Powered by Bach

Animation of Bach's head with lightning flashes

How an 18th-century musician fuels the work of a 21st-century scientist

The biologist Bruce Beutler got hooked on Bach as a teen growing up in southern California. Now a Nobel laureate and a researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, he immerses himself in the Baroque composer’s music — especially choral works — day and night, except on the job (“I can’t focus on the music and on my work at the same time,” he says). But this is more than just a pastime. In Episode 1 of our podcast, The Necessary Show, the scientist explains how Bach influences his life and work.

podcast cover with ancient stenciled hands
The Necessary Show, Episode 1: Powered by Bach

6 ways J.S. Bach drives the world-renowned biologist to do his best work, even when the rewards are uncertain

1 Bach motivates him to work harder and better. “He never credited himself with enormous talent,” Bruce Beutler observes, “but said that anyone who worked as hard might expect comparable results. Clearly that wasn’t entirely true — but even so, shouldn’t we all try to work hard at what we do best?”

Bach’s diligence

2 Bach helps him focus on future success, no matter how distant. “Some of the music of Bach is triumphal and joyful. It gives one a feeling that one strives to experience in the long term. The feeling that a real mystery has been solved, for example — a feeling of vindication after many years of work.”

3 Bach is a role model for inventors and investigators. He was possibly “the greatest inventor who ever lived, given that truly novel musical composition is an act of pure invention, making something out of nothing at all. Inventions, like discoveries, bring great satisfaction if they work.”

4 Bach proved one can create joy in the midst of adversity. In Bach’s day “life was short and often miserable.” Yet he managed to “encode joyful feelings to be induced in others, in a way that still works today, two hundred seventy years after his death.”

5 Bach exemplified the value of working for the good of humanity. “There’s no way to misuse Bach’s music.”

A force for good

6 Bach fills him with gratitude. “Because Bach has been such a big part of my life, I wish I could have known him and thanked him for what he did for me and for all the world.”

Musical examples in the podcast
Music to win Nobel Prizes by
Magnificat in D Major. “It’s loaded with different emotions packed into about 30 minutes of listening time. Nobody could fail to love that.”

St. Matthew Passion, the work that converted a 15-year-old Bruce Beutler

BRUCE BEUTLER, M.D., is an immunologist and geneticist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In 2011 he shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Jules Hoffman for discoveries in the field of innate immunity. His earlier research gave rise to a leading rheumatoid arthritis drug, Etanercept (sold as Enbrel). He graduated from the University of California at San Diego and received his medical training at the University of Chicago. He learned violin and recorder as a child, and is an avid whistler. He lives in Irving, Texas. (Read his illuminating Nobel Prize autobiography.)

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