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Sunday, April 8,2012


By David Bruce

• When Robert Lanza, M.D., was a boy, he was entranced by science, and he undertook a pilgrimage by bus and trolley to Harvard. Unfortunately, he was not allowed into the building where the Harvard scientists worked. However, he did not go away but instead he hung around the dumpster. A short, balding man who looked like a janitor came by, saw him, and asked if he could help him. Young Robert replied, "No, I'm looking for a Harvard doctor. I'm trying to induce melanin synthesis in albino chickens." He then explained the experiments he had been making, although he thought that the "janitor" he was talking to probably did not even know what DNA is.

The man he was talking to, although young Robert did not know it at the time, was Stephen Kuffler, a Nobel-Prize nominee who was known as the "Father of Modern Neuroscience." Later, Robert would study Dr. Kuffler's textbook titled "From Neurons to Brain."
Dr. Kuffler took him inside the building and introduced him to a "Harvard doctor." Actually, he introduced him to Josh Sanes, then a graduate student and in 2010 the Director of Harvard's Center for Brain Science. They talked for hours. Dr. Kuffler did not win the Noble Prize – it is not awarded posthumously, although if Dr. Kuffler had lived a little longer many people think he would have won. Robert says today, "Someday we'll realize that the questions with which he concerned himself the brain and how we perceive the world are a mystery on par with understanding the universe and the origin of life."

• It is worth noting that science is a moral and ethical undertaking. Science-fact and -fiction writer Isaac Asimov pointed out in an interview with Bill Moyers, "There is a morality in science that is further advanced than anywhere else. If you can find a person in science, and it happens scientists are only human who has faked his results, who has lied as far as his findings are concerned, who is trying to steal the work of another, who has done something scientists consider unethical, his scientific reputation is ruined, his scientific life is over, and there is no forgiveness."

Most scientists, fortunately, are honest. Mr. Asimov pointed out that in 1900, three scientists – Hugo DeVries (a Dutchman), Charles Carrinse (a German), and Eric von Chermark (an Austrian) – studied genetics (separately, not as a team) and worked out the laws of genetics. All three then studied the literature of genetics to find out what had been learned before. All three discovered that in 1867 Gregor Mendel had discovered the laws of genetics, but his discoveries had been ignored. All three gave credit to Mr. Mendel and reported their own findings as confirmations of Mr. Mendel's work. Only Mr. DeVries is well known today – because of his work in studying mutations. Mr. Asimov pointed out "as far as the discovery of genetics is concerned, Mendel gets all the credit. And they knew at the time that this would happen, but they did it."

• Inventor Thomas A. Edison was capable of wit. He once was asked to put a message about electricity on one of his phonographic cylinders so that it could be played in front of an audience. Mr. Edison in fact sent a phonographic cylinder quickly. When it was played before an audience, this is what is Mr. Edison had recorded on it: "My Dear Sir: You have requested that I send a phonographic cylinder for your electrical meeting tonight upon which I shall say a few words of interest to your audience. I scarcely think the audience would take any interest in dry scientific subjects, so I will relate the story of a man. This man, who had chronic liver complaint, came from the West to the East. He searched all over the country for a mineral spring to cure his ailment, and finally he found a sulphur spring, the waters of which immediately cured him. He thereupon started a sanitarium, and many people from all over the world came and were cured. A few months ago the man died, and so powerful had been the action of the waters upon this man that they had to take his liver out and kill it with a club. Ever yours, Edison."

• In the 1980s, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, two scientists in Perth, Australia, discovered that H. pylori bacteria caused ulcers. This was an amazing discovery, and at first no one believed their research, in part because no one expected amazing scientific discoveries to be made in Perth, Australia. They could not even get their scientific paper published. Out of frustration, in 1984 Marshall decided to use himself as a human test subject for a scientific experiment. In front of colleagues, he drank a glass of water – and one billion H. pylori bacteria. He said afterward, "It tasted like swamp water." Soon afterward, he developed the early stages of an ulcer. He then cured himself with antibiotics and bismuth. This drew attention to Marshall and Warren's theory, and subsequent research supported their findings. In 1994, the National Institutes of Health stated that antibiotics were the best way to treat ulcers, and in 2005, Marshall and Warren won the Noble Prize for Medicine.

• Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and his colleagues performed an experiment on mice that had been genetically programmed to age quickly. They discovered that mice that ran on an exercise wheel for 45 minutes at a brisk pace three times a week did not age, but mice that did not exercise did age. The mice that exercised remained healthy and had fully functioning sexual organs, in contrast to the mice that did not exercise. This last fact seems to have impressed Dr. Tarnopolsky's students. He says, "I think they all exercise now."

• When Rosalyn Yalow was an undergraduate at Hunter College, a physics professor lectured one day, then challenged his students to find the two errors in his lecture for that day. Ms. Yalow rose to the challenge; she found in his lecture for that day not just two errors but three! In 1977, she became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.


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