In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Sketch of My Scientific Autobiography
  • Robert R. Sokal1

I was born in 1926 in Vienna, Austria. I stem from a very typical bourgeois Jewish family, probably not all that different from non-Jewish middle-class families in Vienna. My father was a paint merchant. He owned a small chain of paint stores and a little manufactory, not big enough to be dignified by the name factory, for producing paint. As to my ancestors—most Jewish people when asked count at least one or two rabbis among their forebearers, just as emigré Russians like to sport a Grand Duke in their families— but I have not heard of a single rabbi among my ancestors. In fact, as far as I know, my paternal ancestors for three generations manufactured and sold paint in various places, mostly in what is now western Ukraine and at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. My maternal grandfather was the headmaster of a secular school for Jewish children in the same region.

My own schooling started in Vienna where I went to an institution called a Gymnasium, which is a high school European style, in which I earned solid passing grades, but I was not in any way distinguished academically. Moreover, because this biography emphasizes my scientific development, I cannot recall any specific scientific interests. I did take a course in natural history, learned how to botanize and dissect flowers, and I recall being somewhat intrigued by the diversity of floral structure I uncovered. But I certainly had no special love or particular affinity for nature. In that respect, I am an uncharacteristic member of an ecology and evolution department. Many of our faculty were beetle or moth collectors in their youth, and those who had the good or bad fortune to grow up in a big city often developed that love of nature in a museum of natural history. Although there was and is a very distinguished natural history museum in Vienna, I cannot recall being there more than once during my childhood. I have gone back there as an adult, and have, in fact, worked there, but it had no influence on me then. My parents, like most bourgeois Jewish parents, expected me to become a doctor. And I had not given the matter much thought. I was only 13 when I left Vienna. The city furnished my cultural and intellectual roots, which are undoubtedly still visible—in many ways I still feel very European—but nevertheless, as far as science goes, my origins lie elsewhere. [End Page 489]

In 1939 we moved to Shanghai. You may ask why? It is fairly obvious if you know your recent, actually no longer so recent, history. The Germans occupied Austria, or so the Austrians say. Anyway, the Germans came. My father was sent to the infamous Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, and the only way to get him released was to present evidence that we were planning to leave the country. And the only place you could go without a visa was China. At that, we were very fortunate to be able to do that because it saved us from the Holocaust. So I arrived in Shanghai after an exciting three-week ocean voyage into a completely different culture, a very exotic one, for a 13-year-old Viennese boy. We were part of a community of some 20,000 Central European refugees who arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941. I was put into a school with all the other refugee children. However, this school terminated students at age 14. I was within a year of that age, and the prospects ahead of me were that I would have to become an apprentice to someone like a carpenter or a plumber. That is what most of my friends and classmates were going to do. As anybody who knows me well will testify, I am absolutely hopeless at doing anything with my hands, and therefore I abhorred the thought of earning my living by manual labor. My mother was also very ambitious for me, and she somehow managed to get me into a school, called a public school, which was actually a...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 489-505
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.