Recorded: 20 Feb 2001
I never really talked to her about those things [mysticism and her reputation] in the way that I know other people have. My impression is this: I think that she had a very open mind. I don't think she would discount anything without having very firm ideas about it. You know, if she hadn't been a geneticist, she often used to say—and it's actually true she took courses in this at Cornell—she would have been a meteorologist. She would have watched the weather, and in fact weather still was a hugely interesting thing for her. She was fascinated by modem developments in meteorology. Back in the 1920s, meteorology was more or less sticking a divining stick in the wind and seeing if it would rain. And I think its that sort of ability to see that there is something there, even if its not explainable, that is the way you should think about that [her mysticism]. It's not that she thought there was some underlying power or some religious power for example, and although she was fascinated by some particularly occult religions or something, she never believed in them. It wasn't a sense of spirituality in that sense. It was different from that, and again I'd go back to her rigor in thinking, really. That same rigor would lead her to say you cannot discount such and such a phenomenon just because you can't see the evidence for it now. You know, you can't say one way or another until you have a definitive experiment, and she firmly believed that. And that, I think helped, to some extent, has led to the rumors about her mysticism. No, the other side to that is, rather like a lot of people who in history have been famous for that reason, had such an ability to see things many steps ahead that sometimes their conclusions would seem impossible. How on earth did you know that? But actually if you follow through her writing and her experiments very carefully you get a pretty good idea of how she really thought about things. You can go back and reconstruct it. It wasn't just plucked out of thin air, though sometimes it seemed that way, especially to people who weren't that familiar with the subject.
Rob Martienssen is a plant molecular geneticist and professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1986 and did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.
As a young scientist, he worked closely with Barbara McClintock. He currently studies plant epigenetics and development using functional genomics. He was awarded the Kumho International Science Award in Plant Biology and Biotechnology (2001).