Esther Lederberg’s Life Revealed a Notable Science-Music Connection
This year I realized that the deep connection between science and music have fueled my obsession with Esther Lederberg’s life. For the past seven years, I have been writing the biography of Esther Lederberg, the neglected “mother of bacterial genetics.”
Originally, I only wanted to “fill in the gaps” in my knowledge of the early discoveries of molecular biology. I had retained a superficial familiarity with bacterial genetics from graduate school, (Microbiology Ph.D. 1981). But I had missed much of the history of the discoveries before, during, and after the revelation of the DNA double helix in 1953.
It has been a fascinating journey to re-educate myself about the origins of bacterial genetics. From 1946-1958, Esther and Joshua Lederberg collaborated on a remarkable series of discoveries that made E. coli and Lambda bacteriophage the new lab rats of molecular biology. Togther, they discovered bacterial sex, the promiscuous process that enables bacteria to spread their genes, independent of reproduction.
1958 Nobel Prize in Medicine
Joshua Lederberg and two of Esther’s mentors, George Beadle and Edward Tatum, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. (Esther Lederberg’s achievements were mostly ignored. No surprise–women, and less often wives, rarely shared in the successes and accolades of their male colleagues, especially in the 1950s. Later, Joshua abandoned genetics research to pursue exobiology, computers, and even journalism. Then he left Esther for a younger woman in 1966. She found herself exiled from her lab, cut off from research funding, and facing uncertain employment.
Esther Lederberg, Recorder Musician
Music saved her. In 1962, Esther Lederberg and a group of amateur musicians formed the Mid-Peninsula Recorder Orchestra, MPRO. Lederberg immersed herself in the California culture of early music, a renaissance sweeping America and Europe in the 1960s. She studied the Recorder, attended workshops and Master classes, and even delved into Renaissance dance. She cultivated a new circle of friends in the Stanford community, artists and musicians and academics who were discovering “historically informed performance.” She even met her soulmate, engineer Matthew Simon, at age 66, with whom she shared a deep appreciation of music and the arts. Matthew and Esther married in 1993, and she continued to develop her Recorder technique, regularly rehearsing and performing with the MPRO, right up until three days before her death.
My Own Science-Music Connection
And I get it. It is almost uncanny, but for the past 16 years I have performed the same music that Esther loved so much. Maybe this connection has subliminally driven my seven-year obsession. Since 2004, I have sung with the Crescendo Chorus and Early Music Orchestra, recently performing up to six programs per year.
Like Esther, I am a passionate amateur. The term derives from the French amateur, meaning “one who loves.” The exhilarating experience of performing live music and the intimate emotions that resonate between performers and audience rival the thrill of scientific discovery and the delights of serendipity. The experience is so addictive, that performers—would be actors, standup comedians, and passionate musicians—keep seeking that high again and again.
There are many examples of this music-science connection. Albert Einstein may be the most famous scientist-musician. Einstein’s biographers have noted parallels between the elegant clarity and architectural perfection in the music of Bach and Mozart, and Einstein’s scientific theories. Music was fundamental in Einstein’s experience: he admitted that he lived his daydreams in music, saw his life in terms of music, and derived the most joy in life in music. Einstein speculated that if he hadn’t pursued a career in physics, he might have become a musician.
Recently, two Nobel Laureates with musical backgrounds made headlines in the music press: “Nobel Medicine Winner Says: I Owe it All to My Bassoon Teacher”; and, “A Second Bassoonist Wins a Noble Prize.” Thomas Sudhof, a German-American biochemist, was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on the biochemistry of neurotransmitter release in neurons. William Moerner, an American physical chemist, earned the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for accomplishing ‘super-resolved’ spectroscopic images of single molecules. Sudhof said that it was his bassoon teacher who taught him that “the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours.” Sudhof admitted, “I wish I could still be a bassoonist—it was a lot harder than being a scientist.” Moerner plays several instruments including the bassoon and has acted in community musical theater.
The musical part of these scientists’ lives—the dedicated training, the demanding performances, and the rich camaraderie of musical ensembles—paralleled those of Esther Lederberg. Only in her case, making music became important later and grew more important right up until the very end of her life.
Understanding why we like music and what draws us to itis a window on the essence of human nature. –Daniel J. Livitin