbrück's wife, Manny, typed as rapidly as we could spew the stuff out; we mercilessly criticized each other's drafts, and in three days everyone had completed a paper (2, pp. 157, 340). Sense of Humour Max's wit and humour were very much a part of his image because they accentuated the depth and seriousness of his personality in such a striking way. His wit was light and amusing, as when he told Jean Weigle that he supposed the Festschrift in honor of his (Max's) 60th birthday would be an opportunity for everyone to publish papers that had been rejected repeatedly by many journals. Again, he propounded his "Principle of limited sloppiness" to account for the emergence of important ideas from experiments that had not been rigorously controlled. Another example of his wit, as well as of the playfulness mentioned above, is his introduction to the Commencement Address he delivered at Caltech in 1978, entitled "The arrow of time" (11). It appeared that a committee had suggested Max as speaker, while the students had again suggested the comedian, Woody Allen. "So," said Max, ''what happened? Well, it's up to you to decide. Is it Max Delbrück as advertised, talking to you, or is it Woody Allen, impersonating a Senior Academic Citizen, scurrilously named Max Delbrück, or is it Max Delbrück, scurrilously pretending to be Woody Allen impersonating Max Delbrück? Having been trained in critical thinking for so long at Caltech I am sure you will enjoy pondering these alternatives while I, whoever I may be, go on with my talk"; and on he went to discuss very seriously the paradoxes of the nature

MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 102 of subjective and objective time, and of truth. Incidentally, I see in the margin of a copy of this address that he sent me the annotation, "Letter follows—but when?"! Max's more farcical sense of comedy must be mentioned since it is an aspect of his personality that his friends remember so well, and which proved rather infectious within the Phage Group. For example, a British physicist (C.F.) who knew him in Berlin in 1937 remembers a summer party at his home to which "he invited half the guests in evening dress and the other half in casual tennis clothes, and he himself wore his grandfather's tail coat over old flannel bags." In much the same vein, a visitor to Caltech in 1953 (E.S.A.) was invited to accompany the Delbrücks to a perfectly sober end of term students' play. To his astonishment, Max insisted on dressing up as a pregnant woman and Manny as "her" English husband, complete with moustache, bowler hat and furled umbrella, while he (E.S.A.) went as a friend attired in weird clothing. They arrived late at the play and "you can imagine the sensation we produced as we marched solemnly down the aisle to our seats near the front." Max and his party left before the end of the play, and it then transpired that the cast and many students and friends had been invited to the Delbrück home after the performance. Max now insisted that he and his guest exchange roles on the grounds that the prank would not otherwise be complete—a dénouement "which resulted in the utmost confusion when the guests arrived." When Max was at Cologne he introduced a lifestyle that was quite atypical for Germany, such as organizing a treasure hunt through the whole of Lindenthal, while at parties in the Institute "there would be rather skillful cartoons exhibited, and sketches would be performed which would make fun of the Institute and mainly of the senior people" (P.S.). Of course, Max was sometimes "hoist with his own

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Biographic Memoirs: Volume 62 contains the biographies of deceased members of the National Academy of Sciences and bibliographies of their published works. Each biographical essay was written by a member of the Academy familiar with the professional career of the deceased. For historical and bibliographical purposes, these volumes are worth returning to time and again.

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