Nobel Awards for Science: Extending Frontiers, Deepening Knowledge

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

‘As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance’

— John Wheeler, American theoretical physicist

The announcement of the winners of Nobel Prizes is an annual event that generates much excitement worldwide, no doubt justifiably so. In most cases the laureates are well past the peak of their careers, and many of them would in fact be nearing the end if they have not actually retired from their active careers.

This applies in particular to scientists who continue, however, to contribute to enhancing the social good in other ways, given their authority and stature. Anyone who is interested may read Albert Einstein’s ‘My Views’ to get an idea of what I mean.

When the lives and work of these scientists are examined, it is invariably found that they have pursued original work with great passion, patience and perseverance, facing and overcoming obstacles of all kinds, including cynicism from their peers if they happen to have come up with an idea that goes against the grain or appears to be counter-intuitive. Sir John Gurdon of the UK, for example, who shares the Nobel in Medicine or Physiology 2012 with a Japanese counterpart, Shinya Yanamaka of Japan, did not accept that a mature or specialized cell in a living multicellular organism could not revert to being immature or ‘non-specialised’, and thus regain the potential capacity to be transformed into another specialized cell again.

For recall, in the process of sexual reproduction, a male cell (in humans: sperm) comes into contact with and enters a female cell or ovum, that is, fertilizes it. This results in an exchange of their genetic material, and the ensuing single cell is known as a zygote. The zygote very soon begins to divide – thus, from 1 to 2, 2 to 4, 4 to 8, and so on, going through successive stages until it becomes an embryo, then a foetus, and finally a fully formed organism ready to live ‘on its own’ and to be born. At the immature stage, all these cells look alike and continue to divide; they are the ones that are going to constitute the organism eventually by maturing into the several different types of cells that will make up the organs (heart, liver, lungs, brain, etc) that the organism needs to live as a complete, self-sufficient entity. Because of this potential to grow into a multiplicity of specialized cells, the immature cells are also known as pluripotent cells. The conventional wisdom was that this process was irreversible, that is, ‘once a specialized cell always a specialized cell.’

But Sir John Gurdon and Professor Shinya Yamanaka, discovered that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, for which they have won the Nobel Prize. This discovery has promising applications for the treatment of several medical conditions, and there is a literal explosion of research into this area.

It is interesting to note that ‘the Eton schoolmasters who taught Professor Sir John Gurdon… didn’t expect him to pursue a career in science. And why would they? At 15, Gurdon came last in biology out of all 250 boys in his year group. Ten years later, as a zoology postgraduate at Oxford, he cloned a frog. Now 79, he shares the £750,000 prize with stem-cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka. Gurdon has revealed that he still keeps a school report framed above his desk reading: “I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous… and it would be a sheer waste of time.” Talk of potential!

I have chosen the field of medicine for obvious reasons, but there is no doubt that the work done in other branches of science is equally fascinating, and is well worth reading about. Journals such as Scientific American usually devote a special section to the topics concerned once the Nobel Prizes are announced, and the articles are well within the understanding of the scientifically literate. One has simply to be interested – there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored and discovered!

All these discoveries and advances contribute immensely to our understanding of the world around us as well as the material progress of mankind, allowing for more comfort and convenience, for the cure of disease and the relief of human suffering. Even as they do so, however, they confront us with a reality captured in a famous quote by the American theoretical physicist, John Wheeler, which is as true today as it has ever been: ‘As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.’ Genuine scientists and seekers of knowledge show great humility when they realise how little they know in comparison to how much there is to know, and in fact it could be said that ‘knowledge is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ As one question gets answered or one problem solved, many more questions/problems come up. But then, that’s what makes science such an exciting quest, because ever more avenues of research open up as yet another prediction – such as the finding of the Higgs’ boson recently – is confirmed experimentally. There’s always follow-up work to be done, either in further pure research in relation to the finding, or in seeking applications deriving therefrom.

As our knowledge deepens, though, there is also another aspect that calls for reflection. We become narrow specialists who often fail to see beyond our specialty to the larger picture. This is increasingly important, for reasons that are explained in the article ‘Why the Nobel Prizes need to break out of their silos’ by Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey. Some extracts of the article are reproduced:

‘Science stories are in the news now more than ever with discoveries and breakthroughs seemingly coming thick and fast, from genetics to brain science to nanotechnology to astronomy… But one thing has changed: research disciplines previously unconnected are now starting to overlap and merge, with physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, medics, computer scientists and mathematicians pooling their expertise to attack common problems. One such exciting field that is coming of age is quantum biology – where quantum physicists like me work alongside molecular biologists to attempt to explain a number of baffling phenomena in living cells.’ He goes on to write that:

‘Although many examples can be found in the literature dating back half a century, there is still no widespread acceptance that quantum mechanics, that baffling yet powerful theory of the subatomic world, might play an important role in biological processes. Of course, biology is, at its most basic, chemistry, and chemistry is built on the rules of quantum mechanics in the way atoms and molecules behave and fit together. But biologists have until recently been dismissive of counter-intuitive aspects of the theory and feel it to be unnecessary, preferring their traditional ball-and-stick models of the molecular structures of life. Likewise, physicists have been reluctant to venture into the messy and complex world of the living cell…

‘But now, experimental techniques in biology have become so sophisticated that the time is ripe for testing a few ideas familiar to quantum physicists… from the way proteins fold or genes mutate to the way plants harness light in photosynthesis, how our sense of smell works, and even the way some birds seem to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field.’

He concludes by making a plea: ‘So if scientists are shedding their silo mentality and becoming ever more interdisciplinary, isn’t it time the Nobel Prizes followed suit and better reflected this trend? The committee could introduce new categories and vary them annually. There might be one year when astrobiology, material science and geophysics are picked, another year when they go to nanochemistry, artificial intelligence and quantum biology. Boundaries between the sciences are blurring. Why not just reward the best research, rather than pigeonholing disciplines? After all, it’s not a new idea; physicists and biologists have worked together fruitfully in the past. Didn’t Crick (a physicist) and Watson (a biologist) do just that?’ Crick and Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in 1952.

The son of eminent French thinker Jean-Francois Revel, Mathieu Ricard, went even further, changing over from being a research scientist to spirituality and becoming a Buddhist monk. This is what he said: ‘La carrière scientifique que j’ai menée a été le résultat d’une passion pour la découverte. Tout ce que j’ai pu faire ensuite ne constituait nullement un rejet de la recherche scientifique qui, à bien des égards, est passionnante, mais le fruit de la constatation qu’elle était incapable de résoudre les questions fondamentales de l’existence. En bref, la science, si intéressante soit-elle, ne suffisait pas à donner un sens à ma vie. J’en suis venu à considérer la recherche, telle que je la vivais, comme une dispersion sans fin dans le détail, à laquelle je ne pouvais plus envisager de consacrer ma vie tout entière.’

And this is the dilemma, as well as the peculiarity of scientific knowledge, which belongs to the realm of ‘lower knowledge’, that it gets more and more ‘atomised’, divided. The ‘higher knowledge’, paravidya from a Vedantic perspective, on the contrary in integrative, and sees unity where ‘lower knowledge’ sees difference. Broadly, that is also the vision of Buddhism.

Mathieu Ricard describes his encounter with the Dalai Lama: ‘Je m’asseyais toute la journée en face de lui… simplement me recueillir en sa présence. C’était sa personne, son être qui m’impressionnaient… la profondeur, la force, la sérénité et l’amour qui émanaient de lui et ouvraient mon esprit.’ Q. E. D

* Published in print edition on 12 October 2012

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