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Web of Stories offers you the chance to listen to some of the greatest people of our time telling their life stories.
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Invitation from Oppenheimer to join the Manhattan Project

Hans Bethe

Scientist

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Research into a new field: the origin of life

Christian de Duve - Scientist

And so I... especially since I am not the most tactful person, my entrance in this field was not, I mean, met with... with universal... I don't want to say sympathy because... or approval – in fact, I found those people to be remarkably nice and they've all become friends and I've become a member of their society and so on. They invite me to their meetings and so we've... they have never manifested this irritation with me but I just suspect they must have been irritated because I know what my reactions would have been in the same circumstance. But, anyway, so this was my entrance in a new field, which has become my main research activity right now. Okay, it's no longer experimental research, it’s no longer lab research, no longer the kind of research that I used to do and had the most respect for, but it's armchair research. It's armchair research but, nevertheless, it keeps me busy, it keeps me occupied, it keeps me interested in things, and so I have been doing a lot of reading. I've been doing a lot of thinking, lecturing even, proposing a few new ideas – the importance of thioesters, for instance, which I had learnt from my early days in bioenergetics and so on. I think I may have brought in a little fresh air in that field because origin of life is a field that is... has become, since the historical experiments of Stanley Miller in 1953... has become a thriving area of research with really first class people working in it. But most of those people are organic chemists, strangely enough, and so their approach is the approach of the organic chemist. And in a way, I'm one of the first biochemists who happened to become interested. George Wald was another one and he wrote some interesting things in the old days. And we still have these discussions – I mean, my friends in the field and myself, as my approach as a biochemist is very different from them, because I'm saying our chemistry of today, our biochemistry, is rooted in the early chemistry of life and therefore we could use what we know of today's biochemistry to try and guess and maybe reproduce what happened, and they have a completely different attitude: they say the early chemistry was a completely different chemistry and biochemistry sort of grew out of this early chemistry, but was a completely different reaction. I mean, the reactions of biochemistry are reactions that could never occur spontaneously – they're all catalysed by enzymes and without the enzyme to do the job, nothing happens, and so the early chemistry, since there were no enzymes, must have been different, in which they are correct. But what I'm telling them is that there may have been... not enzymes, because there were no proteins, but there may have been peptides which are easily made under pre-biotic conditions and those peptides could have been the earliest enzymes, the crude rudimentary enzymes but enough to catalyse the kind of reactions that take place today. So we are having interesting arguments, and since I have more and more time, I can spend more time thinking, reading, arguing and writing.

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