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The ideal conditions to practice science


The place of crisis in science
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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It seems to me that there's another issue of scientific style – the thing you mention, and that is the... the place of crisis in science. And I think I mentioned before that the idea of the ultraviolet catastrophe which was one super crisis. There's a beautiful book – I don't remember the author's name – on Night Thoughts of a Theoretical Physicist. He was a Princeton historian of science who wrote it – forgive me that I don't remember his name – but it was about this German during, just before World War I who was a classical physicist, a smug professor, and all of a sudden came the ultraviolet catastrophe and Planck's idea, the quanta of energy. And his whole world crashed around him.

Well, physics has no choice; it's so tightly coupled that way that, once you destroy some big fundamental issue, you've got to re-examine everything. I think because of the adventitiousness and history... historical properties of evolution, you can evade that at least for a while, or as Joe Louis once said about Max Schmeling: 'He can run but he cannot hide.' You can run for a while but you do have to face it. And because of the extraordinary specialization and – how do I call it – sub-discipline requirements of certain biological efforts, you always can say of the crisis, 'It's the other guys.' I notice that people don't like the idea of crisis, but I think that on the contrary that's just the higher-order equivalent of what I'm talking about is when you see a contradiction in literature. It's a wonderful moment. It says, 'Hey, now you really have a problem to think about.'

Now I have to say – and we've talked about this – that the antibody case that I discussed happened to be singular in respect to the fact that the history of previous researchers and the work on the subject, and the fact that it's a very special evolutionary system, made it tightly constraining so that once you got the structure, the darned thing just opened up like a periodic table; you could see what happened. A guy once came to me and he said... after the Nobel Prize, he said, 'What do you... what... what disease did you cure?' I said, 'None.' He said, 'Well, then why the heck did they pay any attention to you?' I said, 'Well, there was chemistry before the periodic table of Mendeleyev, but once you had the periodic table, chemistry went 100 times faster.' And that's true about what happened with antibody structure; you... you could just see clearly all kinds of things to do in any case where antibodies were involved, in any disease. But that doesn't happen often and sometimes... and I think it's very often the case of luck that I fell into that... because when you look at, say, cell adhesion molecules... yes, that was a discovery, and it did change the way people thought... thought about the subject, because it wasn't just weak forces; it was molecules that were very specific... homophilic in their binding each to each etc., and very revealing... but not closing out, for example, the problem of morphogenesis, which is still an open science.

And I guess what I'm doing now could even be looked at as parochial in comparison, although it's a very fundamental molecular biological process and sure does matter about synapses and their strength. So there is this wonderful issue which I just can't really penetrate of how do you choose? How do you choose? There's another I think salient issue, one that's related, and that is: how many things do you think you can do in a scientific life? Well, don't speak to Einstein; he'll make you feel bad, because of course in one year annus mirabilis he put out five papers, three of which were totally revolutionary, and I believe without reference to anyone else – not out of selfishness but just out of his sheer originality. In general it takes a long time, and it takes a fair number of people, and it is an interesting and fascinating question to go to a third subject which is: what is the role of the individual, the individual talent; what is the role of the tradition of the field, you might say; and what is the role of happenstance of groups of people meeting in a particular historical time... when they're ready? And then at that point you have to add... and maybe the guy who's picked to be the leader doesn't even know it at the time, that it's not malipulable. So there is a wonderful, sort of almost romantic mystery about the creative part of science, isn't there? Like every creative issue.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Night Thoughts of a Theoretical Physicist, Max Planck, Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Albert Einstein

Duration: 4 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008