Scientists develop hypotheses – stories – to bridge gaps in the narrative between the known and the unknown. We look at the specimens and data we collect and try to tease out meaning, examining what we have, questioning what we might be missing, and trying to reconcile the two. We do this in hopes that others will come behind us, building on the work we have done, and thereby changing the stories we tell.
As a molecular biologist and eye researcher, I spent close to 50 years engaged in this work, in the field and in the laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. Here, in 1981, I founded the Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology at the National Eye Institute, serving as its chief until 2009 (and now Scientist Emeritus).
All along, as I produced more than 300 scientific articles and reviews, I knew I eventually wanted to be a storyteller in the more traditional sense – an author of books and short stories. Realizing I would need to sow the seeds for this vocation before I retired, I began to write short stories, letting my imagination roam free.
After publishing a scientific book on vision and genetics, Gene Sharing and Evolution, (Harvard University Press, 2007) I decided to turn my hand to fiction, publishing a novel, Jellyfish Have Eyes (International Psychoanalytic Books, 2014), based on my own research into jellyfish vision in the mangrove swamps of Puerto Rico.
More recently, I have completed a memoir, The Speed of Dark, about my life in science, and the people who have mentored and inspired me. These include a number of influential scientists and my family: my father, Gregor Piatigorsky, who escaped poverty and pogroms in Russia to achieve international fame as a cellist, and mother, multi-talented heiress Jacqueline de Rothschild, my wife, Lona, and our two sons.
From my parents, I inherited both a love of art, and a propensity for collecting it. I have found myself drawn in particular to Inuit art, fascinated by its folkloric forms, tactile textures and stories of transformation, survival and the sea.
It took a while for me to recognize that my preference for Inuit carvings of shaman transforming into various species was linked with my interest in evolution. These transformations impress me as artistic representations of the continuity within the animal kingdom, humbling the idea of our superiority, and reflecting a deep and unwavering equality and respect for all species.
They also raise more questions than they answer, as is so often the case with art, science and life. It is our work then to keep asking questions as we move into uncharted waters, forming and reforming the stories of our own evolution from the fragments of answers we find. Some dispatches from my journey are posted here on my website.