Lindau Nobel conference - Thursday

Thursday morning was the Biofluorescence morning, with lectures by the three most recent Nobelists who received their prize for the discovery and first uses of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) and its derivatives that glow in other colors. It's hard to think of an animal that is as non-model in the lab as jellyfish and a discovery as important and useful for modern biological research.

Unlike PZ who was a diligent liveblogger in the conference hall, I watched all three lectures from the press room, livestreamed on my laptop, while multitasking and generally enjoying the perks of being "Press" (continuous supplies of coffee, juices and fresh fruit, in addition to multitudes of power cords and good wifi). I am happy to report that all three talks were very good, exciting and thought-provoking. Ashutosh covered all three talks in great detail in his post.

Firts to go was Prof. Dr. Osamu Shimomura - watch the video. Then came Prof. Dr. Martin Chalfie - watch the video and read PZ's post. Finally, it was the turn for Prof. Dr. Roger Y. Tsien - watch the video and see PZ's post

These were the most biological talks, thus I could understand them in full. On the other hand, the next talk by Richard Schrock was so technical that I did not understand a word (and gave up listening after a couple of minutes). As someone noted on Twitter: "Schrock gives the same talk to the broad audience in Lindau that he also presented at the EuCOMC to organometallic specialists". I bet even some of the chemistry students in the audience had trouble understanding the talk, let alone the non-chemists there, e.g., the press, bloggers, dignitaries, guests, politicos, local aristocracy, etc. I could see that he is a really nice guy, and that he is a super-star of chemistry, and that his discoveries are really, truly innovative and useful, but I was hoping he would adopt his talk to his audience a little bit.

The last talk of the meeting was the only real disappointment for me. It was a talk with a provocative title (and Abstract) of Molecular Darwinism by Prof. Dr. Werner Arber. This time I think PZ was too nice to the guy (beer, sausages and strudel will do that you, soften you, here in Bavaria).

So, what was the talk about? It was an undergraduate-level introduction to evolution. And that would be fine if it was a good undergraduate-level introduction to evolution. But...

Simplifying things is a good thing. Oversimplifying makes it wrong.

What Arber was doing was "inventing" terms. Or, to be precise, he was reinventing and mixing up terms. He was using existing terminology in biological science and applying it to wrong concepts. Confusion ensues. For example:

"Acquired" has a meaning in biology - but not the one he is using. The word "acquired" is used when discussing acquired characteristics, in Lamarckian sense. But he was using it to describe a process that has a perfectly good name already: "horizontal transfer".

"Molecular evolution" is also a term that has a specific meaning - use of the molecular clock to measure philogenetic relationships and distances between species. Not all evolution is molecular evolution. Phenotypes evolve, too.

Second, evolution does not equal natural selection. Natural selection is one of the important processes of evolution, but not the only one (random drift, neutral evolution, sexual selection...are all very important and wide-spread). If Larry was there, his head would explode in the face of such raw display of selectionism and adaptationism.

Third, "evolution genes" have nothing to do with "genes for evolution". There is a large and vibrant literature on Evolution of Evolvability, but it does not appear Arber is familiar with it.

And no, your work that you got your Nobel for is NOT the central piece in the evolutionary theory no matter how hard you are trying to make the case for it, sorry. Restriction enzymes are the awesomest and even I used them as much as I never really did any molecular biology. They are an indispensable tool for the entire discipline. But they are not an important factor in evolution itself - just the part of the machinery.

And finally, please do not ever use the word "Darwinism". It is only used by Creationists (and journalists who don't know any better) to imply that we are all some kind of idol-worshippers, memorizing the Origin as if it was a bible. What I am trying to say is that a careful use of words is essential for communicating science. Careless use of one term to denote something else that already has a different name is confusing, misleading and irresponsible.

That one poor lecture, of course, did not put a blemish on the rest of the meeting, all the amazing talks, panels and social events.I just re-read a very interesting post of mine about the whole "Nobel conundrum" - the pros and cons and effects of Nobel Prizes, and I muse on various aspects of it. This meeting made me rethink some of those same questions again.

At many meetings, scientific superstars of that stature fly in, give a talk, have the dinner with the organizers, and fly out. This meeting is different - it is specifically designed to get superstars to mix and mingle with young researchers. While the talks are uber-traditional lectures in format - not even followed by Q & A sessions! - there were plenty of organized sessions for young people to spend time talking to the laureates, ask questions, discuss things (those meetings were closed to the press, to give them complete feeling of freedom). While the youngsters may have come in wide-eyed and idol-worshipping, they must have left with a different feeling: that Nobelists are humans, too.

Another take-home lesson from every laureate was that one needs to be a complete human. Not just a scientist. Not just a self-slave-driver in the lab. But also to have other interests and hobbies, and perhaps be involved in some kind of activism.

Finally, it was noted many times this week that these people made their discoveries while in very small labs, struggling with funding, working on highly unusual things. They did not come out of large expensive research labs (though many of them run such places now) doing regular science. Perhaps there is something structurally different about a small lab that gives a young student freedom to follow one's hunches that is made difficult by the complexity and hierarchy in a large, well-funded place.

Nobel prizes did not get awarded for science that had to be done incrementaly over many years. Most discoveries were made during brief bursts of activity - 2-3 years perhaps. A young researcher had to be at a right place, at a right time, to see what everyone's seen before but, for a change, actually notice it, and to come to it with a prepared mind. Luck and creativity and thinking outside the box produce the prizes, not many years of slogging in the lab. But most of the science that has to be done includes slogging in the lab. It's just there should be joy in doing it without an expectation that a Prize may come your way one day.

The events done, we went out to relax, have some famous Bavarian beer (again) - a couple of pictures under the fold:

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The participants had a chance to relax and walk and chat and enjoy the nature. What a great way to finish the event!