Crosstalk: From the Inner Workings of a Cell to Science and Society

Crosstalk is a new monthly column on the history, culture and processes of science.

Staphylococcus xylosus. Credit: anicole/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Staphylococcus xylosus. Credit: anicole/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A hundred and ten years ago, in this month of September, a somber scientific journal called Annalen der Physik published two papers from a very young scientist who had just received his Ph.D. The first was titled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, and a second short article was called Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon Its Energy-Content? In this second article, a formula was derived, which simply read E=mc2.

Even today, just about anyone who has made it to high school can tell you what that formula represented, or who came up with it. In a way, Albert Einstein and his special theory of relativity revolutionised not just science but how society viewed science and scientists. And for the next few decades, even as the world plunged into the chaos of two world wars, economic depression, the end of colonialism and more, names like Einstein, Rutherford, Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli, Pauling, Krebs, Watson, Crick and the like became household names, capturing the imagination of people across the world. Even here in India, Raman, Bose and Saha, the “quantum Indians”, and others not only produced pioneering scientific research, but also inspired generations of Indian scientists.

The advances made during this time in our understanding of the natural world were “quantum” in every sense. From the structure of an atom and the inner workings of a living cell to the exploration of space, our understanding of how things worked changed forever. With each of these discoveries came the realisation that what we thought we knew about the world around us with certainty was probably insignificant, or sometimes plain wrong. Yet, even as this certainty transformed into uncertainty, the future seemed full of endless possibilities. Scientists became inspirations or heroes to many, and the discoveries of science seemed to open doors to a fantastic future for humanity. There emerged the possibility of ridding the world of disease, of feeding starving millions, and bringing light and communication to every home in the world. There was a universe around us to explore, and everyone could be a part of it. Indeed, in the past fifty years, more diseases have been cured, more crops grown, and more lives saved than in the rest of human history put together. People embraced scientific discovery and the role of science in society.

Yet somehow, that inherent optimism about science has today grown into a cautious indifference and sometimes mistrust, even as science seeps into every aspect of our lives today. Incredible breakthroughs continue to come out in almost every discipline of science and new disciplines of research are emerging, and yet there is a perception that the great excitement about science is being lost. Science, both as a discipline of unbiased human enquiry and in its role in advancing human lives, seems to have diminished in perception.

So, what will this column be about? The name Crosstalk is inspired by a fascinating field of research: understanding how cells communicate with each other. Within these columns, there will be stories that explore and reveal the incredible processes by which cells, those entities that constitute life as we know it, function. But even through these stories (and with occasional diversions), we will explore the process of scientific enquiry and discovery. We will place new findings within a social context of scientific research, with a perspective of the history behind discoveries, and look at the giants upon whose shoulders the final breakthroughs stand.

And as we explore them, especially in cellular and molecular biology, I will try to bring out the excitement and exhilaration in the process of scientific enquiry and discovery, the social contexts it occupies, and explore the constantly evolving milieu that science occupies in society. There will also be stories of debate and conflict in science, as well as the tools used for scientific inquiry as a way to understand how science progresses.

There is an old story from 11th century Persia about three friends who grew up together. They each promised to help each other if any one came to a position of influence. The first studied hard, entered the murky world of politics, and went on to become the Nizam-ul-mulk, the all-powerful prime minister of a vast kingdom. True to his word, he summoned his two friends to fulfil his promise. One of his friends was Hassan-I-Sabbah, who was given a plush position in court. Hasan was small-minded, fanatical, and incredibly ambitious, always wanting more power. He decided to use religion as a means to power, and created the powerful band of fanatical followers called the hashshashins, who would carry out political assassinations in a hashash-, or cannabis-, induced religious fervour (and entered the dictionary as “assassins”). The details are murky, but Nizam-ul-mulk is thought to have met his death at the hands of Hassan. However, his other friend, when summoned to meet the nizam, had only asked for a quiet place to study. The nizam was delighted by this request and granted his friend an estate to pursue research.

This friend, Omar Khayyam, became one of the great scientist-philosophers of his time. Apart from his literary verse, he answered many important questions in mathematics and astronomy, calculating the precise length of a year, researched the value of pi, contributed to non-Euclidean geometry, and more. But his studies made him skeptical of dogma and eventually he ran into trouble with an increasingly orthodox establishment for not believing in judgement day, and had to repent publicly.  

Perhaps through this column we will learn more about the Khayyams of this world, their discoveries, and how they advanced human knowledge, even while remembering that science and society reflect and influence each other.

Sunil Laxman is a scientist at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, where his research group studies how cells function and communicate with each other. He also has a keen interest in the history and process of science and how science influences society.

  • Paul

    Great start Sunil. I look forward to following your articles.