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Reflections on Max Delbrück

Remarks of Max Delbrück's son, Jonathan, made during the Delbrück Centenary Celebration held at Vanderbilt University on Sept. 14, 2007

As the last shots died down in Germany at the collapse of Hitler's dream of empire, it appeared that all of the members of the family of Hans and Lina Delbrück were going to survive the war, in spite of the family home having been destroyed in bombing attacks, followed by the burning down of their daughter Emmi's house, where all the valued papers salvaged from the family home in Grunewald had been taken. Then, in the few chaotic weeks as the American and Russian forces raced to claim territory, Max's brothers Justus and George, their neighbor Dietrich Bonhoffer and his brother-in-law Klaus Bonhoffer were all killed or died.

Max, the youngest of seven Delbrück children, was not aware of any of these events as they happened, nor had he heard that two years earlier his mother had died, and a few weeks later a nearby bomb strike caved in her bedroom wall, greatly enlarging the opening through which little Max, in years past, had tiptoed late at night, with his telescope, to look deep into the wonders of the nighttime sky from their top floor balcony. The family continued to live in the rest of the house, until it collapsed in a heap of rubble from the shock wave of a bomb exploding close by, which also snapped the old oak trees off at the stumps, tossing them to the neighbors' yard. Fortunately, nobody was in the house at the time.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Max was busying himself with his physics teaching job at Vanderbilt University, and the early phage experiments, Manny reported on local social events for a Nashville newspaper, and they lived in a red brick house which still stands, in a quiet neighborhood close to the campus.

Those were relatively calm years, sheltered from the chaos in Europe in the gracious and hospitable culture of the Old South. A walk from the house to the lab would take you past the home of William Edmondson, whose yard was full of his spirited stone carvings, for which he later became famous. There were close friends, there was time to play tennis, and space to try out experiments with biological systems, but during the war there was virtually no news from Germany; one could only imagine the worst and hope for the best. Then, after the war ended, the terrible letter finally came, with the news of Max's mother, brother, and brothers-in-law.

It would not be possible, however, for Max to see any of his family, for a long time. There was no working postal system, but fortunately, a kind American soldier volunteered to deliver packages to the widowed sisters, who were living with their children in borrowed homes.

When I was a few weeks old in Nashville in June 1947, it was almost two years after the end of the war, and finally there was a first opportunity to return to Germany. Manny and Max went together, the first time for Manny to meet any of Max's family. At the time it was very difficult to get travel visas to any of the zones of Germany occupied and administered separately by the four allied powers. Traveling by freighter, they sailed to Copenhagen, entered the British-controlled area of Germany from Denmark, and traveled to the British sector of Berlin, crossing there to the American sector which contained Grunewald, the neighborhood where the Delbrück home had stood.

That trip must have been a bombshell event in Max's life. When I was seven years old, my grandmother came to visit us in Germany, and we all went to see the site on Kunst-Buntschuh Strasse in Berlin, an open hole in the ground that showed where the basement had been. Here, in the house I knew from pictures of a quiet neighborhood of academic families in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald, in one of the most modern developed countries in the world, had been my father's childhood. It had given birth to his dreams as a boy and nurtured them through his developing years, and then the dream had turned nightmare, awakening to these ruins.

I wasn't old enough to witness the effect of this visit to Germany after the war on Max and Manny, and I did not hear much about it from them, but it must have been powerful. I think it may have influenced them to choose a lifestyle which kept very close ties between work at the lab, family, and the world. Although Max usually spent most of his day in the lab, and often returned to his experiments after dinner, this was just a couple of minutes walk from our house. Max integrated his academic and home life in such a way that there did not seem to be a distinct boundary between them. Across the street from the lab was a house where several Caltech graduate students lived, which was known as Prufrock because one of the early inhabitants had chosen the subject of T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as the telephone listing. Sometimes we went to Sunday brunch at Prufrock, often the students were at our parties or on our camping trips, and I felt very much that they were a part of our family.

In the early 1950's, we had an old Packard sedan. I remember that we had a piece of clothesline tied from the right side window crank to the steering column, to keep the door closed. We would drive several hours east from Pasadena, past Palm Springs to a place known as "31," a dry desert canyon near the town of Mecca, and go as far up the sandy wash as we could, often until our wheels sank into the soft sand, where we would camp until Sunday morning, when everybody would help push the car until we were able to drive again on the harder ground. Our equipment consisted of little more than some sleeping bags, and a grill which was set on stones around an open fire for cooking and making hot water for coffee. There would be a cardboard box with some food, a bottle of wine, and a big canister of water. Guests were sometimes distinguished scientists from Europe or Asia, on their first-ever desert overnight camping trip. I remember that if he was not discussing science with a colleague, Max told stories, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the long drive out to the desert. Often a couple of students or a visitor would join us. On Saturday there was always a hike, to the top of a mountain, or some dark underground caves.

At night, there was talk of all manner of things, as we clustered for dinner around the campfire, like a primeval tribal family, with Manny at its core and Max at the helm. Dinner was something simple that could be cooked over a fire, which it was our duty to tend and provide firewood for. And you could see the stars! Max always took some time away from the fire, to look at the clear desert night sky, a black field rich with intensely bright detail, and dark enough to see the Andromeda Galaxy without binoculars. He always took careful note of the new positions of all the visible planets, in a little spiral notebook where he plotted their paths as they snake through the field of fixed stars. The little curved lines he was drawing across the roughly sketched field of stars in his notebook had a serious purpose, which he explained to me when I asked him one night. He said "I am charting the movements of the planets every month, so I can see how hard it would be to deduce the actual movement of the planets around the sun from what can be seen with the naked eye." When I asked him, what had he concluded from his observations, he answered by asking me to study the sketches, and what did I think?

Max measured his life and his scientific career in the context of the full dimensions of the universe, and the continuum of time. As a boy in high school in Berlin, he decided he would be an astronomer, which often required him to discretely tiptoe through his parents' bedroom late at night, to their balcony where he could point his telescope at the stars and planets, and wonder at the greatness of what can be plainly seen in the sky. As far as I know, he never identified himself as a member of any formal church or religion, but neither did he reject religion. He had a deeply felt respect for all faiths, believing that regardless of the details, they all fill basically the same human aspirations. Max was also very interested in the ancient Greek philosophers, and what they thought and wrote about nature. Aristotle, in particular, was one of his favorite subjects, about whom he thought often and deeply.

Although it is common, and almost undisputed, to assume that our knowledge in science has progressed "forward" in attaining an ever deeper understanding of the workings of the physical universe, when Max talked about the explanations of the cosmos as they changed through successive paradigm shifts, he did not seem to put our current hypothesis at the head, but rather as merely one more imperfect approximation of what we can observe, which might someday appear as absurd as the geocentric model looks to us today. The message I got was not to become too complacent or reliant on what we think we already know, because tomorrow it may fade in the light of new insights.

Max had an ingrained distaste for the trappings of institutional hierarchy, insisting that everybody, professors and students, children and strangers alike, know him as Max. He had little interest in the formal titles and levels within the academic establishment, perhaps because he saw how such rankings could be abused for political ends. He did not pressure any of his children to become scientists. This was not because he felt it would be a bad choice for us; it was because it might not be a good choice for science. He believed very strongly that the best researchers are driven by their own curiosity and desire to seek knowledge, and these qualities can appear in a person from any background. To try to propel one's own child into a scientific career, as parental instinct drives many of us to promote our offspring, could risk denying limited educational resources to someone who could use them more productively. When, as I was graduating from high school, I announced that I wanted to become an artist, make furniture and build my own house, my parents responded with enthusiastic support and obvious pride in my work.

On the other hand, Max encouraged and supported students in whom he recognized the curiosity and integrity of a good scientist. A young man who had been working for a Japanese landscaping company near the campus once came to the Caltech biology division head to ask about doing graduate study; he had a bachelor's degree but a weak academic record, not a strong resumé for such a discriminating academic institution. He was told that he probably would not qualify, but ought to go and talk to somebody named "Max". He went to Max's office, they spoke for a couple of hours, and Max accepted him as his student. Gordon Sato received his Ph.D. at Caltech, with Max as his advisor.

Once Max had accepted a graduate student into his working group, he or she became a virtual family member, whose academic career and personal life were both of equal concern for Manny and Max. Beyond the academic discipline of "confession sessions" and rigorous insistence on honest, realistic method and interpretation, they played a role in saving at least one good marriage from the dangerous shoals of graduate school stress and privation, introduced several generations to the joys of camping in the Southern California mountains and deserts, shared their home with countless visiting students for months at a stretch, offered advice and encouragement, and sometimes a bit of financial assistance. These were not things they did "in addition to" the normal duties of a professorial family; they were an integral part of the life of Max Delbrück, just as my dozen "uncles and aunts" at Prufrock House and the lab were integrated into our lives, growing up as Delbrück children.

Many people know the name Max Delbrück because of the Nobel Prize, and for his contributions to modern molecular biology. However, were it not for, as Max would call it, a "random statistical fluctuation" in the proceedings in Stockholm, things could have turned out differently. I do not think this would have mattered much, from Max's point of view. The principal distinguishing features of his life: growing up in pre-apocalyptic Germany, migrating to a new life in America, following a path from astronomy through physics to biology, but always keeping the cosmological perspective in his own life, would have been the same.

Courtesy of John Wikswo
Jonathan Delbruck speaking at the Delbruck Centenary Celebration at Vanderbilt.


Courtesy of Jonathan Delbruck
Max Delbruck with his wife, Manny, standing in front of their Nashville home.

Courtesy of Jonathan Delbruck
Delbruck expounds during a desert camping trip

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