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Lives: Lies & Truth!

Biographies usually become popular, if they are unauthorised! In other words, when a person does not have a control while depicting activities and events of her/his life, many of the readers tend to appreciate going through the same. Generally, not many persons would reveal the not-so-good sides of their characters in their biographies. Most of them do not have the courage to expose the evil sides of their selves. Very few autobiographies are like Kiss & Tell, because only a handful would go forth to leak their own scandals. Intelligent readers know that big personalities are not fully covered with the armour of divinity, as they also likely to possess desires, like others. Hence, some of the readers might want to explore the dark sides of eminent personalities, as well…

The Double Helix‘ by James Dewey Watson was published in 1968. Before the publication of this book, people had an idea that the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) was the origin of life on the Earth. However, no one knew what the molecule would look like. Watson, the American Molecular Biologist, Geneticist and Zoologist, with his colleague Francis Harry Compton Crick, proposed the Double Helix Structure of the DNA in their publication. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962 was awarded jointly to Watson, Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material“. The Double Helix tells the story of that discovery. One can consider this book as a biographical one as well, as it also narrates various incidents in the lives of Watson’s and Crick’s. Watson’s candid writing not only surprised the readers, but also Crick, as the former exposed another facet of his character in that publication. In The Double Helix, Watson went on to describe his and Crick’s affairs with different women, even mentioning that he was a far better performer than his friend (Crick) in bed!

James Dewey Watson

The Double Helix had become a trendsetter in the 1960’s, as the book inspired many to pen their autobiographies in that particular style. One of them was Watson’s Ph.D. guide Salvador Luria. In his ‘A Slot Machine, a Broken Test Tube: An Autobiography‘, the Nobel Prize-winning Microbiologist described his major scientific works, recalled the colleagues and students that he had in his long career, and reflected on his triumphs, failures, doubts and beliefs. Luria admitted in the introduction that the book, written by his student, had inspired him. He also mentioned that readers should consider his autobiography as confession of a man, who had overcome mental stress to establish himself. The second one was Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard P Feynman. Watson let Feynman read the manuscripts of The Double Helix. Feynman, who was overwhelmed by Watson’s description of the ups and downs of his life, authored his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’, in 1985. The book covered a variety of instances in his life. One of the instances was to propose a stranger to become his bed partner, and the lady accepted the Physicist’s offer!

Salvador Luria

One should not consider such open confessions in autobiographies as gifts of modernity. The autobiographical writings of 16th Century German Astronomer, Mathematician and Astrologer Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) continue to amaze people even in the 21st Century. Kepler wrote that he had apparently been conceived by his mother at 4:37am on May 16, 1571, and was born prematurely at 2:30pm on December 27. It means that his mother got pregnant before her marriage. Kepler used to believe that he had to suffer from various diseases because of his premature birth!

Johannes Kepler

The autobiography of Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879 – April 18, 1955) is completely different, although his life was very much eventful. Romance at a young age with the daughter of the headmaster of his school, tying knot with a senior lady without the consent of his parents, getting divorced within two years after fathering her two kids, marrying a cousin sister… there were so many episodes in Einstein’s life! However, none of these were mentioned in his autobiography, as if no such things happened in his life. Hanoch Gutfreund, the Andre Aisenstadt Chair in Theoretical Physics and former President at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Jürgen Renn, a German Historian of Science and Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin since 1994, have made an attempt to introspect the mind of the German-born Theoretical Physicist who developed the Theory of Relativity, one of the two pillars of Modern Physics. In their publication ‘Einstein on Einstein: Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections‘, Gutfreund and Renn have claimed that Einstein had written his autobiography twice! A couple of weeks before his death in 1955, he wrote a short autobiography on the occasion of the Centenary of his college, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Gutfreund and Renn have included the English translation of that work in their book…

Albert Einstein

The first and popular autobiography of Einstein was published in 1949. He penned the book after Philosopher-Scientist Paul Arthur Schilpp requested him to do so. It is to be noted that ‘The Library of Living Philosophers’ is a series of books conceived of and started by Schilpp in 1939. And, Schilpp remained its editor until 1981. The seventh volume of this series was on Einstein. The handwritten autobiography of Einstein is just like a booklet, as it has only 48 pages! Schilpp had it translated in English.

Einstein wrote his autobiography at the age of 67. That’s why he jokingly said in the very first line that he was writing his own Obituary. He, seemingly, hinted at the beginning that his writing would be different, as he hardly had any interest in personal matters. It is quite understandable that such a person would not write a traditional autobiography. According to Gutfreund and Renn, Einstein had once stated that autobiographies were often written out of disdain for others! The renowned scientist made it clear that he wanted to write only about “how ideas come to one’s mind”. In this context, he mentioned two childhood experiences. By his own admission, his interest in Physics was discovered almost accidentally. When he was about five years old and sick in bed, his father brought him a magnetic compass to play with. While twisting and shaking it, little Albert noted that whichever way he turned the compass, the needle always pointed to the magnetic north. Later, he recalled in his ‘Autobiographical Notes’ that “I can still remember – or at least believe I can remember – that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things”. While studying Geometry at the age of 12, he realised that only Logic could lead to irrefutable truth!

Gutfreund and Renn have stressed that a specific Period or Time had influenced Einstein to write Autobiographical Notes. He started writing his biography in 1946, a year after the happenings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was worried as the Human Civilisation was in crisis! So, Einstein had risen himself above personal matters. Gutfreund and Renn believe that lessons from two books inspired Einstein to write autobiography. ‘Scientific Autobiography‘ by Max Planck and Mohandas K Gandhi’s ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth‘… Both the autobiographies teach us how to move towards a fixed goal in times of turmoil!

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