I DOUBT THAT my mother, the French sculptress born Jacqueline de Rothschild of the banking dynasty famous for their art collections, or my father, the renowned Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, would have been surprised by my switch from science to writing. My parents lived art and knew nothing about science—my father, for example, fantasized about whales, elephants, and snakes as castles in the air, not matters of biology. Thus, I grew up seeing the natural world tinged with magic and filled with mystery and beauty, a poetry of sorts, as well as an opportunity for scientific advancement.
I started writing fiction at age 56, in the middle of my full-time career as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health. This despite the fact that my research on gene expression in the eye, and my responsibilities as chief of the large laboratory I had established, left little time for other outlets. The wish to write began during a hike with my wife, Lona, on holiday in Maine. We rested at a quiet spot overlooking a beautiful bay when I suddenly had the urge to write and give voice to a frustrated desire—no doubt partly inspired by my family—for artistic expression. But what to write about?
A few ideas lingered, while others slid past, not unlike the process of searching for a research project in science. I settled on the idea of two teenage boys hunting caribou in the Arctic, a subject that touched my interest as a collector of Inuit art. Each sentence prompted the next, and the imaginary scenes of glittering snow dazzled me as if real. I felt exhilarated being a midwife to fictional characters with ink as blood and giving them experiences that I dreamed about having myself. I felt I couldn’t let this new form of creativity and vicarious expression escape; I had to continue writing. Since science gobbled my time when I returned from vacation, I decided to confine my writing to very short pieces, and these accumulated to form a foundation for my future writing.
In the evenings, after leaving the lab, I attended workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where I wrote a series of short stories and a novella called Jellyfish Have Eyes. (Yes, they do have eyes!) In the process, I found myself conflicted between the drive to write and the desire to continue in science. The fear of starting anew as a writer at my age battled with my determination not to be a quitter in my proven profession. Though it was a difficult decision, I closed my laboratory in 2009 and have no regrets.
After retiring from science, I published the short stories I had written as a collection called The Open Door. My novella grew and was published as a dystopian novel that weaved together my science experiences with fiction and foreshadowed a grim future in which funding for basic research was shortchanged—a reflection of what I feared was happening in the real world of science. I believed then, as I still do today, that support for basic scientific research for the sake of knowledge alone and driven by curiosity is crucial for advancing medicine, as well as for a greater understanding of nature. Thus, writing added a new way for me to express my beliefs as well as a creative challenge.
As science and fiction blended as narratives in my mind, I wanted to write a more personal memoir through an artistic lens. However, I wondered, who would be interested in a privileged government scientist who had never experienced hardship? Marcel Proust came to my rescue. I was impressed by his extraordinary autobiographical novel, In Search of Lost Time, which is based on what I considered to be relatively uneventful experiences, such as superficial social salons, visits to museums, and agonizing over sexual conflicts. I realized that it is not the events, but the personal reactions of the author that make a story compelling.
What I chose to write about in my memoir, then, were instances etched in my mind that had changed me. These included my amazement when I first glimpsed the magnifying power of the clear eye lens; my awe when a lone jellyfish—soon followed by others—rose majestically at night toward a light by the dock in La Parguera, Puerto Rico; the time Alberto Monroy, a scientist I admired, told me when I was a novice graduate student at Woods Hole, “Only real scientists would be playing hooky at the beach on such a beautiful sunny day”; my curiosity when Professor Leigh Hoadley asked the embryology class at Harvard, “What do you think would happen if a fertilized frog embryo were to be cut in half?”; and my pride when my father, after he had played a concert with Zubin Mehta at the Casals Festival, touched my cheek backstage before turning his attention to a line of admirers. These events—the biology of lenses, my research project at Woods Hole, what happens when a fertilized frog egg is cut in half, and the details of the concert my father played—are all interesting, but the transient, personal moments outlasted the events themselves. So, I wrote my memoir, The Speed of Dark, to reflect on these and other special happenings.
Today I devote my time to writing and exploring new boundaries that lie beyond the clear-cut facts of science. I see switching from science to writing as a continuing journey in creativity. As I wrote in my memoir, whether doing science or writing, I “have struggled with the impossibility of touching bottom or reaching shore. I had no destination to reach, no rules that had to be followed or boundaries that I couldn’t cross, which made my life infinitely challenging and never complete.”