In the mid 1970’s, as a post-post-doc employee of LLNL, I was a few years into an attempt to turn myself from theoretical physicist to experimental biologist. A late evening knock on my office door revealed a young man who identified himself as David Galas. He told me had just received his PhD in condensed matter theoretical physics, but that, based on a talk he had heard me give (on the “Lac Operon”) he had become interested in learning more about molecular biology and wondered if there was anything good he should read to get started. As it happened I had just acquired a copy of a newly published small monograph by Jim Watson called “The Molecular Biology of the Gene” – a quite incredible and entirely unprecedented introduction to the subject; one almost magically suited, I thought, to David’s professed quest. I cherished the little book and hesitated for a moment, but then handed it to him and wished him well – believing that for a mere $8 I had rid myself of yet another theoretical physicist pest thinking they (and theoretical physics) could ‘cheap shot’ biology and turn it into a proper ‘first principles’ science.
Wrong. In three days, another (late evening) knock. David again. This time ‘in a state’. This book, he said, waving it at me, was the most incredible thing he had ever read and he wanted to know if there was anything more on the subject he could read. I was startled to say the least, but then had to tell him no, there just wasn’t – that there was nothing for it but immersion in the ‘professional’ peer-reviewed research literature – a land well off the charts and in which ‘there be dragons’.
But it was plain at that moment that David was already a ‘goner’.
But then so was I. David demanded then and there to know what I was working on. I demurred. It was late, I was tired and hungry. He insisted. And in the middle of my effort to quickly comply in order to the quicker escape, and when describing to him a problem that had me stumped, he blurted out “I know why that is!”.
My vanity about being a “scientist” forced me as best I could to disguise how startled, affronted, and incredulous I was at this display of over-the-top arrogance and presumption, and to invite him to explain. But only a few sentences in I was washed over with that whole-body tingling sensation that signals either doom or deliverance – because my mind had flashed that first, he might be right, and second, that I had not thought of his point at all.
I told him so. He insisted that I discuss with him right then how his idea might be tested – for which I wasn’t ready. And then he wanted (pretty much demanded) to see my lab. By then it was really late and I tried to refuse. But at that point I had a sort of epiphany: that in the face of this much mental and emotional force, resistance was not just futile, it was missing the ‘heart’ of both point and moment. So we spent a couple of hours showing-and-telling in the lab.
A couple of days on David appeared again this time asking if he could work with me – for free (necessary given that I had then no funds to support him). In this idea, of course, reason could find nothing even marginally acceptable – this young man working for free, changing fields suddenly and dramatically, and working for a person as unestablished in the field himself as I then was – and the institution responded accordingly. But reason deals poorly with passion, and also David had already established himself as a very promising young physicist among his more established brethren at the laboratory – the upshot of which was that, blessedly, reason did not prevail. And essentially immediately he was in the lab, closer to 60 hours a week than 40, working with me; mostly in experimental work aimed at addressing the problem that had been my answer to his first question.
In fairly short order we had three two-author papers, two in Nature, and one monster in the Journal of Molecular Biology, then the premier journal in the field (see citations below). Then others, with co-authors, came along. Many years later, at a dinner for students, David recounted those days and joked that “Elbert and I thought biology was easy. Then we quickly learned how wrong we were. It isn’t.”
In about three years David was ready to take wing – and did so in the form of a (now real) postdoc (obtained on his own) with the lac operon maven Jeffrey Miller in Geneva. But that three years was for me one of the most exciting, productive, and fun periods of my professional life (one dimension of the fun was that David was given, when very happily doing the hand part of lab work, to ridiculous hums and homilies; one day might harvest 10 or more “oh she’s got two eyes and they’re both the same size, hmm hmm, hmm hmm” – and similar; or several repeats of “you know Elbert, you can’t be too careful”).
And the pinball nature of my life since has turned out to have very largely hinged, at almost every important turn, on unanticipated, nominally incidental and unintended side effects of events that trace back directly to that first knock on the door. A gift of providence for which I am inexpressibly grateful.
Two-author papers with David
Branscomb, E.W.; Galas, D.J. Progressive decrease in protein synthesis accuracy induced by streptomycin in Escherichia coli. Nature 1975, 254. doi:10.1038/254161a0.
Galas, D.J.; Branscomb, E.W. Ribosome slowed by mutation to streptomycin resistance. Nature 1976, 262. doi:10.1038/262617b0.
Galas, D.J.; Branscomb, E.W. Enzymatic determinants of DNA polymerase accuracy. Theory of coliphage T4 polymerase mechanisms. Journal of Molecular Biology 1978, 124. doi:10.1016/0022-2836(78)90176-6.