‘And I used to subscribe to Scientific American and I found that there were all these wonderful discoveries happening in biology.’
— Nobel laureate Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan
On Tuesday last in the afternoon while I was driving down to the Chinmaya Mission in Beau-Bassin, I listened to an interview on the BBC Discovery programme of Nobel laureate Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. In December he is due to take over as President of the famous Royal Society of Great Britain, which was founded in 1660.
Prof Ramakrishnan is an Indian-born American and British structural biologist. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath ‘for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome’. His work was carried out at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. The ribosome is a minute particle in the cell – which is the fundamental unit of life – which manufactures the proteins that the body needs.
The interesting thing is that Professor Ramakrishnan started off being a physicist, obtaining his PhD in physics in Ohio after undergraduate studies in Baroda, Gujarat, India. In the interview he narrated how he couldn’t find a suitable job despite nearly 50 applications to various places, and that’s one of the reasons he switched to biology. In his own words, in a short post-Nobel interview in answer to the question, ‘…what attracted you to biology in the first place?’ this was his reply: ‘I’ll be honest with you. I was a theoretical physicist but my PhD work was on a problem that was not particularly interesting to me at the time. And I used to subscribe to Scientific American and I found that there were all these wonderful discoveries happening in biology and I also knew that a number of physicists had gone into biology and been successful. So, I decided to switch.’
Francis Crick was one physicist among many others who moved into molecular biology, and went on to discover in 1952 the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule of life, and with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Like them, Prof Ramakrishnan too worked at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, ‘this marvelous place where so many great ideas have come from’ which is so special because of ‘the ability to tackle difficult problems in a sort of stable and supportive environment’.
One of the important offshoots of this work is likely to be gaining a deeper understanding of the role of the ribosome in the development of antibiotic resistance, and based on this newer and more effective antibiotics are likely to be produced. This is the way that human knowledge and understanding advance, by cross-fertilisation among several disciplines that may appear to the uninitiated to have no relation with each other, but in fact concepts and techniques specific to each fields are found to be of practical use and application in other fields. The discovery of the structure of DNA and that of the ribosome, which belong to the realm of biology, is a supreme and elegant example of this cross-disciplinary interaction, for it required a highly sophisticated technique of physics – XRay crystallography – to be mapped out. And of course computational power came into play as huge amounts of data needed to be processed.
At this microscopic level of research, even the meaning of ‘seeing’ changes, for the structure can only be visualized on a screen in the form of images and representations. This story about the infinitesimally small repeats also on the scale of the infinitesimally large, the astronomical level. So I learnt when I attended a talk on cosmology two Sundays ago, given by an astronomer who began by telling us that our solar system made of the sun and nine planets was one among hundreds of millions in the galaxy of which we form part, the Milky Way. A galaxy in turn is made up of solar systems of different sizes and complexities, and it is estimated that there are two billion galaxies. It has taken ten years for a space vehicle to reach Pluto, the planet which is furthest out in our solar system. One cannot even imagine how long it will take to reach another galaxy!!
But that they exist has been know by pictures that we have seen in our science books during our college days, but also from the stunning ones that have been captured by the Hubble telescope, of stars and other structures that are ‘at the edge of the universe’. We can never hope to see them with our naked eyes – and hence the ‘seeing’ that we normally do with our eyes gives place to visualizing of pictures on screen or in print in magazines. And, to put it mildly, they are simply wonderful.
During that talk, there was a presentation also of Einstein’s work on relativity which redefined our ideas of space and time, and also of quantum physics which has been called ‘new physics’ because unlike the ‘old physics’ of Newton which explains the behaviour of big bodies like planets and stars, quantum physics is required to explain what happens at the level of atoms and other particles which do not obey the Newtonian laws. It is of interest that this is the centenary year of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and Scientific American has brought out a special issue dedicated to all aspects of the great scientist’s life and work.
Since the late 1970s, there has been an interest in the parallelisms between this new physics and eastern mysticism – a term which refers to the Indian (Vedanta) and Chinese (Tao) systems of conceptualizing existence – and this subject too was touched upon by the astronomer who has a special interest in it and has made some explorations of his own that he shared with us. He mentioned two very well-known books. They are The Tao of Physics by Fridjof Capra, a nuclear physicist at the University of Berkeley in California, which actually brought this fascinating parallelism in the public domain; and The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav which focuses on explaining the new physics in simple language to the layman. I happened to have read both of them many years ago, and I decided to look up the latter book to refresh my memory.
Gary Zukav reproduces a saying of Einstein at the beginning of his book – ‘Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.’ This is followed by another saying, this time by Ernest Schrodinger, quantum physicist (and of the ‘Schrodinger cat’ fame): ‘If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.’
Lucky for laymen like me that Gary Zukav decided to do the telling. And he set the tone at the beginning of his first chapter in the following words: ‘Generally speaking, we have given up trying to understand what physicists (and biologists, etc) really do. In this we do ourselves a disservice (italics added). These people are engaged in extremely interesting adventures that are not that difficult to understand. True, how they do what they do entails a technical explanation which, if you not an expert, can produce an involuntary deep sleep. What physicists do, however, is quite simple. They wonder what the universe is really made of, how it works, what are we doing in it, and where it is going, if it is going any place at all. In short, they do the same things that we do on starry nights when we look up at the vastness of the universe. And feel overwhelmed by it and a part of it at the same time. That is what physicists really do.’
Whether it is peering down a microscope to look at tiny things such as microbes that are also part of our world and have an important role to play in it, or looking at the starry nights with naked eyes or through a telescope, the sense of wonder is the same, and the same interrogations arise about the universe and our place in it. There is a convergence between this scientific quest that evokes deep feelings and questionings and the spiritual quest which is also about understanding the deep reality of the universe. Out of this sense of wonder and the querying that it leads to, we try to define the ideals of a good life.
And it is put across beautifully in the Mission Statement of the Esalen Institute, where Gary Zukav interacted with the physicists and the Buddhist philosophers on which his work was based – ‘Human possibilities vastly exceed our imagination. Realization of the human potential transcends religious and scientific dogma. Mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social dimensions of our being are inextricably joined. Transformation of consciousness is the basis for transformation of the world; individually, collectively, and in social systems. All share the potential to love, learn, feel, and create. Esalen explores these possibilities and celebrates unity in diversity.’
Isn’t this exactly what the world, starting with our own country, desperately needs?
- Published in print edition on 11 September 2015