Weird Science?


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Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D., Nobel laureate, intellectual iconoclast and admirer of Jascha Heifitz, Albert Einstein and Yogi Berra, is explaining the difference between scientists and other people. “To do science? To really do science? You don’t live in the world,” he says. “You live in an attitude.”

To foster that rarefied attitude—and help scientists unlock the secrets of that magnificent and beguiling blob of tissue known as the human brain—Edelman, 71, has devoted much of his busy life to building and nurturing what he calls, with no trace of false modesty, “a kind of scientific monastery.” Hidden away on 3 acres just east of North Torrey Pines is his, well, brainchild: the Neurosciences Institute, dedicated to the radical proposition that scientists can only do their best work if unfettered by the demands of chasing federal grants, hustling after tenure and attending meetings.

“We’re on the brink—we haven’t got it yet—of solving what principles govern the brain: what makes us think, feel, remember,” says Edelman. He speaks with the characteristic brio—some dare call it ego—that has made him a world-class fund-raiser for this private, nonprofit institute that, almost alone among scientific institutions, exists without federal funding.

So just who is this man of science who seemingly delights in bucking the conventional; who was once described by a New Yorker magazine writer as a cross between Einstein and Henny Youngman?

The son of a doctor who practiced general medicine in Queens, Edelman grew up on Long Island and attended Ursinus, a small German Reform college in rural Pennsylvania. After graduating from Ursinus with a bachelor’s degree in science and then from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1953, he spent a year at the Johnson Foundation of Medical Physics. Following a stint at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital, Edelman  was drafted as a doctor and stationed in France, where he found a passion for driving racecars.

Finishing his Army tour in 1957, he went to Rockefeller University as a graduate student, earning his doctorate in 1960 and joining Rockefeller as a researcher and, later, professor. After winning his Nobel Prize in 1972, he turned his attention to neuroscience and in 1982 founded the nonprofit, independent Neurosciences Institute.

In the early 1990s, Edelman decided it was time to relocate the institute from New York. He visited MIT, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley. He remembered La Jolla fondly from a stint as a visiting researcher at Salk. He discussed the options with his colleagues. It was not even close. “I went back to my lab, and guess what? Everybody wanted to go to La Jolla,” he says.

Although independent, the institute has close ties to the Scripps Research Institute, where Edelman serves as professor and chairman of the department of neurobiology. Scripps helped fund construction of a $16 million permanent home and retains ownership of the acreage beneath the institute. The Sandoz drug company also provided money for construction, completed in 1995.

Edelman “commutes” to his two jobs via a tunnel beneath Torrey Pines Road from the Neurosciences Institute to Scripps, a convenience known simply as “Dr. Edelman’s tunnel.”

In an interview, Edelman is gracious, witty and tolerant of a science-challenged journalist. He quotes George Bernard Shaw, Disraeli, Yiddish poets and Mark Twain, and wonders how body types as different as Yogi Berra and Darryl Strawberry (“before he got into drugs”) are capable of the same sort of perfection in difficult physical tasks.

Edelman’s conversation is filled with quotations, aphorisms and anecdotes, some real, some apocryphal. One of his favorites is about a contretemps between Beethoven and his landlady, in which the latter squelches the famed composer by imitating the thundering opening of his Fifth Symphony.

He quotes the great French physiologist Claude Bernard: “Art is I, science is we.” And as a Nobel laureate of good standing, he mocks what he calls the “high church of Sweden” by noting that one famed laureate—no names, please!—used his prize money to buy his way out of a loveless marriage. He discusses disputes between scientists that occurred 75 years ago with the passion of someone discussing a political dispute that is still front-page news.

He also quotes the letter from poet Rainer Maria Rilke to his wife in 1907 in which he gossiped about the painter Paul Cézanne. His presumption is that everyone understands why the discourse between Rilke and Cézanne about shape, color and meaning is central to a discussion of the brain.

As an example of the gulf between politics and science, Edelman brings up the famed colloquy between 19th-century English scientist Michael Faraday and Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone when Faraday presented his pioneering work on electricity.

“Of what use is it?” said Gladstone loftily.

“Sir, someday you shall tax it,” replied Faraday acidly.

Edelman, who trained as a classical violinist and still counts the great violinist Jascha Heifitz among his heroes, is a workaholic. He goes to one or both of his offices nearly every day he’s not traveling to a far-flung scientific conference or doing some out-of-town fund-raising.

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