Tag Archives: Albert Einstein

The Converging Lives of Jacques Monod, Francois Jacob, Andre Lwoff, and Albert Camus in Wartime France

In the 1950s and 1960s, two French biologists at the Pasteur Institute, Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod, explained how genes are regulated in bacteria. Their studies of the “lac operon” of E. coli indeed opened up the field of gene regulation, and were a key development in the new science of molecular biology. Their experimental findings also implied the existence of an unstable intermediate between genes and protein synthesis, which eventually led to Jacob’s discovery, in collaboration with Sydney Brenner and Matt Meselson, of messenger RNA (1).

Jacob and Monod shared in the 1965 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their breakthrough studies on gene regulation. Fellow Pasteur Institute scientist, Andre Lwoff, received a share of the award for his pioneering studies on the nature of lysogeny (i.e., how a bacteriophage’s genome can be incorporated into the genome of a host bacteria, and remain latent until being activated by an inducing factor).

In 2013, evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll published a book—Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize—that relates how wartime circumstances brought together Jacques Monod and his scientific colleagues Francois Jacob and Andre Lwoff (2). But while much of that story is already known (3), Carroll also tells us of the little known, but remarkable coming together of Monod and philosopher/writer Albert Camus, one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. Coming from very different intellectual backgrounds, Monod and Camus forged a deep friendship, united in their opposition to tyranny and oppression. Carroll’s book was the inspiration for this post.

When Albert Camus learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1957, he wrote to a few well-wishers, including an old friend in Paris:

My dear Monod,

      I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.

                                                                                                                                             Albert Camus

Camus appears somewhat downcast in his note to Monod. At 43-years-in-age, he was the second youngest writer ever to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (Rudyard Kipling at 42 was the youngest), and he was worried that the ballyhoo surrounding the award might distract him from his writing. And, he was concerned that the prize might stir up additional contempt from critics of his writing, as well as from his leftist colleagues who opposed his condemnation of Soviet communism.

But, why did philosopher/writer Camus—an intimate of some of the greatest writers and artists of the mid-twentieth century, including Sartre and Picasso—write to scientist Monod, and acknowledge the special importance he placed on their friendship? Likewise, why did he assert: “I have known one true genius, Jacques Monod.” And, what is the same adventure that Camus refers to?

A brief background to our tale is as follows. In March 1939, Hitler took control of Czechoslovakia. Next, on September 1, Germany invaded Poland. On September 2nd, Poland’s allies, Britain and France, issued an ultimatum to Germany: withdraw or face war. On September 3rd, the ultimatum expired, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and the Second World War was underway; sort of. Although Germany went on to conquer Poland in a mere eight days, several months passed without further action. Then, in May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded and overran France in just six weeks. Marshall Pétain surrendered to the Germans, the French Forces were disbanded, the pro-Nazi Vichy government was put in place under former prime minister Pierre Laval and the 84-year-old Pétain, and the Nazi occupation of the defeated French nation began.

A few months before the Nazis invaded France, thirty-year old Jacques Monod was a doctoral student in zoology at the Sorbonne. [A polymath, he also founded a Bach choral group, and was an accomplished cellist, and seriously considered a career in music (4).]  But as war with Germany loomed, Monod enlisted in the army—in the communication engineers—where he thought he might use his scientific talents if war were to break out. Consequently, Monod was serving on the front lines when the Germans invaded. France suffered the most colossal military disaster in its history, and Monod returned to his studies in Paris.

Life in France grew progressively harsher under the Nazis; beginning with subjugation, and followed by deportations, enslavement, and mass murder. Early on, Monod joined one of the first units of the French Resistance; a group of ethnologists and anthropologists at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man).

One of Monod’s duties for the Musée de l’Homme group was to distribute its newspaper, at night. This seemingly simple task was extremely dangerous since capture could mean deportation to a concentration camp or execution. Monod, in fact, had several close escapes. On one occasion, the Gestapo raided his laboratory at the Sorbonne. Fortunately, since they were fearful of the viruses and radioactive isotopes in the lab, they didn’t search it as thoroughly as they might have. Otherwise, they might have found sensitive documents that Monod would hide inside the leg of a mounted giraffe outside his office. In any case, the Germans soon routed the short-lived Musée de l’Homme group

Monod’s wife, Odette, was the granddaughter of Zadoc Kahn, the former chief rabbi of France. Since the Vichy government soon began enacting Nazi policies, including anti-Jewish laws, and because of homegrown French anti-Semitism, Odette sought refuge for herself, and for her and Jacque’s twin sons (born in August 1939, four weeks before the war broke out), under assumed names, in a village outside of Paris. Meanwhile, Jacques had to register with the Vichy authorities as the spouse of a Jewish person.

With Odette and the children concealed, Monod joined the most militant unit in the Resistance; the Communist-led Franc-Tireurs (Free Shooters) group. Monod was not then a Communist Party member. Nonetheless, he joined the Franc-Tireurs since they actually were fighting the Germans—assassinating German officers in the streets and carrying out sabotage. One of his missions for the Franc-Tireurs took him to Geneva—through the Alps to avoid arrest—to request money for arms from the United States Office of Strategic Services; the precursor of the present Central Intelligence Agency.

By this time, Monod had gone completely underground. He wore a disguise during the day, slept in safe houses at night, and stayed away from his laboratory at the Sorbonne. But then, Andre Lwoff, the head of microbial physiology at the Pasteur Institute, offered Monod a refuge and a place to work in his laboratory at the Pasteur Institute. Monod then led a double-life. By day, as Monod, he worked on his experiments at the Pasteur Institute. At night, he carried out his duties for the Franc-Tireurs, as “Marchal” (from a character in a novel by Stendhal), and as  commander “Malivert.” [Lwoff too had been active in the Resistance, gathering intelligence for the Allies, while also hiding downed American airmen in his apartment.]

Jacques Monod’s identity card for the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), in his nom de guerre ‘Malivert.’

Monod was resolutely committed to the Resistance, while also maintaining a productive research program. At the Pasteur Institute, he and his student, Alice Audureau, made key discoveries that would lead to the later breakthroughs he would make with Jacob. [For instance, Monod and Audureau discovered mutations in E. coli genes that caused the induction of lactose metabolism; a finding that would have important implications concerning gene action and regulation.] Moreover, he was devoted to Odette and their twin sons, and managed to make frequent clandestine visits to see them.

Monod took on increasing responsibilities in the Franc-Tireurs, as more members of the group were discovered and executed by the Germans. In fact, by the time of the allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Monod, had become chief of staff of the operations bureau for the National Resistance Organization; a position from which his three predecessors had disappeared (4). As such, Monod prepared battle plans for the allied surge to Paris. He also arranged parachute drops of weapons, railroad bombings, and mail interceptions.

Interestingly, Monod also recruited to the Resistance renowned French chemist, John Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Aside 1), who devised a unique recipe for Molotov cocktails, which were the Resistance’s principal weapon against German tanks. In addition, Monod organized the general strike that facilitated the liberation of Paris. Then, after the liberation of Paris, he became an officer in the Free French Forces, and a member of General de Lattre de Tassigny’s general staff.

[Aside 1: John Frederick Joliet was working as an assistant to Marie Curie, when he married Marie’s daughter, Irene. Afterwards, both John Frederick and Irene changed their surnames to Joliot-Curie. In 1935, the couple was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their seminal research on radioactivity. John Frederick then worked at the Collège de France on controlled chain reactions. His work on that was cited by Albert Einstein in his famous 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning Roosevelt of the possibility of a nuclear weapon: “In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future…This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs…” The Nazi invasion ended Joliet-Curie’s nuclear research. Nevertheless, he managed to smuggle his research notes out of France to England.]

Francois Jacob, a Jewish, nineteen-year old 2nd-year medical student, was planning on a career in surgery when the German occupation of France began in the Spring of 1940. Resolved to carry on the fight against Hitler, Jacob left medical school and boarded one of the last boats for England. In London, he was one of the first of the French to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. He wanted to enroll in a combat unit, but, despite his incomplete medical training, he was commissioned as a medical doctor, and then served as a medical officer in North Africa. His surgical career was prematurely cut short in August 1944, when he was severely wounded at Normandy; by a bomb dropped from a German Stuka dive bomber. At the time, he was tending to a dying officer.

For their wartime service, Jacob and Monod were each awarded France’s highest honors for valor. Jacob was awarded the Cross of Liberation, as well as the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. Monod likewise received the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, as well as the American Bronze Star.

Unable to practice surgery after the war because of his wartime wounds, Jacob eventually turned to a career in science. He was accepted at the Pasteur Institute, where he beseeched Lwoff (Monod’s host at the Pasteur Institute) to serve as his mentor. Lwoff rebuffed Jacob several times, but finally agreed to take the young doctor under his wing. Then, in the cramped quarters of Lwoff’s laboratory at the Pasteur, Jacob and Lwoff’s student, Elie Wollman, began a fruitful collaboration that produced key insights into bacterial conjugation and the regulation of lysogeny (Aside 2). After that, Jacob and Monod forged their extraordinary collaboration that would lead to their Nobel Prizes. Note that Jacob’s earlier work with Wollman, on lysogenic induction, would provide the underpinning for his later work on gene regulation with Monod (3).

[Aside 2: Elie Wollman, born in 1917, was Jewish. In 1940, he escaped from the Nazis in Paris and then worked underground in the Resistance as a physician. His parents, Eugene and Elizabeth Wollman, were Pasteur Institute scientists who were seized by the Nazis in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. They were never heard from again (3).]

In December of 1939, our other main protagonist, twenty-six-year-old Albert Camus, was an unknown, aspiring writer, working as a reporter and editor for a newly founded left-wing newspaper, Alger Republican, in his native Algeria; which was then under French control. Camus was completely opposed to the war, which he saw as “another unnecessary, avoidable, disastrous, absurd chapter of history that would consume the lives of those who did not make it or wish for it.” His antiwar editorials in the Alger Republican outraged French government officials who were calling for unity against Germany. The government finally shut down the newspaper, leaving Camus unemployed. So, Camus returned to France, where the prospects for employment were now better because wartime mobilizations had left many businesses shorthanded. See Aside 3.

[Aside 3: Camus started writing The Stranger while in Algeria, basing it on people and places he knew there. His purpose in The Stranger was to express how one might react to his philosophical notion of the “absurd”—the disconnect between our desire for a rational existence, and the actual world, which appears confused and irrational—in the form of a novel. Meursault, the narrator, and principle character in The Stranger, shows no grief over his mother’s death, no remorse over having committed an unintended murder, and no belief or interest in god. Even while Meursault was awaiting the guillotine, he was reconciled to “the tender indifference of the world.” Meursault’s honesty in describing his feelings makes him a ‘stranger’ in the setting of the novel, and seals his fate.]

Camus was not called up for military service when he returned to France, because he had contracted tuberculosis in Algeria, when he was 17 (Aside 4). Nonetheless, he twice attempted to enlist—the second time when the French Army was on the verge of surrender to the Nazis—to express his solidarity with those who were being drafted. In any case, the military rejected him each time because of his tuberculosis. So, he managed to get a job in Paris as a layout designer for the newspaper Paris-Soir.

[Aside 4: In the pre-antibiotic era, tuberculosis was often fatal, and the 17-year-old Camus indeed had a close brush with death. That experience had a profound effect on the “precocious philosopher,” who made notes on the question of “how, in the light of the certainty of death, one should live life.”]

Parisians began fleeing from their city when the German invasion began in May of 1940. Then, in June, as the Germans were on the verge of entering Paris, the stream of refugees became a flood, with about 70 percent of the city’s metropolitan population of nearly five million eventually taking flight from the city. All Parisian newspapers stopped publishing. However, Paris-Soir hoped to resume its operations in the south, with a reduced staff. Thus, Camus joined the stream of refugees, driving an automobile (almost all the paper’s regular drivers had been drafted), with a Paris-Soir executive as his passenger. After Camus and his passenger were well on their way, Camus suddenly realized that in the rush to vacate from Paris, he may have left his manuscript for The Stranger behind in his room. “He jumped out of the car and threw open the trunk, and was relieved to find in his valise the complete text of The Stranger.” See Aside 5.

[Aside 5: In 1885, Joseph Meister, at nine-years-of-age, was the first recipient of Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and, as an adult, was caretaker of the Pasteur Institute; a position that he still held at the start of the Nazi occupation in 1940.  In despair over the fall of France, and wrongly believing that German bombs killed his family after he sent them away, he went to his apartment, closed the windows, and turned on the gas in his stove (5, 6).]

Camus went with Paris-Soir to Clermont-Ferrand. There, the paper began to publish again, using printing facilities made available by Pierre Laval, the former premier, and now architect of the Petain Vichy government. But with the paper now under Laval’s control, it began publishing anti-Semitic articles, and other articles in support of the Vichy government. Camus did not write any of these items. In any case, he was let go by Paris-Soir after the draftees of the 1940s were discharged and could return to work. Camus then went back to Algeria, where he completed The Stranger.

In 1942, with The Stranger about to be published in France, Camus suffered a nearly fatal relapse of his tuberculosis. He wanted to return to France for treatment in the Massif Central mountain range, but several months would pass before Algerian authorities gave him permission to do so. Then, upon returning to Paris, he would have a purpose that would totally engage him.

One night, under an assumed name (because of the need for secrecy in the Resistance), Camus stole into the clandestine headquarters of Combat (the journalistic arm and voice of the French Resistance), to implore the staff to take him on since he “had already done a little journalism” and would be happy to help in any way. Like Monod, Camus then led a double-life, carrying out his duties at Combat, as “Bauchard.” At first, he helped to select and edit articles, and prepare the paper’s layout. Then, in 1943 he became the paper’s editor, and wrote stirring editorials, exhorting Frenchmen to act against the German occupiers. By the time The Stranger was published in 1942, his recognition as Camus led to his acceptance into the literary and artistic circle that included Sartre, Simone de Beauvier, and Picasso.

Albert Camus’s false identity card, in the name of Albert Mathé, writer. All of the information on the card — birthdate, place, parents — is false.

Camus was suffering from recurrent bouts of tuberculosis all the while that he was carrying out his work at Combat. Nonetheless, as Camus, he also published his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, which, like The Stranger, contemplates the experience of the Absurd (see Aside 3, above). And he also wrote The Plague, which depicts a city’s response to an outbreak of bubonic plague; perhaps a metaphor for the Nazi occupation. Remarkably, no one at Combat had an inkling that the man who at first had been editing and arranging pages for them as Bauchard was in fact the now renowned Camus. See Aside 6.

[Aside 6: Among laypeople, Jacques Monod is perhaps best known for his “popular” book, Chance and Necessity, published in 1970, and a bestseller in its day. Monod’s Chance and Necessity, and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, are each relevant here because they point up how Camus influenced Monod’s view of the meaning of life. While Camus took a philosophical approach to that issue, Monod’s assessment was also informed by his knowledge of life’s fundamental molecular mechanisms. With the 1953 discovery by Watson and Crick of the molecular structure of DNA, it was apparent how accidental, random, unpredictable mutations in the sequence of bases in DNA were the source of all biological diversity. Thus, Monod knew that all living forms, including humans, are the products of chance genetic mutations and circumstances: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.” [Monod’s title, Chance and Necessity, is from Democritus’ dictum “Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance of chance and necessity.”]  

That we live in a world that is indifferent to our hopes and suffering was the reason for Monod to inquire into the meaning of life, which, for Camus, was “the most urgent of questions.” Camus was often branded an existentialist, but unlike many contemporary existentialist thinkers, Camus vehemently rejected nihilism. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote that Sisyphus gave his life meaning by choosing to believe that he remained the master of his own fate, even though he was condemned to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down.

On the opening page of Chance and Necessity, Monod includes a lengthy quotation from the closing paragraphs of The Myth of Sisyphus. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart…One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus is advocating that we oppose the certainty of death in an uncaring Universe by living life to the fullest. For Monod, life is like Sisyphus, pushing its rock uphill. The end might be bleak, but “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”]

By 1944, the liberation of Paris was imminent, Combat went from a monthly publication to a daily one, and the paper chanced to circulate in the open. Camus was still writing his editorials anonymously. And when his identity was finally revealed, his inspiring, eloquent words resulted in his widespread public acclaim.

Monod and Camus were very likely aware of each other at this point in our saga, but they had not yet met. Their meeting would happen after the liberation of France, and it would be in response to a new totalitarian threat; from the Soviet Union. It transpired as follows.

In 1948, Monod was working full-time on his research at the Pasteur Institute, when events in the Soviet Union moved him to write a stirring editorial that appeared on the front page of Combat. [Camus had left Combat the previous year, after it became a commercial paper.] Monod’s piece was in response to a pseudoscientific doctrine advanced by Stalin’s head of Soviet agriculture, Trofim Lysenko, which asserted that organisms could swiftly change their genetic endowment in response to a new environment. [Lysenko’s doctrine is reminiscent of discredited Lamarckian doctrine, also known as heritability of acquired characteristics—i.e., the premise that if an organism changes to adapt to an environment, it can pass on those changes to its offspring.] Lysenko based his doctrine on his purported discovery of a means to enable winter wheat to be sown in the spring.

Stalin embraced Lysenkoism—during an acute grain shortage in Russia—since it was in accord with his ideology to create the New Soviet Man. Stalin also banned all dissent against Lysenko’s doctrine. Consequently, traditional Russian geneticists were exiled or murdered, Mendelian genetics was no longer practiced in the Soviet Union, and Soviet agriculture suffered severely.

Monod was roused to write his editorial after French Communist newspapers began to widely disseminate Lysenko’s doctrine in France. One Party newspaper proclaimed Lysenko’s discovery “A Great Scientific Event,” and further asserted that the notion of evolution by natural selection was a racist form of thinking, in harmony with Nazi doctrine (7). Another Party newspaper condemned Mendelian genetics for being “bourgeois, metaphysical and reactionary,” while claiming that it must be false because it is reactionary; having been invented by an Austrian monk. In Contrast, Lysenkoism is true because it is progressive and proletarian.

A Party member’s position on Lysenko indeed had become a gauge of his commitment to Stalin’s Soviet cause. But for Monod, the Soviet embrace of Lysenko was “senseless, monstrous, unbelievable.” As expected, Monod’s article was strongly condemned by the powerful French Communist Party, which enjoyed broad support from both intellectuals and workers; many of whom saw the Soviet Union as a model for a French socialist state. In any case, the Party’s strong backlash inspired Monod to “make his life’s goal a crusade against anti-scientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.” Importantly, a separate consequence of the Lysenko affair was that it influenced François Jacob to focus his research in the field of genetics. See Aside 7.

[Aside 7: Ironically, the observation that Jacob and Monod initially set out to explain looked remarkably like Lysenkoism. When E. coli are fed a solution of glucose and lactose, they grow rapidly until glucose—their preferred carbon source—is depleted. Only then, they turn to metabolizing lactose. But, in contrast to Lysenko’s doctrine, Jacob and Monod showed that when E. coli “adapts” to lactose, it does so without changing its genes. Instead, the genes encoding the enzymes that metabolize lactose lie dormant until lactose induces them, under conditions in which glucose is not available. That is, Jacob and Monod determined that lactose regulates lactose metabolism in the cell by acting as an inducer of genes that already exist in the cell; as opposed to lactose causing the cell to undergo a Lamarckian acquisition of a genetic characteristic. In so doing, Jacob and Monod created the now well-established paradigm of inducers, regulators, regulator genes, and operators.]

While Monod was crusading against Lysenkoism, Camus was having his own feud, in public, with Sartre, who had chastised him for his anti-Soviet stance. Camus had once been a Communist, in Algeria, mainly because he was troubled by the way in which the European French treated the native Algerians. However, he was never very sympathetic to the Marxist cause. Monod too had once been a member of the Communist Party; but only because it enabled him to have a voice in the running of the Resistance. In any case, Camus seized upon Monod’s condemnation of Lysenkoism in his feud with Sartre.

Our two main protagonists finally met when Camus co-founded the anti-Stalin, anti-totalitarian Groupes de Liaison Internationale. Monod attended one of the group’s meetings. There, he, and Camus, discovering that they shared much in common, forged their friendship. Carroll writes: “Camus, who so treasured the sense of solidarity that existed among the Resistance, had in Monod a new comrade who shared both the deep bond of that wartime experience and an unqualified opposition to a new common enemy.”

As noted, Monod’s views on the meaning of life owed much to Camus. Likewise, Camus learned from Monod. Camus not only used Monod’s case against Lysenko in his dispute with Sartre, but he also “borrowed” from Monod in The Rebel; in which Camus argued that revolution inevitably leads to tyranny. In any event, after Camus and Monod had separately fought the Nazis, they were now united against another oppressor—the totalitarian state run by Stalin. [Camus’ anti-Soviet stance cost him the friendships of many French intellectuals on the left. He and Sartre never spoke to each other again.]

Monod was also troubled by the situation of scientists working under Eastern European Soviet regimes. In 1959, he organized the escape into Austria of Hungarian biochemist Agnes Ullman (who participated in the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956), and her husband, also a scientist. Earlier, in 1958, Agnes Ullman managed to visit Monod at the Pasteur Institute, and confided to him that she and her husband wanted to defect from Hungary. Monod maintained contact with the Ullmans in Hungary, using coded messages, written in invisible ink, which turned blue when exposed to iodine. The Ullmans finally crossed into Austria, hidden underneath a bathtub, in a compartment of a pull-along camping trailer. See Aside 8.

[Aside 8. Agnes Ullmann, became Monod’s long-time close collaborator at the Pasteur Institute. Now retired, she was carrying out research at the Pasteur Institute as recently as 2012; 53 years after her rescue from Hungary. At the Institute, she collaborated with Monod on characterizing the lac operon promoter, on complementation between β-galactosidase subunits, and on the role of cAMP in overcoming the repressive effect of glucose (catabolite repression) on lactose metabolism in E. coli.]

There are numerous other instances in which Monod stepped forward to fight injustice and defend human rights. In 1952, he wrote a letter in Science that might have been “ripped from today’s headlines.” It protested the U.S. government’s rejection of visa requests for himself and other Europeans who had once been Communists. Monod also condemned the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, while continuing to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism in general. And, in 1965, shortly after Monod, Lwoff, and Jacob received word of their Nobel Prizes, they publicly appealed to the French government to allow the use of contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion. See Aside 9.

[Aside 9: Jacob too was devoted to the defense of human rights. He chaired a committee of the French Academy of Sciences that supported persecuted scientists living under totalitarian regimes, and he worked for the release of those who had been imprisoned for their political views. Moreover, he forcefully advocated for the public support of the biological and medical sciences. What’s more, Jacob also had a distinguished writing career that produced a series of acclaimed books, including The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity; Of Flies, Mice and Men; The Possible and the Actual, and his memoir, The Statue Within. In Joshua Lederberg’s review of the latter for The Scientist, he stated:As a work of literature, it evokes unmistakable overtones of Rousseau, Proust, and Sartre.” In Jon Beckwith’s view, all of Jacob’s books are “written in a fluid and elegant style” Others refer to the “clarity and grace” of Jacob’s writing. See reference 8 for more on Jacob.]

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte visited France to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Remarkably, Monod was chosen to introduce King to a crowd of 5,000 people at Paris’ Palais des Sports. Belafonte was introduced by French singer and actor Yves Montand (9).

Coretta Scott King shaking hands with Jacques Monod, as Martin Luther King Jr. looks on. From l-r: French actress Simone Signoret, Harry Belafonte, French actor and singer Yves Montand. 29 March 1966, at a meeting of the “Movement for the Peace.”

The intellectual lives of Monod and Camus played out in entirely different areas. Yet the parallels were striking. Each, in his way, searched for meaning in life. Moreover, each put his life on the line to oppose ignorance, injustice, and totalitarianism. And, it is clear from their correspondences that they were dear to each other. Here is the note from Monod that elicited Camus’ response at the top of this post.

My dear Camus,

My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.

Jacques Monod

This piece ends with a few personal thoughts. Jacques Monod was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a hero of the French Resistance, a rescuer of persecuted scientists from behind the Iron Curtain, and a leading voice against tyranny and oppression. And, he was also blessed with dashing good looks. I remember well the women among my fellow graduate students in the 1960s finding him to be very attractive. But, on a more serious note: Today, when political and religious blocs dismiss evidence-based science in favor of alternative ‘facts’ in order to advance their ideologies, and when they are tacitly aided by a press that all too often gives equal validity to all points of view, and while scientists seem to be groping for an effective response, one can hope that scientists with the courage, eloquence, and eminence of Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob might emerge to take up the cause of science and reason. Meanwhile, it is especially important for young scientists, and the public, to be aware of the examples set by these men. See Aside 10.

[Aside 10: The following is from a March 8, 2017 editorial in Nature.  “Last week, state legislators in Iowa introduced a bill that would require teachers in state public schools to include ‘opposing points of view or beliefs’ in lessons on topics including global warming, evolution and the origins of life… Since last month, Indiana, Idaho, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida have all introduced and discussed similar tweaks to the way in which they want to educate their children… Although these proposed changes are typically presented by their supporters as giving teachers the chance to discuss genuine scientific controversies, in truth they are (very) thinly veiled attempts to pursue political and religious agendas that have no place in school science lessons — for whatever age. They seek to import the alternative facts and misleading rhetoric of the new federal government and to impose it on children who deserve much better from those elected to serve them.”]


  1. A Most “Elegant” Experiment: Sydney Brenner, Francois Jacob, Mathew Meselson, and the Discovery of Messenger RNA , Posted on the blog October 6, 2016.
  2. Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, Crown, 2013.
  3. Genealogies and a Selective History of Lysogeny: Featuring Friedrich Loeffler, Emile Roux, Andre Lwoff, Elie Wollman, and Francois Jacob, Posted on the blog January 28, 2015 (8).
  4. Agnes Ullmann, In Memoriam: Jacques Monod (1910–1976), Genome Biology and Evolution 3:1025-1033. 2011, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/gbe/evr024.
  5. Louis Pasteur: One Step Away from Discovering Viruses, Posted on the blog January 7, 2015.
  6. Dufour, H. D., and S. B. Carroll, History: Great myths die hard, Nature 502:32–33, 2013.
  7. John Marks, Jacques Monod, François Jacob, and the Lysenko Affair: Boundary Work, L’Esprit Créateur: Genetics and French Culture. 52:75-88.
  8. Beckwith, J., and M. Yaniv, Francois Jacob (1920-2013), Current Biology 23:R422-R425, 2013.
  9. Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., CBS Minnesota, January 19, 2013, 3:51 PM.

Gravity Waves: Human Curiosity Knows no Bounds

Gravitational waves were detected for the first time this past February by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which consists of two widely separated installations within the United States — one in Livingston, Louisiana and one in Hanford, Washington. Before LIGO, there was no technology able to detect these vanishingly weak waves. Consequently, LIGO’s accomplishment has generated considerable excitement in the physics and astronomy communities. First, it confirmed the existence of gravity waves; a key prediction of Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity. Second, and remarkably, LIGO detected gravitational waves that were emitted during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes, which were over a billion light-years away (one light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles)! What’s more, LIGO’s findings in fact proved the existence of black holes. Prior to LIGO’s achievement, the existence of black holes was widely accepted, but based only on indirect evidence.


Physicists and astronomers are also excited by the potential of gravitational-wave detectors to shed light on other basic concerns, such as determining whether gravitational waves travel at the speed of light—an important issue since it would answer whether gravity is transmitted by particles having no mass. These detectors may also enable astronomers to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding, and perhaps observe the effect of dark energy on space.

Most exciting perhaps, gravitational wave detectors may enable astronomers to see almost all the way back to the big bang. Until now, astronomers could only see as far back as 380,000 years after the big bang, when the universe became transparent to light and other electromagnetic radiation. However, gravitational waves would have traveled unhindered through the newborn universe. By scrutinizing gravitational waves from the infant universe, cosmologists hope to learn more about its beginning and, perhaps, even uncover evidence for the existence of other universes. Moreover, gravitational wave detectors might even lead to a “theory of everything (1).”

Scientists from other disciplines, as well as lay people, might very well marvel at the sheer ingenuity and persistence of the physicists and engineers who designed LIGO; a result of decades of instrument research and development. But first, here is a very brief account of gravity waves.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that matter emits gravity waves. These waves disturb the fabric of space, in fact causing the distances between objects to ebb and flow in an oscillatory manner. However, these oscillations are far too small to have been detected prior to LIGO.

Here is Lawrence M. Krauss’ account in the New York Times of the LIGO technical achievement (2). “To see these waves, the experimenters built two mammoth detectors, one in Washington State, the other in Louisiana, each consisting of two tunnels about 2.5 miles in length at right angles to each other. By shooting a laser beam down the length of each tunnel and timing how long it took for each to be reflected off a mirror at the far end, the experimenters could precisely measure the tunnels’ length. If a gravitational wave from a distant galaxy traverses the detectors at both locations roughly simultaneously, then at each location, the length of one arm would get smaller, while the length of the other arm would get longer, alternating back and forth …To detect the signal they observed they had to be able to measure a periodic difference in the length between the two tunnels by a distance of less than one ten-thousandth the size of a single proton. It is equivalent to measuring the distance between the earth and the nearest star with an accuracy of the width of a human hair….If the fact that this is possible doesn’t astonish, then read these statements again. This difference is so small that even the minuscule motion in the position of each mirror at the end of each tunnel because of quantum mechanical vibrations of the atoms in the mirror could have overwhelmed the signal. But scientists were able to resort to the most modern techniques in quantum optics to overcome this.” See Asides 1 and 2.

[Aside 1: Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is the author of “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.”]

[Aside 2: Interestingly, the LIGO detectors had just been turned on for their first observing run when they discovered a clear signal emanating from the colliding black holes. Also, recall that these black holes were over a billion light-years away.]

Krauss later says, “Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature (2).”

Also, consider the following from an editorial in the New York Times. “The curiosity of our species knows no bounds; more remarkably, neither does our capacity for satisfying it. And that is truly wonderful in itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a better toaster (3).”  See Aside 3.

[Aside 3: The development of LIGO was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation. “By coincidence, at about the same time that the LIGO discovery was announced, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring that National Science Foundation grants be justified ‘in the national interest.’ It is doubtful that LIGO would have survived such political meddling (3).”]


  1. “The Theory of Everything,” Posted on the blog September 15, 2015.
  2.  Lawrence M. Krauss, Finding Beauty in the Darkness, Opinion in Sunday Review, New York Times, February 14, 2016.
  3. The Editorial Board, New York Times, February 17, 2016


“The Theory of Everything”

HBO has recently been broadcasting the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything; the biographical film about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane Wilde.

The real Hawking and Jane in the 1990s
The real Hawking and Jane in the 1990s

The movie is adapted from Jane’s memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen and, consequently, it is supposed to accurately depict key moments of their life together (1). But, how accurate is the movie in depicting Hawking’s science? Since I am not a physicist, my answer is based largely on Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time (2).

But first, consider that the movie is meant to entertain a general audience, which is not likely to want to sit through the intricacies of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Hawking himself tells us that when he was writing A Brief History of Time, he accepted the advice that every formula he published would halve his sales.

We begin with a scene from the movie, in which Hawking is shown having a sudden “aha” moment that leads to his major scientific achievement—his discovery that black holes emit particles and radiation. [The myth of Isaac Newton and the apocryphal apple is perhaps the most famous example of this cliché.] Hawking is seen looking at burning coals in his fireplace, through a sweater that he is struggling to pull over his head. Jane comes in, and Stephen announces, “I have an idea.”

Did Hawking indeed have the “aha” moment depicted in the movie? Hawking does not talk about it in A Brief History of Time. Nor do I recall mention of such a moment from any other source.

Hawking explains the thinking that led to his breakthrough in A Brief History of Time. He begins by making the case for entropy within black holes. Next, “If a black hole has entropy, then it ought to have a temperature. But a body with a particular temperature ought to emit radiation at a certain rate. It is a matter of common experience that if one heats up a poker in a fire it glows red hot and emits radiation.”

Did Hawking’s reference to a “poker in a fire” in A Brief History of Time inspire the movie’s producers to portray his key breakthrough as coming from staring at the coals glowing in his fireplace? Regardless, representing Hawking’s discovery in this way is a disservice to the science because it disregards the intense effort that lay behind it. Hawking worked strenuously, over a period of months, to prove his case; which he did with mathematical rigor. Moreover, since he remained troubled by the prevailing view that “by their very definition, black holes are objects that are not supposed to emit anything (2),” he spent more months trying to figure out where he might have gone wrong. But, he hadn’t gone wrong. In brief, the explanation stems from the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which predicts that certain pairs of quantities, such as the position and velocity of a particle, cannot both be known with complete accuracy. [The uncertainty principle, formulated by Werner Heisenberg, is a cornerstone of quantum mechanics. For more on Heisenberg, see reference 3, in particular Asides 6 and 7.] See Aside 1.

[Aside 1: Hawking’s “aha” moment in The Theory of Everything reminds me of a similar moment portrayed in the earlier (2001) movie A Beautiful Mind, about mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. In that movie, Nash’s “aha” moment—which led to his Nobel Prize winning work in economics—happened when a nasty rejection from a blond in a bar led Nash to suddenly realize that pursuing one of the more numerous brunettes was much more likely to lead to a successful outcome.]

The movie depiction of Hawking’s signature discovery also feeds the cliché that great scientific breakthroughs are the products of eccentric geniuses working in isolation. Actually, Hawking’s breakthrough was inspired by his 1973 meeting in Moscow with two leading Soviet black hole experts; Yakov Zeldovich and Alexander Starobinsky, who convinced Hawking that “according to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, rotating black holes should create and emit particles (2).”

Hawking also admits to being motivated by physicist Jacob Bekenstein; at the time a graduate student at Princeton. Bekenstein suggested that the area of a black hole’s event horizon (i.e., the black hole’s boundary) is a measure of the black hole’s entropy. And, as noted above, if a black hole has entropy, it has temperature, and thus must emit radiation (2).

The Theory of Everything shows Hawking introducing his discovery, in public, for the first time, in front of a small audience, in a small lecture hall, while seated in his wheelchair. The blackboard behind him is blank. When he finishes speaking, someone in the audience jumps up and declares that the theory is “complete nonsense,” and then storms out. Hawking impishly says to the departing individual, “Was it something I said, Professor?” Next, a Russian physicist stands up and announces that “the little one has done it (i.e. succeeded).” With that endorsement, Hawking becomes world famous, and his face adorns the cover of Nature.

Although aspects of the depiction of Hawking’s lecture seemed unrealistic to me, the incident actually did occur, and it was not entirely unlike its portrayal in the movie. It was during a conference at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. Hawking relates, “At the end of my talk the chairman of the session, John G. Taylor from Kings College London, claimed it was all nonsense (2).” The Russian physicist who commended the discovery was Isaac Kalatnikov, who earlier showed that the universe could have had a singularity (see below).

The movie intermixes the lecture scene with another scene, in which one of Hawking’s friends is explaining to others how a black hole can eventually go poof. The purpose of the intermixed scene may have been to provide a context for Hawking’s discovery. In any case, Hawking himself comments on the implications of the discovery as follows: “The existence of radiation from black holes seems to imply that gravitational collapse is not as final and irreversible as we once thought (2).” He goes on to explain that Einstein’s theory of general relativity, taken alone, predicts that any matter falling into a black hole would be destroyed at the singularity (a region of zero volume in which the density of matter and the curvature of space-time become infinite), while the gravitational effect of the black hole’s mass would continue to be felt on the outside. But, “when quantum effects were taken into account, it seemed that the mass or energy of the matter would eventually be returned to the rest of the universe, and that the black hole, along with any singularity inside it, would evaporate away and finally disappear.”

Another of Hawking’s discoveries—that the universe may have come into existence from a singularity—is also highlighted in the movie. That discovery happened before his finding that black holes emit radiation. In fact, it was the subject of his doctoral thesis. The seed for the discovery was planted by physicist Roger Penrose’s proposal that a star collapsing under its own gravity eventually shrinks to a singularity. The movie indeed acknowledged Penrose’s contribution. What’s more, Penrose is also shown serving on Hawking’s dissertation committee.

Importantly, Penrose’s theorem applied only to collapsing stars. Hawking’s innovation was to ask whether the entire universe was a singularity in the past. “I soon realized that if one reversed the direction of time in Penrose’s theorem, so that the collapse became an expansion (2),” the conclusion would be that an expanding universe must have begun as a singularity. An important corollary is that the universe had a beginning. [Time and space too were created in the transition from nothing to something. There was no time before the big bang and, consequently, the big bang didn’t actually take place in time. Another interesting notion: since time came into existence at the moment of the big bang, there was never a moment in time when the universe did not exist.]

Penrose’s theorem about stars collapsing into black holes influenced Hawking in yet other ways. Hawking explains: “… at the time that Penrose produced his theorem, I was a research student desperately looking for a problem with which to complete my Ph.D. thesis. Two years before I had been diagnosed as suffering from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease, and given to understand that I had only one or two more years to live. In these circumstances there had not seemed much point in working on my Ph.D.—I did not expect to survive that long. Yet two years had gone by and I was not that much worse. In fact, things were going quite well for me and I had gotten engaged to a very nice girl, Jane Wilde. But in order to get married, I needed a job, and in order to get a job, I needed a Ph.D…The final result was a joint paper by Penrose and myself in 1970, which at last proved that there must have been a big bang singularity provided only that general relativity is correct and the universe contains as much matter as we observe (2).” And, as we know, Hawking and Jane were married. See Aside 2.

[Aside 2: Almost coincident with The Theory of Everything, there was another movie biography about a British scientist—The Imitation Game, about British mathematician and computer pioneer, Alan Turing, and his work in breaking Germany’s Enigma code during World War II. Despite its excellence, The Imitation Game leaves the impression that Turing virtually single-handedly, and with no prior basis to proceed from, invented and built the machine (the bombe) that broke the German code. Yet a machine, similar to Turing’s, which used rotors to test different letter combinations, was invented earlier by Polish cryptographers. Turing’s very significant contribution was to modify the Polish machine to recognize and ignore letter combinations that were unlikely to yield a useful result, thereby greatly speeding up the screening process. Moreover, the movie does not even mention mathematician Gordon Welchman—he and Turing were among the four original recruits to Britain’s code breaking center at Bletchley Park,—who substantially improved Turing’s machine. Welchman’s improved version of the machine actually broke Enigma ciphers during the war. Incidentally, after the war, Welchman taught the first computer course at MIT. Turing is generally considered to be the father of computer science, and I certainly do not mean to disparage him. My point is that even very good movie biographies of scientists take license with the science to enhance the drama.]

The Theory of Everything may have left some viewers with the impression that the notion of an expanding universe originated with Hawking. Actually, in 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding in all directions. And, importantly: “The discovery (Hubble’s) finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science…Hubble’s observations suggested that there was a time, called the big bang, when the universe was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense…One may say that time had a beginning at the big bang…(2).”

The 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, provided compelling evidence for the big bang. What’s more, Hawking and Penrose showed that Einstein’s general relativity implied that the universe had a beginning.

The Theory of Everything advances the thought that if the universe had a beginning, then it had a creator. Afterward, without much in the way of explanation, the movie shows Hawking recanting his belief that the universe had a beginning. Instead, he proposes that the universe has no boundaries in space or time—i.e. no beginning, and no creation. He tells Jane that God is now out.

A Brief History of Time confirms Hawking’s change in view—that the universe did not have a beginning. He explains that combining general relativity with the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics leads to black holes not being black, and the universe not having any singularities. Moreover, the universe “would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just be…What place, then, for a creator? ”

The movie does not address what impact, if any, Hawking’s new outlook may have had on his earlier work. Fortunately, Hawking explains in A Brief History of Time that his new proposal did not undo his earlier work on singularities. Rather, the real importance of the earlier singularity theorems was in showing that quantum gravitational effects could not be ignored in any grand unified theory. “…it seems that the uncertainty principle is a fundamental feature of the universe we live in. A successful unified theory must therefore necessarily incorporate this principle (2).”

Jane is deeply religious. Indeed, her faith helps to sustain her in caring for Stephen. [Despite Hawking’s fame and public acclaim, he was completely dependent on Jane at home.] In contrast, when Stephen refers to God, he seems to be making fun of Jane’s faith. Yet, Hawking does mention God often in A Brief History of Time. Moreover, the final words of the book are: “However, if we do discover a complete theory…then we should know the mind of God.”

In the movie, Jane discovers the above passage in Stephen’s manuscript. She then asks Stephen if he means it, adding, “Are you going to let me have this moment?” Stephen answers “yes” and “your welcome,” but he then adds, “However…”

Neither the movie, nor A Brief History of Time, tells us for sure what Hawking really believes about God. In any case, Hawking never suggests that he believes in a kind of supernatural creator that one might worship. So, it is likely that he refers to God in much the same spirit as Einstein did when he famously quipped, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Einstein uses God as a religious metaphor, and I suspect that Hawking is doing the same.

Despite Hawking’s apparent agnosticism, he nevertheless seems uncertain as to whether science can ever explain existence. “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Why does the world go through all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him (2)?”

The following is from a piece by Caroline Graham and Gabrielle Donnolly in the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2826974/Anguish-scientist-s-dumped-wife-revealed-star-Felicity-Jones-s-playing-movie.html#ixzz3lCV8caM4):

“British actress Felicity Jones – best known as the voice of Emma Grundy in The Archers, but whose film credits include Brideshead Revisited and the romcom Chalet Girl – plays the discarded wife and Eddie Redmayne, of Birdsong fame, plays Hawking.

During filming, Hawking and his ex-wife (Jane) both turned up on set. It was a daunting moment.

Felicity says: ‘Out of the corner of one eye I saw Jane and her new husband and out of the other eye I saw Stephen. It was probably one of the most intimidating moments of my life.

It must have been so bizarre for them to watch us playing them. It certainly felt awkward for me.’

Hawking and Jane watched a sequence during which Felicity and Redmayne danced together. After the director yelled ‘Cut’, Hawking – who communicates through a computer-based speech generator – asked: ‘Would you ask Felicity if she will come and give me a kiss?’

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in the dancing scene
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in the dancing scene

For 31-year-old Felicity, that moment was a revelation. ‘It shows his rather flirtatious nature and this amazing capacity he has not to take himself too seriously,’ she explains. ‘I embraced him and told him, “You’re amazing!” ’


(1) L.V. Anderson, How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?, Slate’s culture blog, November 7, 2014.

(2) Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988.

(3) “The Upright Thinkers”, Posted on the blog, August 19, 2015.

“The Upright Thinkers”

The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow—former professor of Physics at Caltech and author of several other best selling books on science—tells his version of “the human journey from living in trees to understanding the cosmos.” The story is epochal. We begin by noting several of Mlodinow’s general themes.

upright thinkers

Mlodinow asserts that our odyssey of discovery has been driven by our inborn and virtually insatiable curiosity; our propensity to ask “why?” “Human children all around the world ask their first questions at an early age, while they are still babbling and don’t yet speak grammatical language…Chimpanzees and bonobos, on the other hand, can learn to use rudimentary signing to communicate with their trainers, and even answer questions, but they never ask them. They are physically powerful, but they are not thinkers.”

We also are reminded that our astonishing progress was facilitated by a unique characteristic of our species—we add to knowledge already in existence. Recall the famous quote of Isaac Newton, “”If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Related to the above, there is archaeological evidence that schools existed as early as 2,500 B.C. “…the idea that society should create a profession devoted to passing on knowledge, and that students should spend years acquiring it, was something entirely new—an epiphany for our species.”

Another of Mlodinow’s themes is that the major players in our quest to understand the cosmos (e.g., Newton, Mendeleev, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg) were not merely brilliant. They were also stubbornly persistent individuals. Contrary to popular belief, the groundbreaking discoveries they made did not result from sudden “aha moments” but, instead, came about only after years of dogged hard work. There was no apocryphal apple that serendipitously landed on Newton’s head.

Mlodinow also reminds us that scientists, as well as laypeople, do not easily to let go of the conventional beliefs of their day, even when faced with strong evidence to the contrary. Consequently, new scientific paradigms, even when supported by incontrovertible evidence, are often initially rejected by the establishment. And since the revolutionary breakthroughs that Mlodinow highlights in his tale indeed challenged the established wisdom of their times, the scientists who put them forward had to posses more than a little courage and even audacity to complement their doggedness. [Howard Temin provides a recent example of a virologist who persevered in the face of scorn and ridicule from his colleagues. See Howard Temin: “In From the Cold, posted on the blog December 16, 2013.]

Mlidinow allocates several pages to the origin and acceptance of the concept of universally applicable natural laws. The idea of natural laws already existed in ancient Greece. However, Greek natural laws were each specific to a particular situation. Our modern concept of universally applicable natural law came into being only in the early seventeenth century, as prompted by the discoveries of Kepler, Newton, and their contemporaries (see below).

Why might it have taken mankind so long to recognize that nature acts according to certain regularities? The answer may lie in the fact that when primitive humans were faced with seemingly inexplicable droughts, floods, plagues, earthquakes, and so forth, it was difficult for them to view the world as anything but chaotic. Remarkably, even today there still are those who reject the idea of a universe ruled by natural laws. [Consider this. Mlodinow relates that Einstein was astonished by the fact that nature has order. Einstein wrote: “one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way… the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”]

Returning to the theme of our difficulty transitioning from judging the truth of a statement according to how well it fits convention or religious belief, to how well it is supported by empirical evidence, note that for nearly two millennia scientific progress was impeded by the conventions of ancient Greek science. Contrary to popular belief, the Greeks did not invent the scientific method (2). Nor were their theories developed with the intent of experimental verification. Aristotle’s science held that nature did what pure logic suggested it should do. For example, Aristotle said that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, because it is their purpose to do so. Neither Aristotle nor his contemporaries actually looked to see if heavier objects indeed fall faster than lighter ones. In fact, the first individual known to have actually tested this premise was Galileo (1564-1642). Only afterwards did observation and experimentation become the basis for western science.

Despite the fact that Aristotle’s non-quantitative search for purpose impeded scientific progress for nearly two thousand years, Mlodinow credits him with applying reason in the pursuit of understanding and, also, for the idea that nature acts according to certain regularities. Mlodinow also notes that Aristotle was hamstrung by the technology of his day. In particular, since Aristotle did not have a stopwatch, concepts such as velocity and acceleration—keystones of Newtonian physics—may have been beyond his reach. But, “More important was the fact that Aristotle was, like everyone else, simply not interested in quantitative description.”

Notwithstanding the above, why did the leap from Aristotelian physics to the breakthroughs of Galileo and Newton take 2,000 years? According to Mlodinow, the conquest of Greece by Rome was a key reason. The Romans were superb engineers, but they had little interest in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Thus, the Roman conquest of the Greeks resulted in the fading out of the Greek scientific heritage from Western culture.

At the end of the eleventh century, a Benedictine monk, Constantinus Africanus, translated ancient Greek medical texts (preserved for centuries by Muslim court scholars) from Arabic to Latin. This was a first step in the revival of the Greek scientific heritage in Europe. Moreover, it was a step towards the eventual resumption of Western science (see Aside 1). Additionally, the development of European universities, such as Oxford (by 1250), facilitated scientific progress in the West, since—then as now—universities are a place that brings people together, where they might interact with and stimulate one another. [Most scientific progress still emanates from universities.] The emergence of moveable-type printing at around 1450 was another key development, since it enabled the widespread dissemination of new ideas.

[Aside 1: Intellectual progress in the Islamic world and in China often surpassed that in Europe during the Middle Ages. Why then did modern science not emerge in the Islamic world, or in China, instead of in Europe? For an answer, I turn briefly to Why the West Rules—For Now by Ian Morris (3). Morris tells us that the resurgence of science in Western Europe was largely driven by Europe’s “new frontier” across the oceans, and the need it created for the precise measurement of time and space. Moreover, “…by the point that two-handed clocks had become the norm Europeans would have to have been positively obtuse not to wonder whether nature itself was not a mechanism.” Additionally, the industrial revolution in the West, which was largely driven by the Atlantic economy, stimulated further mechanical invention and scientific development.]

Galileo was one of the most influential scientists who ever lived and a key figure in the resurgence of European science. One reason for his fame was his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which showed that light objects fall as rapidly as heavy ones. Yet while he was disenchanted by the lack of experimentation in Aristotelian physics, he did not invent experimental physics per se. However, his quantitative approach to experimentation was indeed revolutionary. Moreover, “when he got a result that surprised him or went against conventional thinking, he didn’t reject it—he questioned convention and his own thinking.”

One of Galileo’s most insightful and important contentions was that objects in uniform motion tend to remain in that state of motion. That is, an object does not require the continuous application of a force to remain in motion; an assertion that was contrary to the prevailing Aristotelian view that objects require a continuing reason for their motion. If Galileo’s assertion sounds oddly familiar, it is because Newton later adapted it as his first law of motion. [“A few pages after stating the law, Newton adds that it was Galileo who discovered it—a rare instance of Newton giving credit to someone else.”]

Galileo is also famous for his conflict with the Catholic Church over his claim that the Earth is not at the center of the universe. But the idea of a heliocentric (i.e., sun-centered) universe did not originate with Galileo. In fact, it existed as early as the third century B.C. in Greece, and a “modern” European version can be attributed to Copernicus (1473-1543). But Galileo was the first to offer irrefutable proof that the Earth is not at the center of the universes. What’s more, Galileo made his case compelling only after he perfected the telescope, which enabled him to achieve unprecedented levels of power..

Isaac Newton was born in 1642; the year that Galileo died. He is commonly said to have invented the calculus, and to have discovered his laws of motion and universal gravitation, all in the single year, 1666. The last discovery supposedly followed his serendipitous encounter with a falling apple. The reality was a bit different. First, the calculus was concurrently and independently invented by Leibnitz. Second, Newton labored continuously for a period of three years—1664 through 1666—in order to discover his laws of motion. Yet even after accomplishing that feat, Newton was still not a Newtonian. “He still thought of uniform motion as arising from something internal to the body, and by the term ‘gravity’ he meant some inherent property arising from the material an object is made of , rather than an external force exerted by the earth.”

After discovering his laws of universal motion, Newton spent additional years acquiring information, largely compiled by others, regarding planetary orbits. Kepler’s finding—that planetary orbits are ellipses, with the sun at one of the foci—would be especially significant, as follows.

Edmond Halley (the astronomer who computed the orbit of the comet bearing his name), Robert Hooke (the discoverer of cells and perhaps the greatest experimentalist of the seventeenth century), and Christopher Wren (best known as an architect, but also an accomplished astronomer) gleaned from Kepler’s data a premise of singular importance; that the pulling force of the sun diminishes in proportion to the square of the planet’s distance from it. Yet Halley, Hooke, and Wren were unable to prove their conjecture.

Halley, happening to be in Cambridge, took the opportunity to visit Newton. During his visit with Newton, Halley informed his host of the conjecture concerning the pulling force of the sun. Imagine Halley’s surprise when Newton claimed that he had already discovered the premise and, indeed, had already proven it. Newton then set about looking for his proof. But when he found it, he discovered that it was in error. He then set about reworking his proof and, in so doing, he confirmed that Kepler’s planetary orbits indeed are explained by an inverse square law of attraction.

Newton’s proof of the inverse square law of gravitational attraction was followed by more hard work that resulted in “what is perhaps the most significant intellectual discovery that had ever been made”—Newton’s universal theory of motion, which showed that free fall and orbital motion are instances of the same laws of force and motion. Newton set down his laws of motion, and his law of universal gravitation, in his famous Principia; three books published in 1687, which are regarded as the foundation of classical mechanics and, thus, as one of the most important works in the history of science. Halley personally paid the cost of publishing the Principia.

Newton died in 1726. “Newton’s life and Galileo’s had together spanned more than 160 years, and together they witnessed—and in most respects accounted for—most of what is called the scientific revolution.”

A revolution in chemistry was occurring concurrent with the ones in physics and astronomy. The key breakthrough in chemistry would be the discovery that some substances—the elements—are fundamental, and that all else is made from them. Actually, the concept of elements dates back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. However, Aristotle’s chemistry had but four “elements”—earth, air, fire, and water.

The experimental results of Robert Boyle (1627-1691) were the first to free chemistry from Aristotelian convention. Mlodinow relates how in 1642, the 15-year-old Boyle was taken with science after reading Galileo’s book on the Copernican system. Afterwards, the adult Boyle (incidentally assisted by Robert Hooke) investigated respiration and combustion. His findings led him to conclude that air is not an element but, instead, is made up of different substances. Moreover, Boyle’s quantitative approach set in place a new convention in chemistry of careful experimental analysis.

Boyle’s experiments were followed by those of Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) and of Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794). The relationship between these two men makes for an interesting tale, one that is too long to review here. But, together, their researches showed that respiration and combustion removed something from the air. Priestly may have discovered it first, but Lavoisier gave it its name, oxygen. Lavoisier went on to reveal one of chemistry’s major principles—the conservation of mass. That is, the total mass of the products produced in a chemical reaction must be the same as the combined mass of the initial reactants.

Lavoisier had been a tax collector in Paris in the days preceding the French Revolution. His day job provided financial support for his experiments, but it did not endear him to the revolutionaries who overthrew the French monarchy. He was arrested in 1793 during the Reign of Terror and sentenced to death. The presiding judge is said to have told him, “The Republic has no need of scientists.” “By the time of his execution, Lavoisier had identified thirty-three known substances as elements. He was correct about all but ten.”

The next important advancements would involve the nature of atoms. Although Lavoisier identified the elements as the reactants in chemical processes, he chose not to think in terms of atoms. His reason was simply that he did not know of any way by which something as tiny as an atom could be observed or experimented on. John Dalton (1766-1844) took the first step towards solving that problem when he discovered how to determine atomic weights by applying Lavoisier’s law of conservation of mass. [Mlodinow details Dalton’s approach.]

Dmitry Mendeleev (1834-1907) made a crucial breakthrough that would lead to an understanding of the relationship between the weight of an atom and its chemical properties. [The relationship of course involves atomic numbers, rather than atomic weights. Please be patient.] How that development came to pass was one of my favorite anecdotes in Mlodinow’s book. It was as follows. In 1866, while Mendeleev was a chemistry professor in St. Petersburg, he could not find a first-rate, up-to-date chemistry book, written in Russian, that he might use in his teaching. So, he decided to write his own. Mendeleev’s book was a labor of love that he worked on for years. Early on, he wrestled with the question of how to organize the book. His solution was to arrange the elements and their compounds into groups, as defined by their properties. Then, after much arranging and rearranging of the elements, he discovered a pattern that we know today as the “periodic table;” a discovery of singular importance that Mlodinow calls “chemistry’s version of Newton’s laws.”

Much important work remained to be done. Because there were as yet undiscovered elements, there were gaps in the Mendeleev’s table. Moreover, some of the assigned atomic weights were wrong and, crucially important, the chemical properties of an element are determined by the as yet undiscovered atomic numbers, rather than by atomic weights. Notwithstanding that, to Mendeleev’s credit, he accurately predicted the existence and chemical properties of the elements which corresponded to the gaps in his table.

The twentieth-century revolution in physics led to profound insights into the nature of space and time, and to a deeper “understanding” of the atom. Mlodinow tells that story only after he reviews several key breakthroughs in biology. Keeping with his format, he notes the early influence of Aristotelian convention on biology. Two Aristotelian beliefs were especially important. One was the belief that a divine intelligence designed all living beings. The other was the belief in spontaneous generation.

Readers of the blog are likely familiar with Louis Pasteur’s late nineteenth-century experiments, which laid spontaneous generation to rest once and for all (4). Many readers may also know that Francesco Redi experimentally challenged spontaneous generation more than two centuries earlier. In 1668, Redi’s microscopic observations of minute organisms showed that they are much more complex than had been imagined. In particular, these organisms had reproductive organs, which called into question one of Aristotle’s arguments for spontaneous generation; that lower organisms are too simple to reproduce.

The notion, that a divine intelligence was necessary to design all living beings, was a foundation stone of nineteenth-century thinking. Under that circumstance, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) gave the world a scientific theory—evolution by natural selection— that explained how species came to have their particular characteristics. Darwin’s theory directly challenged the biblical account of creation, which still has a very significant number of adherents. Thus, it is all the more remarkable that his grave occupies hallowed ground under Westminster Abbey.

Legend has it that Darwin had an “aha moment” while observing the beaks of finches on different islands of the Galapagos. The reality is that Darwin only gradually came to believe that species are not unchanging forms designed by God but, instead, evolved over time. And Darwin devoted many more years to discovering the mechanism behind evolution—natural selection. Moreover, knowing that his findings would expose him to ridicule and attack, he spent more years amassing incontrovertible evidence in support of his theory.

Darwin did not know of genes and mutations. Consequently, he was unaware of how genetic variability might provide the raw material for adaptation. His contemporary, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), made the breakthrough in genetics. Mendel, carried out his experiments while a monk at a monastery in what is now the Czech Republic, perhaps explaining why Darwin never knew of his work.

One way or another, serendipity is usually a factor in all great scientific discoveries. Apropos the theory of evolution, Darwin likely would have remained an unknown English churchman were it not for the unlikely and unexpected letter inviting him, at twenty-two years of age, to sail around the world as a naturalist on the Beagle. The position on the Beagle was beforehand offered to a number of others, none of whom were willing to spend two years at sea.

Mlodinow devotes the last 100 or so pages of his book to the twentieth-century revolution in physics. Considering the stunning discoveries that were about to unfold, it is more than a bit ironic that the prevailing belief at the start of the century was that everything in physics was already known and that nothing else remained to be done.

Key individuals who fill Mlodinow’s final pages include Max Planck (see Aside 2), Albert Einstein (see Aside 3), Ernest Rutherford (see Aside 4), Niels Bohr (see Aside 5), and Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger (see Aside 6).

[Aside 2: Max Planck was a German physicist who deduced the relationship between the frequency of radiation and its energy. Moreover, he proposed that electromagnetic energy could only take on discrete values, or quanta. In so doing, he originated quantum theory.

Mlodinow tells the following quip: “Since my name is so hard to spell and pronounce, when I make a restaurant reservation, I often do it under the name Max Planck. It’s very rare that the name is recognized, but one time when it was, I was asked if I was related to the “guy who invented quantum theory.” I said, “I am that man.” The maitre d’, in his early twenties didn’t believe me. He said I was too young. “Quantum theory was invented around 1960,” he said. “It was during World War II, as part of the Manhattan Project.”]

[Aside 3: In the single year 1905, while Einstein was employed as a third-class clerk at the Swiss patent office in Zurich, he published three singularly important, ground-breaking papers. The first paper explained Brownian motion, the second the photoelectric effect (in which light impinging on a metal causes it to emit electrons), and the third, his discovery of special relativity. Although each of the three papers dealt with a different topic, astonishingly, each was important enough to merit a Nobel-Prize. And, since Einstein is best known for his theories of relativity—which revolutionized our concepts of space and time—it may surprise some that his Nobel Prize was actually awarded for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Einstein’s key insight was to treat light as a quantum particle, rather than as a wave. Consequently; his analysis of the photoelectric effect would significantly advance further developments in quantum theory; which Einstein eventually came to abhor (see below). His explanation of Brownian motion provided the most convincing evidence of the day for the existence of atoms. After years more of work, Einstein put forth his theory of general relativity, which incorporated gravity into relativity theory.]

[Aside 4: Rutherford discovered of the structure of the atom, with its positive charge concentrated in the nucleus. Interestingly, this key advancement  began fortuitously, as a “small research project,” for a young undergraduate student named Ernest Marsden; for him “to get his feet wet.”]

[Aside 5: Bohr applied quantum mechanics to the whole atom, asking what it might mean if the atom, like light quanta, could have only certain energies. His premise, that electrons occupy only certain allowable orbits, provided an explanation for why electrons don’t spiral into the atom’s nucleus. And his proposal that the atom’s outer orbits determine its chemical properties, gave new insights into why Mendeleev’s heretofore mysterious periodic table worked.]

[Aside 6: Heisenberg and Schrodinger proposed dissimilar quantum theories, each of which left behind Newton’s conventional description of reality. In Newton’s physics, position and velocity are independently measured quantities, one event causes another, and the world exists independently of our observation of it. In quantum theory, reality is based on probabilities and uncertainties, and reality does not exist independently of our observations. At a scientific conference, when Einstein famously attacked the indeterminacy and probabilistic nature of quantum physics, saying “God does not play dice with the universe,” Bohr famously replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do (5).” Yet even Schrodinger eventually turned against quantum theory, offering up his famous fable of the cat that was neither alive nor dead, to point up the seeming absurdity of the theory. Still, quantum theory remains as the most predictive of all scientific theories.]

The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. They hated the new physics for being surreal and abstract but, more importantly, because they considered it to be the work of scientists of Jewish heritage (e.g., Einstein, Born, Bohr, Pauli). [Incidentally, the new physics was also condemned in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s; in that instance for not conforming to the principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Soviets similarly banned Mendelian genetics for the same reason.]

Einstein was still living in Germany when the Nazis took control. But, fortunately, he was visiting Cal Tech on the very day in January 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor. He never returned to Germany. His property in Germany was confiscated, his notes on relativity were burned, and a five-thousand-dollar bounty was put on his head.

Heisenberg tried to accommodate himself to the Nazis, but he was nevertheless harassed by them for having worked on “Jewish physics” with Jewish physicists, and for trying to have Max Born (incidentally Max Delbruck’s mentor) exempted from the Nazi non-Aryan work prohibition. Under pressure, Heisenberg disavowed the Jewish physicists and “their” science.

Max Born, with the help of Pauli’s refugee organization, escaped to Cambridge. Schrödinger, an Austrian who had been living in Berlin when Hitler came to power, was an outspoken anti-Nazi. He left Berlin to take a position at Oxford. Bohr’s real-life exploits during the Nazi era are more fascinating than fiction, and are covered in some detail in reference (5).

In 1933, Max Planck met face-to-face with Hitler to dissuade him from carrying out the anti-Jewish policies that were causing top Jewish scientists to leave Germany. The meeting came to nothing, and Planck quietly went on with his work. However, Planck’s youngest son was a member of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. He was arrested by the Gestapo and was executed along with the other conspirators. Earlier, in 1907, when women were nearly entirely barred from receiving advanced education, Planck invited Lisa Meitner (only the second woman to receive a physics doctorate from the University of Vienna) to carry out postdoctoral studies under his guidance (5). Mlodinow includes Meitner among the short list of physicists who he believes deserved, but did not receive the Nobel Prize. See Aside 6. [Reference 6 notes the wartime experiences of Andre Lwoff, Francois Jacob, Jacques Monod, and Elie Wollman. Reference 7 describes a wartime experience of Renato Dulbecco.]

[Aside 7: By 1938, Lisa Meitner’s situation in Nazi Germany had become desperate. So she fled to Holland, aided by Dutch physicists who persuaded their government to admit her on her Austrian passport, which was no longer valid after the Anschluss (5). She next moved to Sweden, where Niels Bohr found for her a laboratory where she could continue her work. While in Sweden, she received a correspondence from her former collaborator in Germany, chemist Otto Hahn, from which she and her nephew Otto Frisch calculated that Hahn had unknowingly witnessed nuclear fission (5). Meitner passed that information on to Niels Bohr, which Bohr took to America and made public at a January 1939 conference at George Washington University. Leading proponents of the new physics immediately realized that a nuclear bomb was now possible. The famous Einstein letter of August 1939, which warned Franklin Roosevelt of that possibility, led to the American Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. German scientists, led by Heisenberg, likewise began work on nuclear energy. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was underway. By September, 1941, Britain was fighting alone against Germany in the west, and the Soviets were reeling under the German onslaught in the East. Those were the circumstances under which Heisenberg attended a German-sponsored conference in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Bohr boycotted the conference in protest against the Nazis. However, Heisenberg sought out his former mentor in Copenhagen for a private meeting. While it is known that Bohr and Heisenberg discussed the nuclear weapon issue, the two men were never able to agree on exactly what was said, or even where their conversation actually took place, and to this day their meeting remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps because Bohr was potentially a huge scientific asset to the Germans, or perhaps because his life was in danger because of his Jewish heritage, the British in 1943 carried out a harrowing rescue mission to smuggle him out of occupied Denmark. Details of the rescue are recounted in reference 5. Bohr then came to America, where he worked on the Manhattan Project and he later became an outspoken arms control advocate. Although it is not entirely clear, there are reasons to believe that Heisenberg may have surreptitiously impeded the German nuclear effort. Bohr and Heisenberg reestablished their relationship after the war, but their shaky friendship was sustained only by their mutual understanding not to revisit their 1941 meeting.]

Mlodinow asserts that “quantum theory was created by a concentration of brain power in Central Europe that surpassed or at least rivaled that of any of the intellectual constellations we’ve encountered in our journey through the ages.” Moreover, “It was a magical time in Europe, with burst after burst of imagination lighting the sky, until the outline of a new realm of nature began to appear.”

A photo in The Upright Thinkers, taken at the famed 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, shows Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Max Born, Niels Bohr, and Albert Einstein among others; thus bearing out Mlodinow’s contention that it was a very special time in the history of science.

The “golden age of molecular biology” of the 1950s and 1960s is not discussed in The Upright Thinkers. Thus, I feel an urge to proclaim before closing that it too was a very special time in the history of science, when fundamental discoveries were made in biology that were comparable in significance to those made earlier in the century in physics . As a graduate student in the 1960’s I was privileged to experience the thrill of attending, and speaking at the summer conferences at Cold Spring Harbor, which were simultaneously graced by James Watson, Francis Crick, Max Delbruck, Sidney Brenner, Francois Jacob, Jacques Monod, Seymour Benzer, and Norton Zinder (all of whom are discussed elsewhere on the blog), as well as by the likes of Erwin Chargaff, Matthew Meselson, Frank Stahl, Sol Spiegelman, John Beckwith, and so forth.

This piece at last concludes with an item from The Upright Thinkers, which I found to be especially intriguing. Recent DNA analysis shows that around 140,000 years ago, a catastrophic event—possibly related to climate change—caused the entire human population to plummet to a mere several hundred individuals. We truly were an endangered species. “Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and everyone else you’ve ever heard of, and the billions of us who live in the world today, are all descendants of those mere hundreds who survived.”


(1) Leonard Mlodinow, The Upright Thinkers, Pantheon Books, 2015.

(2) Thucydides and the Plague of Athens, posted on the blog September 30, 2014.

(3) Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

(4) Louis Pasteur: One Step Away from Discovering Viruses, posted on the blog January 7, 2015.

(5) Max Delbruck, Lisa Meitner, Niels Bohr, and the Nazis, posted on the blog November12.

(6) Genealogies and a Selective History of Lysogeny: Featuring Friedrich Loeffler, Emile Roux, Andre Lwoff, Elie Wollman, and Francois Jacob, posted on the blog January 28, 2015.

(7) Renato Dulbecco and the Beginnings of Quantitative Animal Virology, posted on the blog December 3, 2013.