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Science in society


The molecular biologist and the shepherd
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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Molecular biology... we all call ourselves molecular biologists. And that already led to some criticism by Chargaff, where he called it, 'One with licence and without licence'. And he thought that Crick and Watson didn't have a licence but he himself did have one. I heard an even nicer story about molecular biology recently by Charles Weissmann. I'm sure he heard it from someone else so I don't know who is the really originator. There is a man walking around in the landscape and meeting to a shepherd, and he went to the herd and said, 'Well, you have beautiful animals, they are incredible... what kind?' And he said, 'If I could tell you in ten seconds how many animals you have in your herd, would you give me one?' The shepherd said, 'Yes, why not? If you can do that in ten seconds I will give you one'. So he looked around and after five seconds he said, 'Eight hundred and twenty three'. The shepherd said, 'That's true, how did you do that? Well, take an animal'. So the man took one and was about to go and the shepherd said, 'Wait a minute, if I could tell you what's your profession, would you give back the animal?' The man said, 'Yes, why not? Sure, sure'. He said, 'You are a molecular biologist'. The man said, 'How did you know? That's true, yes, how could you find out? You must tell me'. The shepherd said, 'Yes, I will tell you, but first you give me back my dog'.

OK. So, it's not that bad with molecular biologists, at least they have learnt to handle pets like bacteria first, viruses, and now also molecular biology is dealing with mice and... OK.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: molecular biology, Erwin Chargaff, James Dewey Watson, Francis Harry Compton Crick, Charles Weissmann

Duration: 2 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010