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Remembering Max

The Phage Group honors its own

Jennifer Rohn 31 August 2006

Visionary: Tobias Delbrück (son of Max) explains his neuromorphically engineered retina

The mystery of heredity proved in the end to be governed merely by the making and breaking of hydrogen bonds

On September 4, 1906, the scientist Max Delbrück came into the world, and in 1980, he departed it. For many years in between, he spent his summers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York overseeing a legendary scientific school that came to be known as ‘the Phage group’. During these summers, many founding tenants of the new field of molecular biology were hammered out, shaping the scientific landscape for years to come. This weekend, a centennial celebration took place to remember the man behind the legend.

I arrived Friday afternoon, rain just beginning to fall as the airport shuttle slid up beside Grace Auditorium, the sultry air heavy with cricket song. I knew Delbrück only as a name in the textbooks, but I was returning home to the place where I grew up as a scientist. From my first tremulous poster presentation in 1991 to my triumphant twelve minutes of fame at the podium in 1997 through to my last meeting as a practicing scientist in 2002, this small campus on Long Island was where I learned all the social tricks of the trade. Rapid friendships were cemented under the welcoming umbrella of graduate student and post-doctoral camaraderie; scientific secrets were disclosed and betrayed; furtive job offers were made between beers at the small bar in the basement of Blackford Hall; posters were spied upon, lectures were slept through, colleagues were schmoozed or snubbed; long walks were taken on the heavily wooded avenues or along the reedy salt flats of the harbor.

Jim Watson worshipped Max as "a perfect human being."

The evening I arrived, the 59th annual Bacterial Genetics symposium (still colloquially known as The Phage Meeting, its old title from Delbrück’s reign) was just winding down. This overlap led to an intriguing mix of people at evening cocktails, each camp clearly identifiable: young scientists with their careers ahead of them, many of them at their first Cold Spring Harbor meeting, and white-haired Delbrück contemporaries and disciples, returning to well-trodden ground – graduate students and numerous Nobel laureates blending together in the amiable informality of the profession.

Max Delbrück started our as an astronomer in Germany, then switched to quantum mechanics, interacting with luminaries such as Einstein, Pauli and Bohr. But he soon became interested in biology, wondering whether new principles of physics might be discovered amidst the stuff of life. Disappointingly, biology turned out to be governed by the usual laws – as Gunther Stent put it in the opening talk, the mystery of heredity proved in the end to be governed merely by "the making and breaking of hydrogen bonds". But along the way Delbrück, after emigrating to America to become a professor at Vanderbilt and later Caltech, contributed to the founding of molecular biology using bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria, also known as phages) as a model system.

The centennial conference was divided into two days, the first devoted to the past and the second, to the future. On day one, friends, colleagues and relatives of Delbrück stood at the podium and told anecdotes about the man, dribs and drabs of events and words that gradually coalesced into a complex picture: Max the scientist, Max the facilitator; Max the terrorizer; Max the practical joker; Max the family man (into which any affiliated scientist might be subsumed for a time). The Oprah-esque mistress of ceremonies, CSHL archivist Mila Pollack, would periodically poll the audience to supplement these stories ("Hands up if Max ever locked you into a room to force you to finish your paper!") and there was no shortage of people eager to share their memories.

On the second day, five eminent scientists spoke about the state of the art of areas of science in which Delbrück was fundamentally or indirectly interested: the genetics of phycomyces (a sprouting fungus that can teach us about directed movement towards light and other stimuli); bacterial chemotaxis (how bacteria swim towards food and away from nasty compounds); neuromorphic engineering (using principles of the human brain to make better computer chips); synaptic plasticity (the ability of neurons to learn and change their behavior based on input) and systems biology (the global approach to understanding how all the parts of an organism work together). Each talk was preceded by an explanation of how Delbrück’s thinking, interest or facilitation was related to the topic. After the banquet, the eminent cosmologist and author Laurence Krauss honored Delbrück by speaking on a topic he thought Max might have been vitally interested in: how intelligence and information may (or may not) survive in an expanding and cooling universe.

Jim Watson, chancellor of CSHL and one of the co-discoverers of DNA, confessed that Max had been like a hero and a father to him, but he always felt as if he had been a bad son. After all, Delbrück had been against Watson’s going to Cambridge to work with Francis Crick in the first place, deeming it too "uninteresting" a project, but Watson had deserted phages anyway (with spectacular results). Delbrück, Watson said, detested nothing more than people doing research on something he deemed uninteresting.

"It’s better to do nothing than to do something that doesn’t matter," Watson paraphrased. "Max thought, you’re better off having fun, or daydreaming and looking stupid."