Joram Piatigorsky is somewhat of an anomaly. The Bethesda resident identifies himself as half scientist, half artist.
The National Institutes of Health emeritus scientist retired in 2009 as chief of the laboratory he established 28 years earlier. While his impressive credentials – including a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate in biology and chemistry from the California Institute of Technology; long-term positions at NIH as chair of the Department of Biology and Genetics in the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences, and as head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology in the National Eye Institute; a book about gene expression and evolution as well as a plethora of published papers and awards – are unambiguously scientific, Piatigorsky insists on equal standing for his artistic side.
He means artist in two senses: first, in science, as a lifelong creative rather than goal-oriented researcher, and more recently, as a writer of fiction. His first published novel combines these aspects. “Jellyfish Have Eyes” is the “somewhat autobiographical” story of an eminent scientist whose study of jellyfish eyes earns him condemnation rather than acclaim. Piatigorsky’s own work has involved squid, scallop and jellyfish eyes.
Among his goals in the novel is initiating discussion of the U.S. government’s role in defining the direction and integrity of scientific research.
“Science is increasingly funded specifically to do work that has a direct connection to helping human beings,” Piatigorsky explained. “That is how scientific research is justified to Congress and taxpayers.”
Such restriction, he contended, comes at a price.
“The question is the line,” he said. “Without creative non-destinational science, we lose the opportunity for interesting new developments, for putting together results in different combinations. That closes off opportunities for creative scientists — and everybody loses.”
Piatigorsky sees parallels in basic science research and literature; they converge in the process.
“Both science and writing are adventures exploring the mysterious unknown,” he observed. “Both deal with narratives of one sort or another, and are often surprised at how their narratives unfold.”
“Science is a human construct. It is the narrative of nature that is understandable at the time,” he added.
From Piatigorsky’s viewpoint, “Science is a thing of beauty, a form of self-expression. It is a narrative every bit as much as art is. The scientist accumulates data, or facts, and there is only one type of possible link between data points that is consistent with what is known and makes sense. Beyond that, the scientist must imagine how they are linked. When someone else gets data that doesn’t quite fit, it creates a new narrative.”
He acknowledged the disparity as well.
“The fundamental difference between them is that basic research has constraints. You can’t go beyond hard evidence that is known, the rules of nature. You have to be creative. In literature, there are also constraints: the necessity to be consistent within a piece of work; there are no natural constraints.”
With literature and other arts, Piatigorsky pointed out, “you’re allowed to create rules. Light can be dark. Time can go backwards.”
Writing his book on gene sharing “fueled me to think and write short stories. It freed my science,” More than 20 years ago, he began writing fiction; it was, he said, “a different and satisfying form of self-expression for me.” Over 10 years, he accumulated some 400 pages, written during “cracks of time” in his busy schedule. He honed his skills in workshops at The Writer’s Center [TWC] in Bethesda. “What a help they have been for helping me make the transition from the world of science to that of fiction and essays!” Piatigorsky said.
He now serves on TWC’s board of directors; among his accomplishments is arranging to display the work of Yellow Barn Gallery artists on the building’s formerly bare walls.
Piatigorsky wrote the first draft of “Jellyfish Have Eyes” in 1999. It began as a short story, then expanded into a novella.
“It sat for many years,” he said, until 2009 when he retired from NIH and initiated four years of work in earnest.
Piatigorsky’s creativity is not surprising, given his parentage. His father was renowned Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and his mother, Jacqueline Piatigorsky, born into the Rothschild banking family in Paris, was a U.S. chess champion, a noted sculptor and a national senior tennis tournament winner. As for the next generations, Piatigorsky and his wife, Lona, a painter, have two sons, a clinical psychologist and a writer, and five grandchildren.
A series of 15 personal essays, “combining things of general interest to my life,” and linked by the theme of transformations, is occupying much of Piatigorsky’s time. Some of them have been published in Lived Experience, a friend’s Canadian journal. Piatigorsky, who credits Marcel’s Proust’s work as his inspiration, plans to put them together as a memoir.
Joram Piatigorsky will discuss “Jellyfish Have Eyes” (2014, IPBooks.net) as part of the Meet the Author Series, sponsored by Friends of Montgomery County Library, from 7 to 8 p.m. June 16 at the Kensington Park Library.
Joram blogs on writing as a second career and his views on science and culture at JoramP.com. He also muses on how he came to write a novel about one scientist’s intense curiosity to study jellyfish peepers on JellyfishHaveEyes.com.