This is point of inquiry for Friday, March thirty, first 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and eleven countries around the world. Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the central, the core beliefs of our culture and we focus on three research areas. First, pseudoscience of the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, we look at secularism and religion. We look at these three areas by drawing on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize-Winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Herbert Helpmann, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, on what he calls the joy of science. But first point of inquiry contributor Ben Radford has some thoughts about science in the media.
Watching the nightly news or reading the newspaper is often a frustrating experience for the scientifically literate, as often as not stories about science are incomplete and misleading. I’ll share a few reasons why, using examples from different types of stories, environmental stories are usually written in alarmist tone. The stories deal with supposedly dangerous developments, almost invariably bad news, and the sources are often activists and others who wish to sound an alarm. Of course, the issues are sometimes urgent, but even when they aren’t, the news media pretends that they are. Another problem with environmental stories, and this has become especially bad over the past decade, is that the science and issues have become politicized. Global warming, stem cells, brain death and vegetative state, even the topic is basic and well-established. Evolution has become controversial not because the science itself, but because of the implications of the science. This leads to partizan dueling experts and scientists who end up clouding the issues and avoiding the real evidence. Medical stories usually involve real but greatly exaggerated threats to the public. You don’t need to look any further than the big scares of the last few years. Mad cow disease, bird flu, Ebola, West Nile virus, anthrax, Saar’s and so on now. Do people die of these things? Absolutely. But very, very few. The average person is far more likely to die of bee stings or lightning that may kill, but mostly diseases. Journalists generally do very poor job of distinguishing what is possible from was likely. There is one common exception to the media’s use of scare tactics, and that’s when they’re going overboard, exaggerating the benefits of a new medical device, drug or procedure. In one study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, an analysis of over 200 newspaper articles and television reports found that 85 percent of the stories used statistics that greatly exaggerated the drug’s benefit. And more than half the coverage failed to mention potentially harmful side effects. The media coverage also failed to include important information, such as potentially biasing financial links between drug companies and researchers. Another problem is that many journalists who cover science issues have no background in science. They may be covering a political scandal one day, a NASCAR rally the next, and a story on Alzheimer’s, the following. If a journalist doesn’t know enough to read beyond the press releases to know what a representative sample is or to tell if a study is double blinded here, she has no business reporting. Science reporters and news editors like concrete conclusions. Final answers and tidy summaries. Television journalism particularly misleads its viewers by pretending the complex stories and issues can be presented in 40 second soundbites. Media reports tout each new study as if it is the final word on the issue. But science, by its very nature, is tenuous and inconclusive. It may take years of careful, well-documented studies to determine whether early breast cancer screening does, in fact save lives or if a placebo really is better than a given antidepressant. The public ends up feeling misled and lied to tired of the contradictory studies and reports that the hear week after week. The solution is not to lose faith in science, but instead demand more from journalists and to understand how the media reports science. Think about it.
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I’m pleased to be joined today by Herbert Helpmann. He is winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for pioneering a mathematical model for determining the molecular structure of crystalize materials. This work has proved to be of the greatest importance because it relates molecular structure to biological activity and allows for a much better understanding of life processes and makes it possible for the development of many new disease fighting drugs. Dr. Houtman is president of the Houtman Woodward Medical Research Institute. Research professor in the Department of Biophysical Sciences. An adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University at Buffalo. Besides the Nobel Prize in chemistry, Dr. Helpmann has received many other honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences. He’s the author of more than 170 publications. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Dr. Helpmann.
I’m pleased to be here, Dr. Howe, and I’m interested in our discussion to explore your motivations, especially how you became involved in science. What motivated you to get so involved in science?
This is a very easy question for me to answer. It goes all the way back as far as I can remember. My interest in science has come about only because I have found it to be fascinating. I learned to read at the usual age, probably whenever it was eight or nine or 10. And from the very beginning, I read everything I can get my hands on. But I found most interesting to me was scientific works and in particular, mathematics. So all I can say is I did this because this is what I enjoyed doing.
Do you think it had more to do with you or the the fascinating subjects? In other words, why isn’t everyone as interested, would you say?
Well, that’s, of course, a tough question. I think I think that Darwin would be the perfect person to answer that. It’s the way people are put together. Different people like to do different things. And this is what I enjoy doing as a child, although I was a regular kid in the sense that I like to play games with other boys. And I did that, too. But I also simply loved to read and then and I read everything. I shouldn’t say that science and mathematics was the only thing that I read. That would not be true. I read many, many things, but it was science and mathematics that interested me most. And reading, reading of which I got most pleasure. It was just something that I liked to do.
Dr. Hartman, can you describe the work you did which earned the Nobel Prize for chemistry?
Yes, it’s a very easy thing to do. The basic experiment was done in the year 1912 when Friedrich and Clipping did the experiment, which the German physicists found, Lauer suggested. And that experiment was to take a beam of x rays, which had recently been discovered in the year 1895, to take a beam of x rays and directed at a crystal and to observe what happened. And the observation was very simple. It was that the X-ray beam was split into many different beams, going in different directions and going with different intensities. It was fun. Loures fundamental discovery that the nature of this so-called diffraction pattern, which is to say the directions and intensities of the scattered x rays, was intimately related to the structure of the crystal, which is to say, the arrangement of the atoms in the crystal. And once this relationship was clarified, it then became possible. And this is basically the work for which I am largely responsible. It became possible to work backwards from the diffraction experiment, the observation of the directions and intensities of the scattered rays to to deduce the structure of the crystal which caused this particular diffraction pattern. And, of course, the. Well, this for me at the time was a primary interest because it could be formulated. And in fact, was formulated as a purely mathematical problem. The relationship of the of the scattered x rays with the structure of the crystal.
And you’re a mathematician, not a chemist. That’s right.
I am a mathematician. I had only although I had the minimum number of chemistry courses when I went to college, which was two, I had two courses and I had to learn the basics of chemistry. It’s not a particular strength of mine. On the other hand, mathematics is something which is, well, certainly closer to what I really enjoyed doing. And it was the ability or the possibility of formulating this experiment as a purely mathematical one that enabled me to use the results of this experiment to deduce the structure of the crystal. Although at the time this work was done, which was in the late 40s and early 50s, that’s when you were doing this. That’s when I was doing this work. That’s right. The great importance of this work was not understood, certainly not by me. And that and the importance of it came about a number of years later when the relationship between structure of molecular structures and biological activity came to be better and better known. And so it became routine and easy to determine molecular structures using this technique of X-ray diffraction. Once that relationship was understood, then it was understood also that this had important implications for medicine, for biomedical sciences, because this enabled the pharmacologists, for example, and the biologists to use the large amount of data which became available, that is to say, the large number of molecular structures of molecules of biological significance and biological importance. This enabled the biologists and the other life scientists to understand better how living things work. And with this understanding came the ability to understand why things went wrong, why people got sick, why some people get high blood pressure, why people get diabetes and other things. And with that understanding came also the ability to do something about it, to design drugs, which would have desirable properties and a minimum of adverse side effects. And so that’s the reason this work became important. But what I should like to emphasize at this point is that that was not the motivation for the original work. The motivation for me at least, was simply that here was a problem, a big challenge, a problem which I found to be. Very interesting and sufficiently interesting that I’ve done nothing else, essentially not much else but to develop an Perfecta methodology, more and more so, it has now become rather routine to determine Malecki structures of molecules having biological significance. And this therefore has is certainly the explanation for why nowadays there are medicines for almost everything. But those who have high blood pressure, for those who have elevated cholesterol and so on.
And these medicines wouldn’t be possible were it not for X-ray crystallography.
That is absolutely correct. I should mention, incidentally, that what I think is certainly true of science in general is that no scientific problem is ever really solved because once it is solved, others have come. And. And most recent work, it turns out that although X-ray crystallography, which is the field in which I have done most of my work, it now is beginning to look as if there are related techniques, in particular neutron diffraction, not just x rays, which I am beginning to think may turn out to be even of greater importance. So my work is never done.
A scientist’s work is never done. Yes. So Doctor happened when you started out in this direction of inquiry, you didn’t start out to make a revolution in the biomedical sciences or the life sciences. You were motivated by your interest with the problem of excess diffraction.
Exactly. It’s it’s it’s what I think everyone has is excited about. People like to solve puzzles, don’t they? And this was a puzzle which was. It happened of great importance and a very challenging problem.
When you experienced challenges to your state, your you felt certain that this problem could be solved even before you solved it? Well, absolutely. And when you experienced challenges to that, as you were first working it out, did you find the challenges to be demotivating or were you motivated even more because people told you it can’t be solved and you thought it could?
Well, what you’re saying is perfectly true. As it happens, I was in a very lucky position because I was working at the Naval Research Laboratory at the time. And the fact that the work that I was involved in was very strongly criticized because the the Crysler graphic community had become convinced for the wrong reasons. As it turned out, though, at the time, it’s the reason seem to be very compelling. The Crysler graphic community became convinced that the work that we were working on, my colleague and I were working on was it was a problem that was unsolvable, even in principle. And so work was heavily criticized at the time. And I would say it would have been made much more difficult if it were not for the fact that I had a pretty secure job working at the Naval Research Laboratory for the United States government.
So you were more interested by the question than than people telling you it can’t be solved. But but you also had the academic freedom where you were working to continue investigating.
And I was lucky that that was possible.
Along the same lines, Dr. Houtman, I want to ask you just simply, why do you find science, the act of doing science, solving these puzzles so enjoyable? We’ve spoken before about the sheer joy that you felt as you’ve worked out this or that scientific problem. Why is that? Is it something about you? Or is it something about the puzzle that just to solve?
I think it’s something about people. I think people are are attracted to puzzles, I think. So I may be wrong. And the excitement of discovery, which I’ve mentioned to you before, and I cited this beautiful poem by Keats, who described in just a few words the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. And it was just the discovery of something new like that. The fact that an individual can come to a place, whether it’s a real place, a physical place or an idea that has never been explored before. I think everyone finds that exciting. I certainly do.
Dr. Houtman, you’ve used the phrase the joy of science, not just the joy of discovery, but the joy of science. What is the joy of science? Is it that that joy of discovery?
I believe that’s what it is. To this day, I’m pretty old now. But to this day, I’m it. I find that attracting attracts me even now, as we’ve spoken before about the joy of science.
You’ve also used the phrase quite often, the beauty of science. When you talked about when you first saw that a fraction of COLA might use, you use the word beautiful. It’s beautiful. And you don’t often hear people talk about science as beautiful. Dr. Hellman.
Number, to me, it’s the best word that I can find. I remember when the first application of the methods that we developed was made, and that was to the solution of the common age structure. Coleman Mine is a mineral, and I remember plotting this structure in three dimensions. It’s like a grid for acceptance in three dimensions and suddenly seeing the dissolution in front of us. And the solution? Well, we I had at least found just fantastically beautiful in this case. As we could plainly see, there were two regular tetrahedral consisting of oxygen atoms. And right in the center of each of these was a silicon atom. And then there was a group of three carbon atoms forming an equal andrle triangle. And to me, it seemed just fantastically beautiful. Maybe others might not see that, but because I was so heavily involved in this, it just seemed that way to me.
Maybe everyone doesn’t find science as beautiful as you do, I’m sure. Let me ask you. What would you say to a young person who’s just getting her interests piqued by the science, someone who hasn’t yet apprehended what you just talked about, the beauty of science. Why should people get into the sciences as a career?
Well, I would say from my experience that the satisfactions this one gets from working in science, that satisfaction is worth all the effort. I don’t mean to suggest that being a scientist is an easy job. It is not.
It is a very difficult job. And for the most part, one is one fails far more often than one succeeds. And so it’s it’s not for everyone, I suppose. There are many people who simply cannot accept that kind of experience. But even if one succeeds only once in 100 times, I think that’s worth all the other 99 disappointments that one has.
But I don’t mean to suggest that it’s an easy job. It is not easy.
Lastly, Dr. Hartman, do you see science as more than a career, possibly as a way of life? Kind of a leading question, but I’m asking you, it is science more than just a body of knowledge, more than just a job, a career. Is it a way of looking at the world?
Well, to me, it is. I mean, certainly. I would not be a scientist if he would simply a way to earn a living. I mean, I’m very lucky for the fact that in my case it has I have succeeded in doing that. But it’s just as I’ve tried to say, the enjoyment of doing science. That is the motivation. Certainly in my case, I know and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s for everyone. I’m probably different from most people in that sense.
Dr. Outman, thank you for joining us on Point of Inquiry. It’s been a pleasure for me.
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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to continue a discussion on the topics. Herbert Hellman talked about in today’s episode, go to c f i dash forums dot org at CFI, dash forums dot org. Join us next week for a discussion with Sam Harris, author of the worldwide bestselling book The End of Faith. We’ll talk about the relationship between religion and violence and we’ll talk about some of the biggest problems facing society in the 21st century. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry. Dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz pointed inquiries. Music was written and composed for us by Emmy Award Michael Bailey. Contributors include Ben Radford, Lauren Becker, Sara Jordan and Berry Carr. I’m your host, DJ Grothe.