Saturday, September 13, 2014

Greatest molecular biologist of all time?

Serena Williams just won her 18th grand slam title, and while I’m not a super knowledgeable tennis person, I think it’s fair to say that she’s the best female tennis player ever. Of course, in these discussions, it always comes down to what exactly one means by best ever. Is it the one who, at peak form, would have won head to head? Well, in that case, I doubt there’s much contest: despite whatever arguments about tennis racket technology improvement, Serena would likely crush anyone else. Is it the most dominant in their era? Is it the one who defines an era, transforming their sport? (Serena wins on these counts as well, I think.)

“Who is the greatest” is a common (and admittedly silly) pastime that physicists and mathematicians tend to play that has many of the same elements as sports (Newton and Gauss, respectively, if I had to pick). Yet curiously, molecular biology doesn’t have quite as much of this. There are certainly heroes (mythical and real) in the story of molecular biology, but there is much less of the absolute deification that you will find at the math department’s afternoon tea. Why?

I think there’s a couple of reasons, but one of the big ones is that the golden era of molecular biology has come much more recently in history than that of math and physics. And recent history is different than ancient history in one very important respect: there are just WAY more people. This means that it’s just that much harder nowadays for someone to come up with a good idea and develop it all entirely by themselves. In the time of Newton, there were just not a lot of trained scientists around, and even then, Leibniz came up with calculus around the same time. Imagine the same thing today. Let’s say you formulated the basic ideas of calculus. Your idea would travel across the internet instantaneously to a huge number of smart mathematicians and for all you know, all the ramifications would get worked out within a very short period of time, perhaps even on a blog. Indeed, think about how many mathematical results from the old days would be worked out by one person: Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Newton’s laws of motion. Nowadays, mathematical ideas tend to have many names attached, like Gromov-Witten invariants, Chern-Simons theory, etc. Einstein’s general theory of relativity is perhaps an example of this transition: I think I read somewhere that Hilbert actually worked out all the math, but waited for Einstein to work it out out of respect. Similarly, quantum mechanics has so many brilliant names associated with it that we can’t really call it “Dirac theory” or “Feynman theory”. It’s just very hard for any one person to develop an idea completely on their own these days.

This is the era that molecular biology came of age in. As such, there are just so many names associated with the major developments that it’s impossible to ascribe any one big thing to any one person, or even a small set of people. And I think the pace is accelerating even further. For instance, consider CRISPR. It’s clear that it’s something that’s captured the attention of the moment, and I’ve been utterly amazed at how quickly people have adopted and applied it in so many clever contexts seemingly instantaneously.

I think this is actually a wonderful thing about molecular biology and modern science in general. I think the excessive focus on the “genius” deemphasizes that scientific progress is a web of interconnected concepts and findings coming from many sources, and I love thinking about molecular biology in those terms. Although I have to admit that a good old fashioned Newton vs. Einstein debate is a lot of fun!

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