During the year 2007 we lost several people important to science. I was fortunate enough to “know” or at least to have met some of them. They all have had fact-filled obituaries published in newspapers but I thought that I would offer a few vignettes of their lives that made an impression on me.
Ralph Alpher Ralph Alpher is unknown to most people. He was a theoretical physicist who was a graduate student of George Gamow’s. Gamow was one of the early theorists of the Big Bang. In the 1940s he asked Alpher to calculate what the ratio of hydrogen to helium should be if essentially all these elements had been synthesized in the Big Bang. Alpher did the calculations and his results, about 75% hydrogen and 24% helium were later, much later, confirmed by astrophysicists. This was one of the first theoretical predictions of the Big Bang that was testable and confirmed. Alpher never received the Nobel Prize for this work. Penzias and Wilson, who interpreted the low level background radiation that permeates the universe as an echo of the Big Bang, did receive the Prize. Ironically, their discovery was accidental. Alpher knew exactly what he was trying to do but he was ahead of his time. The world, even the community of scientists, has to be ready for a discovery before it can be appreciated. Alpher and Gregor Mendel were two peas in a pod, both ahead of their time.
Arthur Kornberg Arthur Kornberg received the Nobel Prize for isolating an enzyme that catalyzed the faithful copying of DNA in bacteria. He later used this enzyme to copy the DNA of a virus in a test tube, thus showing that a “living” thing, could be completely replicated by just copying the DNA. Dr. Kornberg was chairman of the Biochemistry Department at Stanford when I was a medical student there. I was lucky enough to work for a summer in the laboratory of Dr. David Hogness in the same department. Every afternoon at 4:00, the whole department would gather for tea in the library. We all threw a nickle in a can and tea and cookies were provided. The purpose of “tea” was for the entire department to gather and discuss what was going on. All the senior professors, post docs, pre docs and medical students talked with each other on a first name basis. I found out about twenty years later that Arthur remembered all of us. I was attending a conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in San Francisco. It was put on by an Orthodox Jewish organization in conjunction with Stanford. One evening, Dr. Kornberg was asked to talk about new progress in genetics, biochemistry, stem cells, and the implications of progress in these fields for medical ethics. The format of the program was to have a scientist speak then have an orthodox rabbi discuss the implications for ethics from the Jewish perspective. Since Dr. Kornberg had used the term “evolution” liberally in his talk, the first thing the rabbi, Moshe Tendler (who also had a PhD in Biology,) did was to denounce evolution as being against God’s word as revealed in the Torah. Dr. Kornberg debated with him briefly, then, exasperated, got up and walked out. As he was coming through the audience he saw me and came over. He asked, “What are you doing here?” I replied that I was attending the conference. He said, “Well, I don’t know what you think, but that” and he pointed to Tendler who was still talking, “is bullshit!” That was the last time I ever saw him. Science draws conclusions that are based on evidence. Faith can make even very well-educated people ignore evidence. Faith is a very common human state of mind. Presenting evidence to people who have drawn conclusions based on faith is largely a waste of time.
Leslie Orgel Leslie Orgel spent a large amount of his career at the Salk Institute in La Jolla investigating the spontaneous origin of life. His major contribution was to show that RNA could make faithful copies of itself in the absence of enzymes and so could have formed and copied itself in an abiotic world. I happened to meet him when I was working part time in the laboratory of Melvin Cohn at the Salk while I was a resident in pathology at UCSD School of Medicine. Dr. Orgel was an encyclopedia of facts about the probable conditions on the early Earth. He was very honest about what we knew about reactions that were very likely to have occurred spontaneously and those that we still did not understand. Another thing that he did not understand was religion. He was a committed scientist and always tried to identify and eliminate his assumptions so that he could interpret data in an unbiased fashion. More than once I heard him wonder out loud whether someone would eventually isolate a “religious peptide.” Although that has not yet been done, the separated twin studies done at the University of Minnesota showed that religiosity does have a significant genetic component. It is a natural part of being human. The purely rational folks who always try to make data driven decisions are the oddballs.
Stanley Miller Stanley Miller spent most of his career in the department of chemistry at UCSD investigating prebiotic syntheses of the building blocks of life: amino acids, nucleic acids, lipids, and sugars. He wrote extensively on the probable conditions of the early Earth and what molecules that currently make up living things could have reasonably been synthesized prebiotically. His seminal work, published in 1953, showed that many of the most commonly used amino acids in modern proteins could be synthesized by simply sparking the gases in the likely early Earth atmosphere. The idea would be that lightning in the early atmosphere made many of the building blocks of life. His subsequent work filled in several gaps so that all students of the origin of life depended heavily on his work. Many years ago, after I had become interested in theories of creation, I started a book that described the history of Western man’s ideas about creation from Sumer to Babylon, Canaan, Egypt, Israel, Medieval Europe, and finally to the present. This was a journey from polytheistic to monotheistic to non-theistic ideas about how the universe and life arose. I gave a night course in University extension to try out my ideas and get feedback. The title of the course was, “The Evolution of Creation.” Dr. Miller, thinking that I might be a creationist, attended my first lecture. He soon became convinced that I was not a creationist and, after the lecture, introduced himself and invited me to come over to his lab to see some of his equipment and talk. I subsequently wrote a song about him which is on one of our CDs. Miller, like Orgel and Kornberg, was a very precise thinker. His work showed that the spontaneous origin of life on Earth was plausible and maybe even probable. This is a particularly stimulating thought now that we know from careful study that about 10% of the stars in our galaxy have planets. With 300 billion stars in our medium-sized galaxy and about 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, there are zillions of planets. Do you think we’re alone?
Ron Jackson We lost Ron unexpectedly just a month ago from a heart attack. Ron was my guitar teacher, music arranger, and good friend. What I remember about him most fondly was how good he was at letting his students progress at their own pace and bringing out their strengths. Most adults study only what they want to, unlike kids in school who have to take specified subjects. Ron let me write whatever I wanted and, after teaching me the basics of guitar playing, my lessons became work sessions arranging the songs I had written. He would suggest harmonic ideas so I could learn new chords and would propose instrumental solos that would challenge me. So I learned the guitar on stuff I really wanted to play. We did have one disagreement. I thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution was the single best idea that anybody ever had. Ron, a mathematician, thought that zero was the best idea. He may have been right. Some day I hope to write a song about zero.
Jerry Falwell Jerry Falwell also died in 2007. He made more money than all of the men above. What does that say about our society?