This is taken from the laureate’s essay on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Martin Rodbell in 1994.
To my Friends: Thoughts from “On High”
Life on a roller coaster, oscillating from hither to yon,
no respite for the iconoclast, wandering from dusk to dawn.
Conjuring strange thoughts foreign and twice forbidden,
like Prometheus unbound, this Nobelist climbs in vain
to Andean peaks, seeking what most would proclaim insane.
Why, he ponders, are there no answers to protean questions when others thinking cleanly and simply with Occam’s sharp razor proclaim what seems obvious given the beam of their unerring laser. Nature, happily unfettered with philosophy, or with cunning, or with intent moves relentlessly onward or even backward with energy unspent while we mortals test and probe with twinkling machines blinking precisely at each movement, striving to unravel its irresolute randomness, its fathomless, unlimited, meaningless rush into spiraling chaos, oblivious of its multitudinous trials & errors which we pontifically believe must be unerring truth & resolution.
The laugh is on those who, burdened with pretensions of truth, believe they can fathom within 15 minutes of human existence what has transpired over eons of space and time in this Universe .
So, I extol the intuitions encapsulated in the folds of my mind from whence occasionally they hurtle to the forebrain and in a twinkling of a proton’s discharge bring to fruition a thought, an idea borne on the feathery appendages of teeming neurons wedded in a seamless synergy. Those fleeting moments are cherished as are those precious impulses imparted by the innumerable individuals who nurtured and instilled unknowingly their encrypted thoughts in mine.
So, with these fanciful thoughts in mind I give praise to you - my friends, my colleagues, my soul-mates, my loved ones - for letting my soul and thoughts meander hither and yonder in this attempt at philosophy and poetry. We now belong to the Gods on high who praise us for our frailties and our achievements.
Martin and I had the same great grandfather, who died, long before either of us were born, in a Polish ghetto that neither of us would recognize. And, I’m certain, this man said his prayers, went to synagogue and believed fully in his God. I don’t know whether Martin believed in God; but if he did it was a very different one than our great grandfather’s.
Here’s what his poem meant to me: Rather than being frustrated by how little progress he could make in fully understanding his chosen area of research, he takes pleasure in being able to solve a small part of the puzzle. As he thanks “the innumerable individuals who nurtured and instilled unknowingly their encrypted thoughts in mine,” he fully expects others to similarly value what he has brought forth, “intuitions encapsulated in the folds of my mind from whence occasionally they hurtle to the forebrain and in a twinkling of a proton’s discharge, bring to fruition a thought. “ His thought. A part of the chain of knowledge that his life work extends by a single link.
His poem can be taken as a response to those who would claim that science’s paucity of explanation is indicative of some other process, a purposeful all powerful designer. “Why,” he asks, pondering his own limitations , “are there no answers to protean questions when others thinking cleanly and simply with Occam’s sharp razor, proclaim what seems obvious, given the beam of their unerring laser.” Whether the designer be God or some ethereal conception of an ordered purposeful universe, Martin’s answer is the same, “The laugh is on those who, burdened with pretensions of truth, believe they can fathom within 15 minutes of human existence what has transpired over eons of space and time in this Universe “
I’m proud of my cousin Martin, even though I never even met him, and never will, since he died several years ago, at what now to me, seems a such young age. He would be surprised to learn that the words of his poem, imbedded in an essay printed in a book for libraries and attendees at the Nobel Awards in Stockholm, are now available to billions of people with a few key strokes on their computers.
While we are constantly made aware of the suffering caused by man and nature in all its permutations, we are also in the midst of an explosion of knowledge that his work is representative of. While we deplore the inefficiencies and, at times, duplicity, of pharmaceutical corporations, there is the constant accretion of the products of basic research, that however twisted its path, enriches us all. This growth, this inexorable drive to understand the processes of life, from the molecular to the societal, has a tenacity that defies all attempts to extinguish it.
Martin’s life is intertwined with a singular event, the epitome of focused destruction of a people, his people, my people--- a people who happen to revere this quest for understanding in all of its forms. The woman whom he married and raised his family with, his widow Barbara Lederman Rodbell, was a teenager in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She joined the resistance and actively fought against the invaders. She was friends with another family of Jews, the Franks, who tried to survive by hiding in an attic. The world knows of their story from the diary written by their daughter, Anne.
In this time of questioning the relation between church and state, it is claimed that science is simply another religion, another belief system based on faith. While there are certainly differences between the two worldviews, there is truth to this claim. Martin, and Barbara, had faith that their lives, dedicated to a quest for knowledge, would in some way, in some time, make for a better world. Martin’s life work explicated the processes of inter-cellular communication. He showed how each of the trillions of cells of higher organisms, of we humans, coordinate to mature and survive to achieve our purposes, whether profound or profane.
Martin spent his life in his own resistance movement. It was a resistance against ignorance, and the imitation science that masks it, exemplified by the Nazi genocidal hatred that took such an unfathomable toll. His weapon was not a more powerful bomb, or a new way of marshalling the passion of the masses; it was in discovering how a process in our body works. He knew we could never erase the horror of six million Jews killed in the holocaust, or hundreds of millions who died in our lifetimes in similar excrescences of organized hatred fueled by ignorance.
All he could do; all we can do, is support the mosaic of scientific knowledge--precise, objective, verifiable, and universal. This slow laborious slog of discovery seems so puny compared to the grandeur of those who offer comprehensive answers, mystical or scientistic, whom he described as “burdened with pretensions of truth.”
If there is such a thing as evil in the world, this universal apotheosis that transcends time and place, surely its essential element is ignorance, the blindness that leads to fear, and the destruction that follows. Such evil destroys like wildfire, or nuclear blasts, or mass murder by a master race. Yet, resistance to these scourges is not to be found on a comparable scale. Rather it is the wisp of a seedling after a firestorm. Resistance is a life of discovery, the articulation of a concept that clarifies forces hitherto unseen, and perhaps an unfinished diary of a young girl, who still had hope for a better world.
Nobel Lecture and Autobiography of Martin Rodbell