National Academies Press: OpenBook

Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 (1993)

Chapter: The Intellectual Man

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Suggested Citation:"The Intellectual Man." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
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Page 103
Suggested Citation:"The Intellectual Man." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 104
Suggested Citation:"The Intellectual Man." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 105

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MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 103 petard." For instance, it was his habit at Cologne to attend all the lectures of a course, reading a newspaper during the morning session, and then giving the last lecture himself. On one such occasion he was confronted, at his lecture, by the whole class who "pretended to be busy with their newspapers too. Max was a little startled at first, but then took it with good humor" (P.S.). Finally, to show how intimidating Max might at first appear to those who didn't know him well, it was not uncommon for him, with a rather serious expression, to say to a lecturer after his performance, "Well, that was the worst seminar I have ever heard!"; but I should conclude this theme by saying that at least one victim of this comment of Max, George Streisinger, also recorded "the very great love and admiration that so many of us feel towards him" (2, p. 335). The Intellectual Man In the winter of 1972 Max gave an extensive course of 20 lectures at Caltech on "Evolutionary epistemology." He later condensed these into a long but elegant essay entitled "Mind from matter??" presented as a single lecture to the XIIIth Nobel Conference in 1977 (1978d). The essay ranges from cosmology and the beginning of life, through the evolution of prokaryotes and perception, higher organisms and behaviour, the nervous system, consciousness, language and culture, to cognitive ability. He then goes on to ask, if mind evolved and was selected merely for its survival value, "to let us get along in the cave, how can it that (it) permit(s) us to obtain deep insights into cosmology, elementary particles, molecular genetics, number theory? To this question I have no answer. . . . The feeling of absurdity that attaches to the notion "Mind from Matter'' is perhaps of a similar nature to the feeling of absurdity we have learned

MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 104 to cope with when we permit relativity to reorganize time and space and quantum theory to reconcile waves and corpuscles. If so, then there may yet be hope for developing a formal approach permitting a Grand Synthesis." The essay begins with a brief recapitulation of Schrödinger's book, What Is Life?, and outlines Bohr's subtle complementarity argument. Thus Max's thinking continued to be swayed by Bohr's ideas, but in a new dimension, after 45 years. However, my main object in mentioning this essay, and the series of lectures that beget it, is to emphasize the cosmic scope of Max's conceptions, and the breadth and quality of his educational influence at Caltech. Max taught regularly at Caltech and his "method of learning was to teach, and every year . . . he would assign himself the task of teaching a course in some new subject that he wanted to learn. This ranged all the way from statistical mechanics to epistemology. So Max became an expert in every one of those subjects. As recently as a year and a half ago, long after he had been officially retired, he volunteered to teach freshman physics here at Caltech as a sort of refresher course for himself" (S.B. 3). In fact he never lost his interest or skill in theoretical physics and mathematics and, as late as 1980, published a paper on Bose-Einstein statistics (1980a). Papers on Phycomyces phototropism continued to appear up to the year of his death. However, his interest in formulations of objective reality was by no means limited to the modern era, but went back to Aristotle for whose biological observations and speculations he had great respect although his physics, as might be expected, rated "pretty much of a catastrophe." In his article, "How Aristotle discovered DNA" (1976c; see also 1971), Max explains, with many quotations, Aristotle's hypothesis that the male semen carries the form principle or plan of inheritance which does not become part of the

MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 105 embryo, unlike Hippocrates's theory that the semen consists of extracts or miniatures of each part of the body as in the later homunculus model. Indeed, two of Aristotle's arguments from observation, that the semen may determine either male or female, and that inheritance of skin colour can skip a generation, could well have served as a basis for Mendel's laws! (W.H.). Max goes on to recount the history of Aristotle's manuscripts (initially published in the Scientific Athenian!), and the final, accidental appropriation by theologians "of the most secondary and misguided aspects of Aristotle's speculations. It is due to this bizarre twist that we are encumbered today with a total barrier of understanding between the scientists and the theologians, from St. Thomas Aquinas to today." David Smith, Associate Professor of Literature at Caltech, writes of Max, "His interest in the humanities was profound, of long duration, and increasing intensity. And it was a matter of day to day practical observance, as most things profound are. He often attended humanities seminars. He even sponsored one. . . . He was the most active supporter of the art gallery on the campus." Indeed the Berlin artist, Jeanne Mammen, was supported and encouraged for decades by Max but received recognition only after his death. Poetry was of particular interest to Max and he was invited, in 1980, to lecture at the Poetry Center in New York, in the wake of such predecessors as T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. He intended to talk about Rilke who interested him as the most intuitive of major German poets. Unfortunately, this fell through because of illness, but he had hopes for 1981 and had completed nine pages of his lecture at the time of his death, in which "he pursues Rilke's imagery, its sources, the shock value of image and syntax. He compares and criticizes translations, translates himself. He comments on the use of symbol, vocabulary,

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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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