Our oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach the 100th birthda
Our oldest living Nobel laureate and the first ever to reach the 100th birthday

If you want to live to a 100, you might consider following Rita Levi-Montalcini’s routine: get up at five in the morning, eat just once a day, at lunchtime, keep your brain active, and go to bed at 11pm.

“I might allow myself a bowl of soup or an orange in the evening, but that’s about it,” she says. “I’m not really interested in food, or sleep.”

A  diminutive, bird-like figure with an alert manner and engaging smile, Montalcini  has the insight stamina and sharp intellect that someone half her age would envy.

This astonishing woman – who studied medicine, survived Fascism and prejudice, and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1986,  still takes an active part in politics

in the Italian Senate. I recently read her autobiography “In Praise of Imperfection:My Life and Work.”  What touched me was her ability to see the goodness in the people who she has shared her life with.  A scientist, she advocated love as the life source of  human existance, without exactly saying it that way.

For example, I copied this quote from her book, a secondhand quote from Dutch Jewess Etty Hillesum:”My acceptance ( she worte in her diary July 1942, when she was already awareof her fate) is not resignation or lack of will: there is still r oom for elementary moral outrage against a regime which treats human beings this way. But the things that are happening to us are too big, too diabolic for one to react with personal rancor and bitterenss.  It would be a peurile reaction, out of proportion to the fatefulness of these events.

A future peace will be truly such only if everyone has first found it wihin themselves–if every man has freed himself of hatred for his fellows of whatever race or nation, and transformed it into something different, in the end into love, if that isn’t asking for too much…That little piece of eternity which we carry within us can be expressed in one word or in ten volumes.  I am a happy person and I celebrate this life in the year of our Lord 1942, the umpteenth year of war.”

Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for her study identifying the  Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).  Her NGF studies began with research on the growth of chicken embryo nerve fibers in Turin in the 1940s. Because of the Italian Fascist’s anti-Jewish campaign, she was forced her to leave her university laboratory.  Willful, ambitious, totally enthusiastic about her research, and not susceptible to intimidation, she created a research facility in her bedroom in Turin. She conducted her research, without stipends, while waiting out the tyrant government.

In her autobiography Montalcini constantly revisits the question of ‘why people go bad?’ She quotes Primo Levi: Considerate la vostra semenza: Fatti non foste a viver come bruti…” (Take thought of the seed from which you spring: you were not born to live as brutes.)

For a scientist, it is a nearly impossible to rely on the humanities, sociology, or history to come up with an explanation for why humans commit atrocious crimes against each other.  She posits that it is the way the human brain develops that makes it possible for evil to happen. The sequence of brain mutations from Lucy, who had a brain the size of a coconut, to now has witnessed an increased in the brain’s volume and cortical mantle to such a degree it seems near supernatural.

Because the brain takes it time to fold back upon itself in ever-more creases, human children depend on adult caregivers from birth to puberty and longer. The dependence upon adults cause the children to be loyal to their tribe.  The young develop blind obedience to the elders.  If they were not obedient, they would not survive.  Human emotive faculties control conduct and actions.

Blind obedience causes millions of individuals to set themselves at the disposal of their government and allow them to follow tyrants who groom the young to be ready to kill millions of other just like them. The tyrants feed the young slogans upon which they become drunk, hypnotized by power,  and therefore control the human brain.

Thus the ability for humans to be cruel, to hate others, to do war and slaughter–fatal activities unique to our species– are caused by the tribal dependence.

And there is a paradox: in a sinister way, language, the greatest privilege bestowed upon human beings, casts the young into an abyss of obscurantism whenever they fall prey to fanatical leaders who use words to incite hatred.  Too, images– a swastika or KKK white hood of KKK–evokes mystic reactions in tribal followers.


Rita Levi-Montalcini: the discovery of nerve growth factor and modern neurobiologyhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15246433

Senator for life: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senator_for_Life

In Praise of Imperfection: http://www.amazon.com/Praise-Imperfection-Sloan-Foundation-science/dp/0465032184


Rita Levi-Montalcini: the discovery of nerve growth factor and modern neurobiologyhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15246433