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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index C > Erwin Chargaff Quotes

Erwin Chargaff
(11 Aug 1905 - 20 Jun 2002)

Austrian biochemist who discovered two rules that helped lead to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.


Science Quotes by Erwin Chargaff (19 quotes)

He [said of one or other eminent colleagues] is a very busy man, and half of what he publishes is true, but I don't know which half.
— Erwin Chargaff
'Triviality in Science: A Brief Meditation on Fashions', Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 1976, 19, 324.
Science quotes on:  |  Publication (75)  |  Truth (450)

I came to biochemistry through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and partly through the youthful romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditus, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 55.
Science quotes on:  |  Biochemist (2)  |  Biology (83)  |  Chemistry (143)  |  God (234)  |  Naturalist (27)  |  Blaise Pascal (22)

I cannot serve as an example for younger scientists to follow. What I teach cannot be learned. I have never been a '100 percent scientist.' My reading has always been shamefully nonprofessional. I do not own an attaché case, and therefore cannot carry it home at night, full of journals and papers to read. I like long vacations, and a catalogue of my activities in general would be a scandal in the ears of the apostles of cost-effectiveness. I do not play the recorder, nor do I like to attend NATO workshops on a Greek island or a Sicilian mountain top; this shows that I am not even a molecular biologist. In fact, the list of what I have not got makes up the American Dream. Readers, if any, will conclude rightly that the Gradus ad Parnassum will have to be learned at somebody else's feet.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 7.
Science quotes on:  |  Biography (199)

If at one time or another I have brushed a few colleagues the wrong way, I must apologize: I had not realized that they were covered with fur.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), Preface.
Science quotes on:  |  Men Of Science (90)

If you can modify a cell, it's only a short step to modifying a mouse, and if you can modify a mouse, it's only a step to modifying a higher animal, even man.
Reported in 1981, expressing concern for the future of gene-splicing.
— Erwin Chargaff
'Shaping Life in the Lab'. In Time (9 Mar 1981).
Science quotes on:  |  Cell (90)  |  Gene Splicing (4)  |  Human (168)  |  Modification (22)  |  Mouse (16)

In 1945, therefore, I proved a sentimental fool; and Mr. Truman could safely have classified me among the whimpering idiots he did not wish admitted to the presidential office. For I felt that no man has the right to decree so much suffering, and that science, in providing and sharpening the knife and in upholding the ram, had incurred a guilt of which it will never get rid. It was at that time that the nexus between science and murder became clear to me. For several years after the somber event, between 1947 and 1952, I tried desperately to find a position in what then appeared to me as a bucolic Switzerland,—but I had no success.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 4.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (71)  |  Biography (199)

In science, attempts at formulating hierarchies are always doomed to eventual failure. A Newton will always be followed by an Einstein, a Stahl by a Lavoisier; and who can say who will come after us? What the human mind has fabricated must be subject to all the changes—which are not progress—that the human mind must undergo. The 'last words' of the sciences are often replaced, more often forgotten. Science is a relentlessly dialectical process, though it suffers continuously under the necessary relativation of equally indispensable absolutes. It is, however, possible that the ever-growing intellectual and moral pollution of our scientific atmosphere will bring this process to a standstill. The immense library of ancient Alexandria was both symptom and cause of the ossification of the Greek intellect. Even now I know of some who feel that we know too much about the wrong things.
— Erwin Chargaff
Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 46.
Science quotes on:  |  Albert Einstein (174)  |  Intellect (99)  |  Knowledge (679)  |  Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (26)  |  Sir Isaac Newton (176)  |  Science (875)  |  Georg Ernst Stahl (7)

In the last fifteen years we have witnessed an event that, I believe, is unique in the history of the natural sciences: their subjugation to and incorporation into the whirls and frenzies of disgusting publicity and propaganda. This is no doubt symptomatic of the precarious position assigned by present-day society to any form of intellectual activity. Such intellectual pursuits have at all times been both absurd and fragile; but they become ever more ludicrous when, as is now true of science, they become mass professions and must, as homeless pretentious parasites, justify their right to exist in a period devoted to nothing but the rapid consumption of goods and amusements. These sciences were always a divertissement in the sense in which Pascal used the word; but what is their function in a society living under the motto lunam et circenses? Are they only a band of court jesters in search of courts which, if they ever existed, have long lost their desire to be amused?
— Erwin Chargaff
Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 27.
Science quotes on:  |  Amusement (14)  |  Consumption (6)  |  Intellect (99)  |  Blaise Pascal (22)  |  Propaganda (3)

Like all things of the mind, science is a brittle thing: it becomes absurd when you look at it too closely. It is designed for few at a time, not as a mass profession. But now we have megascience: an immense apparatus discharging in a minute more bursts of knowledge than humanity is able to assimilate in a lifetime. Each of us has two eyes, two ears, and, I hope, one brain. We cannot even listen to two symphonies at the same time. How do we get out of the horrible cacophony that assails our minds day and night? We have to learn, as others did, that if science is a machine to make more science, a machine to grind out so-called facts of nature, not all facts are equally worth knowing. Students, in other words, will have to learn to forget most of what they have learned. This process of forgetting must begin after each exam, but never before. The Ph.D. is essentially a license to start unlearning.
— Erwin Chargaff
Voices In the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 2.
Science quotes on:  |  Education (177)  |  Fact (325)  |  Learning (130)  |  PhD (3)  |  Science (875)

Molecular biology is essentially the practice of biochemistry without a license.
— Erwin Chargaff
Essays on Nucleic Acids (1963), 176.
Science quotes on:  |  Biochemistry (32)  |  Molecular Biology (19)

One of the most insidious and nefarious properties of scientific models is their tendency to take over, and sometimes supplant, reality.
— Erwin Chargaff
Quoted in J. J. Zuckerman, 'The Coming Renaissance of Descriptive Chemistry', Journal of Chemical Education, 1986, 63, 830.
Science quotes on:  |  Model (31)  |  Science (875)

Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?' but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?'
— Erwin Chargaff
Columbia Forum (1969), in Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man and Science (1977), 8.
Science quotes on:  |  Answer (96)  |  How (3)  |  Question (159)  |  Science (875)  |  Why (6)

The double horror of two Japanese city names [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] grew for me into another kind of double horror; an estranging awareness of what the United States was capable of, the country that five years before had given me its citizenship; a nauseating terror at the direction the natural sciences were going. Never far from an apocalyptic vision of the world, I saw the end of the essence of mankind an end brought nearer, or even made, possible, by the profession to which I belonged. In my view, all natural sciences were as one; and if one science could no longer plead innocence, none could.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 3.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (71)  |  Hiroshima (9)  |  Men Of Science (90)  |  Nagasaki (2)

The modern version of Buridan's ass [a figurative description of a man of indecision] has a Ph.D., but no time to grow up as he is undecided between making a Leonardo da Vinci in the test tube or planting a Coca Cola sign on Mars.
— Erwin Chargaff
Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 3.
Science quotes on:  |  Leonardo da Vinci (21)  |  Indecision (2)  |  PhD (3)

The narrow slit through which the scientist, if he wants to be successful, must view nature constructs, if this goes on for a long time, his entire character; and, more often than not, he ends up becoming what the German language so appropriately calls a Fachidiot (professional idiot).
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 33.
Science quotes on:  |  Men Of Science (90)

The results serve to disprove the tetranucleotide hypothesis. It is, however, noteworthy—whether this is more than accidental, cannot yet be said—that in all desoxypentose nucleic acids examined thus far the molar ratios of total purines to total pyrimidines, and also of adenine to thymine and of guanine to cytosine, were not far from 1.
— Erwin Chargaff
'Chemical Specificity of Nucleic Acids and Mechanism of their Enzymatic Degradation', Experientia, 1950, 6, 206.
Science quotes on:  |  DNA (50)

There is no question in my mind that we live in one of the truly bestial centuries in human history. There are plenty of signposts for the future historian, and what do they say? They say 'Auschwitz' and 'Dresden' and 'Hiroshima' and 'Vietnam' and 'Napalm.' For many years we all woke up to the daily body count on the radio. And if there were a way to kill people with the B Minor Mass, the Pentagon--Madison Avenue axis would have found it.
— Erwin Chargaff
Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 2.
Science quotes on:  |  Death (183)  |  History (156)

When the so-called think tanks began to replace the thought processes of human beings, I called them the aseptic tanks.
— Erwin Chargaff
Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (1978), 5.

You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosols; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life.
— Erwin Chargaff
Letter to the editor of Science (1976). Quoted in Rose M. Morgan, The Genetics Revolution (2006), 3.
Science quotes on:  |  Aerosol (2)  |  Atomic Bomb (71)  |  Kill (14)  |  Life (460)  |  Moon (78)  |  Population (41)


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  • todayinsci icon 11 Aug - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Chargaff's birth.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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