In the context of this article I can only point out three influences that seem particularly favourable in these years of learning. The first is my family circumstances, in which the combination of two contradictory influences had a very progressive effect. First, my mother’s family, from Catalonia, included a few distinguished chemists of the 19th century and my grandfather, in whose house I lived during secondary school, was a professor of organic chemistry at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Central University. This branch of my family seems to me now like the paradigm of peaceful professional establishment in science; and also of silent and true domestic and public virtues, which my mother sadly had to apply heroically, naturally and unwittingly during the Spanish Civil War and the post-war period. This influence of becoming familiar with scientific teaching and with the practice and respectability of science must have been profound and important for me, but I know little about it, probably because I have modelled myself easily and quietly since I was a child and it must have been one of the influences that operate through affinity. The influence of my father was much clearer and had a far greater effect on my work, what I feel myself to be when I obtain fulfillment through my work, though the basis came from the cultural and ethical tradition of my mother’s side. I think the cultural and ethical character of my father was very unusual and the example of his behaviour has influenced me greatly, though I had to overcome my stiff resistance to him in my youth. My father, the son of a tenant farmer who became a landowner in Extremadura, was the first of his family to take a university degree, which gave him access to professional knowledge and a culture that he experienced with fierce intensity. When I was a child, he set me harsh tasks that trained me to later carry out disciplined study, but they also revealed the importance that he attached to knowledge. There are two traits of his character that I think have influenced me decisively: first, he showed contempt for cultural mediocrity, and therefore wanted me to undertake challenging goals; and second (I perceived this clearly, despite his economic order, which was at times strict), for him these goals were somehow supra-economic and linked to other human values, which at crucial times he placed above everything, with a generosity that the common man would call foolish and that belied his wisdom. I think these two family influences that seem so antithetical -honest, applied and peaceful dedication to what is received, and passionate denial not of falsity but of mediocrity for the sake of higher aims- are both critical for science and are found in every step of its progress: tradition and change. I now think that having received both in my youth so clearly and separately created a very favourable situation for my future work as a scientific researcher.
His parents Antonio Cordón y Elena Bonet. Madrid, 1943
Following in chronological order, a second circumstance of this period had a very decisive influence on the scientific work that I undertook many years later. This circumstance was the habit I acquired at around the age of eighteen to record and develop my thoughts in writing; I still do, and I have therefore been filling pages with writing for over fifty years. Of course, these notes are not literary in the sense that they never aim to capture and transmit an intuition; rather, they are always stepping stones in lines of thought that I intend to further explore and analyse. This does not mean that they are written without precision, because my aim is to create and formulate the most rigorous thought that is possible at the time, and to set it down unambiguously so that it can be recovered as a starting point at a near or distant time in the future. (It seems obvious that writing is the key technique for aiding thought). Thinking is the way of being of humans, and thinking well is important in any human activity, unless it is so routine that it becomes inhuman. And it is even more important in the pursuit of science, which by definition requires discussion with human thought at its highest level, that is, not just collecting facts but discovering facts or aspects of them that have a strategic value for verifying, simplifying or extending the theoretical conception that humans have formed of nature (without it, scientific activity is reduced to a tedious, routine occupation in no man’s land). It therefore seems obvious that thinking actively, passionately, must be the main occupation of those who dedicate themselves professionally to knowledge, so the protocols of scientists are shaped by the vicissitudes of their intellectual trajectory. This youthful practice of mine undoubtedly reflects a concern for truth that underlies the exercise of scientific research, whose results (like everything human) are often based more on moral than on intellectual factors. I think this behaviour (which I did not imitate and was not imposed on me) must have stemmed mainly from my family circumstances. Whatever the case may be, I consider this behaviour essential for promoting service to truth and fidelity to one’s reason, and this was one of the important circumstances of my apprenticeship.
A third circumstance of this period of youthful modelling had a great influence, not so much on my decision to undertake scientific research but very decisively on the type of problems I addressed from the age of forty onwards. This circumstance was not related to my family but was proper to the period and affected the whole of science. I think, in fact, that in the current state of science there is a discord between the theoretical apparatus of experimental sciences (which, denying their history, tend to be fragmented into increasingly specialized fields) and the growing tendency to seek a uniform interpretation of the Universe that is coherent with and subject to a general evolutionary process. I did not start to become aware of this state of affairs, this internal contradiction of science, until I reached maturity. If someone had pointed out this discord when I was young, I would probably have answered that in nature there is a certain duality, so there are phenomena that require one mode and method of knowledge (the experimental sciences) and others that require a very different one (the global and historical one). In other words, for many years I found myself perfectly comfortable with the science that I had learned at university and aware of its enormous value, so I continued studying with constant interest. Nevertheless, the other school of thought continued to require my reflection, and with particular intensity during the Civil War.
I think it was highly favourable that both parts of this dual learning process ran their course independently for twenty years without disturbing each other. Without both parts, it would have been impossible, when a favourable objective situation arose, to start the line of research that has marked the fulfillment of my life. Without both types of learning I would not have had the instrument I needed to consider problems of a new type. Furthermore, had I not identified the extent of my strength with the system of concepts and the interpretation of reality proper to experimental science, to the extent that it created deeply rooted convictions in me, it would have been difficult for me to undertake an objective and honest criticism of the current crisis of growth of experimental science, a criticism that at all times involved a painful and slow denial of myself.
Until the age of forty my objective -and indeed my profession- was chemistry, organic chemistry, which I intended to teach. However, various circumstances led me to take a degree in pharmacy at a time (the early 1930s) when Spanish universities perhaps reached a very good level. It was a fortunate choice for reasons that I could not then foresee. First, it gave me a sufficient basis for starting my studies in chemistry and, second, it gave me my first gateway to biology, which has never ceased to attract me since then; for example, I was fascinated by the study of botany and set out to learn the plants in my region. Thus, after the war I started working in the pharmaceutical industry, that is, as a chemist for living beings. This profession faced me (with sufficient clarity for me to perceive it) with an objective problem involving the two current modes that divide science: the protoplasm in its control of molecules.