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Horace Judson: a eulogy

On May 6, at the age of 80, the writer Horace Freeland Judson died. He didn’t pass away; he would have insisted that he simply die. We worked together for five years, from 1997 to 2002, at The Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University. Here is my appreciation.*

He was six feet in his stockings, which were certainly silk. He dressed impeccably. His leather shoes were glossy, his slacks pressed, even on writing days. His collar was crisp, his cufflinks shone. His houndstooth jacket might be a little worn at the seams, as if from catching too many brambles, but it was always clean. He wore a pocketwatch, and spoke with a vaguely “U” (upper-class, to the English) accent. He was raised in Chicago. A black, broad-brimmed hat, molded just so and rakishly tilted, cravat, and even a cape were not unknown on special occasions. I once saw him open a bottle of New Year’s champagne with a sword. Horace Judson was more than a little vain. But judgment should be tempered by the knowledge of two facts: his preening both reflected and masked enormous effort; and he had terrific taste. He seemed to put thought into every stitch of clothing on his body, every stick of furniture in his house, every book in his library, every word in his books.

HFJ Horace Judson: a eulogy
His meticulous appearance was, like a peacock’s tail, a display of vigor, for he zipped his pants, buttoned his shirt, oiled his hair, and tied his shoelaces with only one good hand. The left. Childhood polio had withered the other, leaving it floppy and florid. The handicap slowed him down a little—he reconfigured that slowness into a magisterial pace—but prevented him from doing nothing. He shook hands cross-handed (I soon learned to shake left-to-left with him). He opened wine, canned tomatoes, and drove a stick-shift, flamboyantly flouting his disability. He never asked for help. His pride was his strength.

Of course, he typed the quarter million or so words of The Eighth Day of Creation, and everything else he wrote, with one hand. The deliberation this required contributed to the precision and elegance of his prose. Though a journalist by training, he wrote not like a reporter but like an essayist or a novelist. His style was always formal, never slangy (though he was not averse to the occasional earthy vulgarity), and occasionally pompous. He used every rhetorical trick in Aristotle, and had a flair for the dramatic. But his prose was always muscular, and he regularly knocked off passages of such clarity, insight, and grace as to leave the attentive reader breathless.

Consider his definition of X-ray crystallography, an arcane science if ever there was one, from chapter 2 of The Eighth Day. He begins with an analogy simultaneously quantitative and yet immediately apprehensible: “The X-rays used in crystallography are shorter than visible light by some four thousand times.” That does what good writing must, especially when it is on a technical subject: it connects the unknown to the known. Any educated person has a rough idea about visible light, and a sense of how big four thousand times is. Judson then explains the one thing everyone wants to know about X-rays. “Their wavelength is 1.5 Angstroms, which is the same order of size as the spacing between atoms in many solids, and that is why X-rays go through substances that are opaque to the eye.” Did you know that? “Penetrated by a thin beam”—thin beam is nice, both as explanation and in sonority—“the orderly array of atoms in a crystal, layer upon layer, scatters the X-rays in an orderly way, causing a repeating series of overlapping circles of waves.” Note the repetition of orderlyorderly, prefiguring the repeating series of the following clause. Powerful rhetoric illustrates the underlying concept. “At intersection with the flat sheet of film”—note the alliteration, intercalated by the contrasting long vowel sound—“the troughs and peaks of these waves reinforce each other at some points and cancel each other out elsewhere.” The image recalls every child’s game of dropping two stones into a pond and watching the ripples crash. Here is the crucial insight: “The interference pattern that results is characteristic of the structure that produced it,” he writes, and he abruptly ends the lesson by waving a hand at the Nobel-winning mathematics behind it, which would confuse and bore his audience: “…though to figure back to the structure takes mathematics and experience.” That’s all you need to know, really, and not a word more than it takes to describe it.

He never matched that book. How many of us get even one book of that magnitude? Judson is by far the non-PhD most quoted by historians and philosophers of twentieth-century biology, and scholars hate the fact. “Molecular biology is a discipline, a level of analysis, a kit of tools,” he wrote at the beginning of chapter 4. “Which is to say, it is unified by style as much as by content.” There’s a dissertation in that casual observation. He had hundreds like it. At the same time, the book is notoriously difficult to teach, and so few do. (I like to assign chapter 3. Students love it, but find it challenging.) Teachable books show their scaffolding and leave their beams exposed, so that students can skim for argument and get on to their orgo problem sets. Not so Judson. He draws you in, makes you read slowly. The paragraphs are meticulously constructed, but the themes are buried a sentence or two deep, and the arguments build incrementally. You end up highlighting every line.

That quality, combined with his pomp and occasional arrogance, alienated many historians of science. He could be difficult. Yet three things saved him for me. First, his intelligence and his skill as a writer and editor. Many times he annoyed me by ignoring my requests to comment on my green prose, only to read through it once and mark it up on the fly, effortlessly extracting the voice and meaning that I had buried in murk and flab and cliché. He still sits on my shoulder as I write, insisting that I justify the sequence of items in a list, put a twist on every cliché, and, unless I have a specific reason to do otherwise, narrate my story in strict chronological order. Second, his generosity. He often went far out of his way for people, with no expectation of recognition. Behind the formality was a genuinely warm person who loved sentiment but hated sentimentality. And third, his tragedy. He wanted to be accepted as a historian, and never quite was. I think he idealized the university as only someone can who doesn’t have the professorial press pass. Which is too bad, because he was better—gave more insight and more pleasure—than many credentialed scholars. His obituary in the Times listed him as a historian of science, which would have pleased him but which underestimated him. He was a writer.

*Thomas Soderqvist has also posted a piece on Judson. Highly recommended.