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Meeting the Kris family


Enjoying academe
Eric Kandel Scientist
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And going to Harvard was the most amazing experience. It was like the Promised Land. Soon after I got there I said, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life at a university’. Just absolutely fabulous. Not just the faculty, the physical plant at Harvard is very beautiful. Harvard Yard where one lives as a freshman is quite spectacular. But the people you interact with, your classmates, are so interesting. Different walks of life. A number of them came from very good prep schools: Andover, Exeter, Groton. I mean, they were way ahead of us. Now most of us from public schools caught up within a year, but the beginning, you know, they had read everything, they knew everything. So that was just a wonderful experience.

And I decided early on that my track career, which probably helped me get into Harvard, was not going to do much for me in the long run because I was very poor compared to the really great runners. So I dropped out and I focused on the things that interested me, which were books and girls. And I formed some wonderful friendships in college that had a big influence on my later life. I also took wonderful courses, and I had a terrific major. I wanted to understand what had happened to me. How could people listen to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven one day, and beat up the Jews the next? I mean, what’s the whole purpose of civilization? So I majored in a field called History and Literature, which is a very special field. At Harvard in every major you can go for honors, which is you write a dissertation, and you can get honors if the dissertation is accepted. But that’s in your senior year. In History and Literature, you’re signed up for honors as soon as you join, the second year. And that meant you had a tutor working with you and my tutor was a guy called Robert Cross, a fabulous guy, very good historian, who later became President of Hunter College, President of Swarthmore. Really wonderful guy. And we had a very good relationship, I learned a lot from him. And I wrote my honors dissertation on the response to National Socialism of three German writers: Zuckmayer, Carossa, and Jung. And they had different positions in the political spectrum. So Zuckmayer was a liberal, he left Nazi Germany, went to Austria then came to the United States. Jung was a proto Nazi. He had fought in the First World War. He thought wars are rejuvenating, they really build manhood and he was quite enthusiastic about going to war again, and although he thought Hitler was vulgar, he by and large believed the racist dogma that he promulgated. And Carossa was typical of many intellectuals. He was wishy-washy. He underwent what he called the inner emigration - his spirits were elsewhere, but his body remained in Germany.

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, Robert Cross, Carl Zuckmayer, Ernst Junger, Hans Carossa

Duration: 3 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016