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My opinion of the DoE and NIH positions on genome sequencing


JASON's involvement with the Human Genome Project and JASON's members
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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At the moment I'm involved with the Human Genome Project, which is to me very interesting. The Department of Energy is involved in the Genome Project, it's the division between the National Institutes of Health, which does about two thirds, and the Department of Energy, which does one third. So they're both engaged in this very large project to sequence the genome, and JASON was called in by the Department of Energy to have a look at the programme and advise them as to how to do it. And so we spent two summers looking at it and this next summer we'll be looking at it again. And by and large, I found it very, very educational. I mean, I spent a whole day actually sequencing DNA with my own hands, as part... just part of the training so to speak, just to get a feel for what it actually involves; and of course, what is most impressive about that is how primitive the technology still is; that in fact it's sort of old-fashioned chemistry, rather of the kind you do in high school, pouring things from one little test tube to another and putting things in and out of a... microwave oven. So it's essentially a... still rather old-fashioned, labour-intensive technology, and it is extremely expensive. And they are trying to make it cheaper and faster.

[Q] May I interrupt you? When JASON started it was almost exclusively physicists. Has it changed on that score? When for example, on the Genome Project, will there be molecular biologist involved, as JASONites?

Yes. We now have two biologists in JASON and we have a fair number of chemists and of course a lot of computer scientists. Computer scientists are the sort of second largest group. There's still a majority of physicists but the... of course the overwhelming fraction of physicists are old and are retiring, and the young Turks are much more widely spread over the different branches of science. I think it's rejuvenating itself quite well. And the two biologists, Steve Block and Gerard Joyce are extremely good. They're both young and so they led the genome study pretty much.

[Q] And just a question which interests me: How many women among the young JASONites at the present time?

I forget the last count. They're not enough of course, but there are a fair number. What is striking is that every woman we get is so good. I mean that is, I think, a remarkable fact, that every time we succeed in getting a woman she turns out to be a star. The... of course Claire Max is the woman who broke the barrier first, and she's wonderful. She's the leader in the active optics business and she's one of the most effective of all the JASONs; and well, Ellen Williams is another, she's a condensed matter physicist; there are two others I think whose names I don't remember. I think it's something like four out of 50 or so at the moment, it's less than 10%. But we're working hard at it and actually we've been working hard for many years to bring more, ever since Claire Max there's been a clear policy to bring in women, which is difficult to do. It's a big commitment and especially for women with kids, it's not easy.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Human Genome Project, Department of Energy, National Institute of Health, JASON, Claire E Max, Steve Block, Gerard Joyce, Helen Williams

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008