East Bloc Doc
A Steinbeck novel pulls scientists from across the world for a visit.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Bulgaria, 1968. Biology student Alex Gochev is given a book by his professor, George Dechev: John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, about the antics and adventures of a group of winos referred to as “Mack and the Boys,” and their benefactor “Doc” Ricketts.
The book changed Gochev’s life. Living under Communist rule, he and his peers were cut off from the rest of the world’s scientific knowledge. But Cannery Row – communist leaders considered Steinbeck sympathetic – and its message of DIY science seeped in. Gochev and his colleagues will describe how it guided their life and work during a Monterey visit this week.
Back in Bulgaria, the young science students commandeered a fisherman’s shack in Sozopol, on the Black Sea, to approximate the laboratory they read about in the book, down to the placement of furniture and the name, Eastern Biophysical, in homage to Steinbeck’s “Western Biological.” Their friends and colleagues came to visit during the summers, creating a ramshackle, bohemian outpost of artists and intellectuals (Russian physicist Michael Volkenstein once visited) where there were, in Gochev’s words, “parties every night.” But there was also science – they studied everything from hemoglobin to equilibrium thermodynamics.
“That work grew and is still active today,” Gochev says. “But in the first summer, there was no electricity. We found materials here and there.”
For several summers, the young bohos worked and played and read and drank in the sweet inspiration Steinbeck had cast for them.
Today Gochev is a top scientist at Ohio’s Chemical Abstracts Service, the “biggest company for scientific information in the world,” he says. He likes his work, but he’s always ready for a specific sort of trip.
“I am ready to go to Monterey any time,” he says.