Top Ten Favorite Scientists

I was recently asked to make a list of my top ten favorite scientists, and after some deliberation, these are the people I chose:

Feynman

  1. Richard Feynman: While Feynman made outstanding contributions to our understanding of quantum physics and to the Manhattan project, he is perhaps most remembered for his teaching as evidenced by the still-beloved Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman even rejected a job offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center whose staff boasted luminaries like Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, because there were no students there to teach.
  2. Marie Curie: Curie conducted pioneering experiments into the nature of radioactivity and also discovered radium and polonium, receiving Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics for her efforts. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue, giving birth to the idea of radiation therapy.
  3. Isaac Newton: From his work on optics to his laws of motion and universal gravitation, Newton was a central figure in the scientific revolution. He developed the reflecting telescope as well as differential and integral calculus to explain the elliptical orbits of celestial bodies all before his 26th birthday.
  4. Rosalind Franklin: Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data was arguably the most important puzzle piece in the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. She also contributed to our molecular knowledge of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the poliovirus.
  5. Nikola Tesla: While Tesla is perhaps best known for developing the alternating current motor, the Serbian-American innovator also experimented with X-rays, performed short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Marconi, and invented the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil.
  6. Clair Patterson: Not only did geochemist Clair Patterson calculate an extremely accurate estimate for the age of the Earth using lead dating, but he also served as an activist after discovering the toxic effects of lead on human health. His persistent campaigning eventually led to a ban on the use of lead in consumer products.
  7. Linus Pauling: Pauling made incredible insights into the nature of the chemical bond, including the prediction of secondary structures such as the alpha helix and the beta sheet. Pauling also developed the concepts of electronegativity and orbital hybridization and remains the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes – for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962.
  8. Michael Faraday: It has often been said that Michael Faraday was the greatest discovery of eminent chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday established the principle of electromagnetic induction, created the first electrical generator, and even initiated the first Christmas Lectures series in 1825 to teach science to children.
  9. Louis Pasteur: Best known for his namesake process to prevent bacterial contamination, Pasteur was instrumental in disproving the idea of spontaneous generation. His work on the germ theory of disease also led him to create vaccines for anthrax and rabies.
  10. Craig Venter: When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, progress initially got off to a very slow start. In 1998, Craig Venter dramatically sped up the process using a technique known as whole genome shotgun sequencing. As we now enter the era of genomic medicine, the variable uses of the sequenced human genome are steadily unfolding.

If I were to make a longer list, I would probably include a lot more notable physicists, including Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Alan Guth. Copernicus, Galileo, Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt all helped advance our understanding of the cosmos. I would also have liked to acknowledge the many scientists who were involved in atomic theory, such as Democritus, James Dalton, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, and J.J. Thomson. Mendeleev classified the elements periodically, and Carl Woese classified life on Earth. Gregor Mendel founded the field of genetics, and Meselson and Stahl performed an experiment that supported the hypothesis of semiconservative DNA replication. Along with Pasteur, both Robert Koch and Ferdinand Koch helped found bacteriology and establish the credibility of the germ theory of disease. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the first antibiotic in the form of penicillin, and Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. On the computer science front, Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Tim Berners-Lee made significant contributions, the latter of whom is responsible for having developed the algorithms on which the World Wide Web depends. Polymaths Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin advanced our knowledge of the sciences as well as other diverse fields.

This list is just one person’s opinion, so I invite you to share yours. Who would you include in your top ten favorite scientists? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!

Advertisements

Why Medical Research?

More than a body of knowledge, science is a way of thinking based on empirical observation. William Lawrence Bragg once said, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Science makes use of that wonderful blend of curiosity, skepticism, and imagination to create and innovate. In practice, medical investigators combine innovation and efficiency, and this dualistic aspect of medical research is what draws me most to the field. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry & molecular biology, I plan to pursue an MD-PhD program in order to train in both clinical medicine and research methodology.

If I had to describe the focus of medical research in one word, I would say communication: the internal dialogue within a patient’s body. Almost all pathology can be traced back to a failure to communicate. Cells can go deaf and fail to respond to certain chemicals such as insulin, as is the case in type 2 diabetes or they can go mute and fail to release insulin at all, as is the case in type 1 diabetes. Cells may misinterpret messages, send incorrect signals, or act at inappropriate times, all of which have pathogenic potential. As a research assistant, I investigated specific cancerous interactions between scaffolding proteins and cAMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA), which is involved in many cellular processes from neurotransmitter metabolism to gene transcription, illustrating the interconnectedness inherent in the human body. This interconnectedness poses both opportunities and challenges in the field of medicine, for the targeting of a common substrate can offer therapeutic solutions for several related conditions but may also result in wide-ranging biological responses, underlying the need for treatment that addresses the source of the problem without causing too many additional side effects. The development of new therapeutics warrants an equally multifaceted approach, requiring collaboration between researchers and clinicians. For this reason, I intend to continue my education in translational and clinical research to help move novel drugs from the bench to the bedside.

Through research, I realized my love of discovery and innovation. My work in the laboratory has given me the skills to solve problems, optimize processes, and develop more efficient tools. Research has also given me an appreciation for the meticulousness that should characterize both experimental design and data interpretation in order to ensure the most accurate and precise results possible. Most importantly, research has taught me to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and identify existing areas where improvements can be made. Scientific research thrives on criticism, debate, and the application of new ideas. Of course, medicine still has many unknowns: cause and effect relationships are often unclear and diagnoses of exclusion are sometimes difficult to treat. While medicine still has its limitations, remarkable progress has been made in the past few decades, and I hope to take my place as an agent of that continual innovation.

Late Night Thoughts on Lewis Thomas

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the works of Lewis Thomas. In The Fragile Species, he shared ideas evocative of the late Carl Sagan:

Never mind our embarrassed indignation when we were first told, last century, that we came from a family of apes and had chimps as near cousins. That was relatively easy to accommodate, having at least the distant look of a set of relatives. But this new connection, already fixed by recent science beyond any hope of disowning the parentage, is something else again. At first encounter, the news must come as a kind of humiliation. Humble origins, indeed.

Similarly, Sagan in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space poeticized:

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds throughout the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

Message in a Bottle
Thomas’ appreciation for music was almost as great as his lifelong love affair with science. In an essay from The Lives of a Cell, Thomas offered a suggestion concerning the prospect of interstellar communication: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.” This wish of his, at least, came to fruition in the form of the Golden Record, the contents of which were chosen by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan and included aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The sounds and images on the phonograph records were selected to illustrate the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life to decipher. [Interestingly, in a Big Bang Theory episode named “The Communication Deterioration,” Koothrappali is selected to help work on an Earth message design and delivery proposal for NASA’s Discovery missions and asks his friends for advice. Wolowitz stresses the need for a device capable of transmitting information across a wide range of perceptual modalities. Sheldon argues that any intelligent life form would at the very least have the ability to locate the position of objects in space, making the ideal lingua franca haptic, i.e. relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.] Making sense of the Golden Record’s contents would require extraterrestrial life to possess the senses of sight, sound, and touch.

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One Glorious Symphony

The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.

The individual parts played by other instrumentalists — crickets or earthworms, for instance — may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.

The Lives of a Cell

Reading these words reminded me quite a bit of a song my classmates and I used to perform in elementary school choir called “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” The chorus and first verse read:

All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
And some just clap their hands, or paws or anything they got now

Listen to the bass, it’s the one on the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and the hippopotamus
Moans and groans with a big to-do,
And old cow just goes ‘moo!’

Well the dogs and the cats they take up the middle
The honeybee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and the pony neighs
And the old coyote howls

The song was originally written by Bill Staines, an American folk musician and singer-songwriter from New England. Various versions of the song have been performed by groups ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Celtic Thunder.