For reasons that rather escape me --- since I have minimal interest in science or scientists --- I am reading the autobiography of Sir Peter Medawar, who, born in 1915, was brought up in Rio de Janeiro by a Lebanese father, educated at a British public school and Oxford, and became a leading scientist during the Second World War, winning the Nobel Prize “for medicine or physiology” in 1960.
The book is rather a strange one. It has three extremely lively opening chapters, one of which contains the best description I have ever read of the virtues of Oxford’s tutorial system of education --- one tutor to one pupil --- which I couldn’t help contrasting with what I read last week about Toronto University with its 90,000 students. 90,000! When last I had heard about them, they were 40,000 and I had thought that huge number. After these three delightful chapters he gets on to describing what he calls his “Early Research”. And it is here that as far as I am concerned the man could be writing in some foreign language of which I understand not a word.
Under the direction of men who have become famous figures in the history of science, Medawar began as a zoologist, and thereafter successively describes himself as a tissue-culturist, working under a professor of pathology, and rooming with “a fellow-embryologist” who was studying the domestic fowl. In the succeeding pages he appears to have plunged into a bewildering variety of disciplines --- medicine, and various branches of biology among them, and of some of which one has the impression they were just emerging to stake their claim as a separate discipline --- immunology, genetics, transplantation, various divisions of biochemistry, all of these just then breaking down into minuscule specialties that for all I know, have probably since been developed into full-scale fields of study in their own right.
Halfway through this bewildering recitation of mysteries he pauses to give a delightfully off-hand account of the 22 honorary doctorates he has won around the world, three of them in Canada, along with delightful anecdotes of the odd behaviour of what he calls his fellow graduands --- a new word on me, like many others in his book. These include the sculptor Henry Moore, who, when Medawar asked him if he would say a few words to the populace on behalf of his fellow honorees, “turned fully round towards me, with his blue eyes blazing, ‘No, I bloody well would not,’ he said in strong Yorkshire, so I did not have to press the matter further.” On another occasion he attended in a wheelchair, and Mother Teresa, “seeing this rather touching spectacle, walked over to me, and without further ado blessed me, not at all perfunctorily but in the deeply earnest way that I believe to be characteristic of her.” When Medawar told Tennessee Williams, also present, what the saint-like woman had done for him, and inquired what he, Mr. Williams was going to do for him, the author responded, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. I’ll get you a drink.” It was already clear to all, comments Medawar gently, “that Mr. Williams had fully mastered whatever feat had been necessary to secure drinks. When he had fulfilled his offer my wife drank at least half, which was only right.”
Another scientist said on the book cover that “nobody can match Medawar for verbal wit and dexterity,” which explains why I was ready to lay out the 50 cents it cost me to procure the volume. The man, between incomprehensible chapters of scientific jargon, can really write. Ever since I began to write for a living in 1945 I have been working at trying to express myself clearly, and it is always infuriating when one comes across some numbskull from some other discipline who evidently can write clearly without even having to work at it.
I relation to this, Medawar on page 64 explodes one of the myths I have lived by all these years. I have always named Bertrand Russell as my primary model in writing, because, I have told people endlessly, “He can make any subject comprehensible to any reader.”
Oh, yeah! Medawar writes of his delight in finding a book by Bertrand Russell “a man whom I had known only as an essayist and popular philosopher” (such a silky put-down, eh?), a book called Principles of Mathematics, of which “I still remember the first paragraph. He thereupon quotes said paragraph:
“Pure mathematics is the class of all propostions of the form ‘p implies q where p and q are propositions containing one or more variables, the same in the two propositions, and neither p nor q contains any constants except logical constants. And logical constants are all notions definable in rerms of the following: Implication, the relation of a term to a class of which it is a member, the notion of such that, the notion of relation, and such further notions as may be involved in the general notion of propositions of the above form. In addition to these, mathematics uses a notion which is not a constituent of the propositions which it considers, namely, the notion of truth.”
Okay, I take it all back. Bertrand Russell cannot explain any subject so clearly that it will be comprehensible to everyone. And all these years I have been falsely dining out, claiming a connection to him that exposes me as a fraud and a fake.
Of course, there’s always Shakespeare, with his wonderful use of concrete, short, snappy words and and common man’s language…..I’ll stick to him in future.