Ernst Peter Fischer on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: Intellectual Atmosphere
  Ernst Peter Fischer     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Jun 2000

So we had—Delbruck, we had this Cold Spring Harbor situation—and I learned something else from Max while I was here. I went to the first meetings or to the first conferences where somebody talked about biology. I was coming from physics.

So first of all I had a hard time understanding what they were talking about— especially after—though I had read something about biology in the books—it’s very difficult to know that they are using the same words that you have read.

For instance when they talked about a polymerase. I didn’t know what that meant because in my book it said polymeras(a). That is very much different from polymerase. It’s the same thing though but it takes you some time before you realize that.

And I realized another spirit of Cold Spring Harbor—when somebody got bored by a lecture, he just left the room. I mean in Germany we would sit there and wait and hope that the speaker would eventually finish and so, it’s so boring, but of course another—he added another experiment and another slide and another discussion, and so we wanted to go—where in Cold Spring Harbor people just left!

And especially Max, did so and he did even so when a Nobel Laureate came, namely David Baltimore. David Baltimore gave a speech on some viruses and the way they would infiltrate other cells and they would cooperate with membranes and David Baltimore started—the topic had something—was membranes and viruses, I forgot exactly what it was. And Baltimore started the talk by saying, “Well, I’m actually not talking that much about membranes but more about viruses.” And Max said, “Is that true, then I’ll leave.” And he left the room. And so these are the things that you have to learn first.

I mean in Germany you don’t do that. In Germany you sit there and wait and even if the speaker changes the topic completely, well, you suffer through the next hour. Well, I mean, things have changed. And maybe I was in the wrong department when I was a student but that’s the way we behaved.

Ernst Peter Fischer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Constance since 1994. He studied mathematics and physics in Cologne and biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned Ph.D. in biology and qualified as a professor in the history of science.

He has published biographies of Max Delbrück, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and James D. Watson and received several awards for his scientific publications. Fischer is an author of such books as "Die andere Bildung", "Selling science - The history of Boehringer Mannheim" and "Das Genom" - an introduction into modern genome research.

He has been honoured with the Heinrich-Bechold-Medaille (1980), Preis der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft Freiburg (1981); Lorenz-Oken-Medaille (2002), Treviranus-Medaille (2003) and Eduard-Rhein-Kulturpreis (2003).