Richard Axel

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That which is true, was once only imagined

Artwork by Brigitte Lacombe w/ guest photo editor Janet Johnson | NeueJournal Issue 1

In this rare collaboration with NeueJournal, Brigitte creates a series of portraits investigating the most nuanced and directional voices in contemporary art, film, music, and science. An ongoing personal series captured in her Lower East Side daylight studio, these images are underscored by a quiet intimacy unique to the space itself.



RICHARD AXEL: Cori and I met in 1981 when I was a professor at Columbia and I had to go up to MIT to give a seminar. There she was, a brilliant, thin, blonde, first-year graduate student in Professor Weinberg’s lab. I talked to her and was fascinated by her mind. And that began a scientific relationship, which ultimately led, twenty-three years later, to us falling in love and marrying.


CORI BARGMANN: I remember he’d talk and it was brilliant. He was legendary. My PhD advisor used to say that the biggest mistake you could make as a scientist was to always be trying to impress Richard Axel.


RA: We met and that aura was very quickly destroyed. She saw the true inadequacies of my mind, which became increasingly clear as we lived with one another.


CB: Well, I think we’re both struggling to understand questions about how the brain works. We might disagree on particular topics, but we might take the opposite sides in a conversation a month later. Such is the nature of science.


RA: Scientists want to understand the very same problems that people in the humanities do, like behavior, emotion, and perception, except science to me is far more dynamic and vibrant as it has the ability to generate ideas, to design experimental approaches to approve those ideas, and then it sees some of those ideas emerge as close to true, and other of those ideas be replaced by better thinking. It’s one of the most enjoyable endeavors I can conceive of, most of the time. The caveat is that you work with an intensity and a joy, and you believe that those efforts will afford you freedom, when in fact there are aspects that can be tedious.


CB: I agree completely. In order to be a scientist you have to be willing to delay gratification indefinitely. It takes so long to get things done, and it’s so tedious, as Richard says—things go wrong for reasons that are so uninteresting and frustrating. Trying to do the experiment for the seventh time after it failed six times is something that every scientist has to learn. But it doesn’t feel like failure in retrospect that it took you that many tries to get it right. Science is not something you just read in a book. In science you make progress with another person, through a discussion, through a correspondence, through an argument about different things that you think contradict each other. It’s the greatest, most stimulating process in the world.


RA: I think something William Blake said in Songs of Innocence and Experience really reflects our love of science: “That which is true, was once only imagined.”


CB: There’s another quote I like from Isaac Asimov that says, “The phrase in science that heralds new discoveries is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny . . . ’ “ If you knew what the answer was going to be before you got there, it would be engineering, not science. So, the essence of science is the surprising discovery. Do you agree, Richard?


RA: I don’t have any thoughts on that. My whole life is an accident.


Cori Bargmann is a biologist whose laboratory characterizes genes and neural pathways that allow the nervous system to generate flexible behaviors. The Bargmann lab is studying the relationships between genes, experience, the nervous system, and behavior in the nematode C. elegans. C. elegans’s most complex behaviors occur in response to smell, and these are at the heart of the Bargmann lab’s research.


Richard Axel is a molecular biologist and a winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of more than 1,000 different genes that encode olfactory receptors in the nose—a seminal breakthrough in our modern thinking about the sense of smell.


Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson