Science & Technology

Nobel laureates stress on open mind at 107th Indian Science Congress

The big message at India's biggest science congregation: Big discoveries can't be planned 

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Saturday 04 January 2020
Nobel laureates Stefan Hell and Ada Yonath at 107th Indian Science Congress, Bengaluru. Photo: Akshit Sangomla

Nobel laureates attending the 107th Indian Science Congress in Bengaluru called for greater scientific freedom and integrity for the advancement of Indian scientific research.

The scientific process was uncertain, highlighted Stefan W Hell from Germany and Ada E Yonath from Israel. Big leaps and major discoveries are possible only when scientists can carry work independently, by staying true to results instead of one’s own beliefs and traditions, they said at a press conference on December 4.

“Nature is indifferent and it is what it is. We as scientists have to be open and clear about what we are doing. If we don't do that nature has its own way of punishing us,” Hell said. “It is difficult to see things clearly sometimes but one cannot have illusions in science,” he added, responding to a query on the attempts to revive ancient science in India.

On what governments could do to improve research, he said he understood that governments have short-term scientific plans based on applications, but that there must be more room for blue-sky research even though they might not always yield results.

“Big discoveries cannot be planned. Governments have to improve funding of scientific research and improve the atmosphere,” he added. 

Scientific research was not like a bus ride that one can take from one place to another. “It can go anywhere and we need to take that into account”, Yonath said. She advised students to be curious, original and unafraid to quiz their teachers, who do not know everything. She asked young researchers to not take too much advice from anyone, including from herself, and find their own paths.

Hell is among the directors of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen, Germany and heads its department of NanoBiophotonics. He received the 2014 chemistry Nobel for his work on super resolved fluorescence microcopy, known as STED microscopy.

Through this he was able to break a more than 100-year-old diffraction barrier. It had held up human ability to view objects smaller than 200 nanometers with the help of light microscopes, which use visible light to illuminate and enlarge microscopic objects to be viewed and studied.

Electron microscopes work below that resolution but cannot be used for certain biological entities such as proteins. Hell’s work made it possible for the use of light microscopes wherever electron microscopes cannot be used and even beyond them. 

At his December 3 public lecture Hell said he had come up with the original idea to go past the diffraction barrier in 1994. Nobody had taken him seriously and it was difficult to survive but the fact that he was working on a fascinating problem made him pull through the tough time.

In 1997 the Max Planck Institute gave him an opportunity to go ahead with his research and a grant that was declined somehow came back to him. With this a journey began, which brought him the most coveted prize in the sciences and is still going on as he works on improving light microscopy further, bringing down its resolution to 1 nanometer.

Hell ended his lecture with a few lessons: that consensus is not always reality; that challenging consensus was not always welcome; fundamental advancements were usually simple and that to aim high and stay grounded. 

Yonath won the Chemistry Nobel in Chemistry in 2009, alongside India-born Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, for unravelling the structure of the ribosome, which is a molecular machine inside living cells essential for the formation of proteins.

In fact all current and historic antibiotics work by inhibiting the work of ribosomes inside disease-causing micro organisms or pathogens in some way or another. But pathogens have found novel ways of getting around the functioning of antibiotic drugs which are together known as antibiotic resistance. 

At her December 4 lecture Yonath highlighted that antibiotic resistance in pathogens was the single-biggest health care threat in modern times. She called for the development of specific antibiotics for specific pathogens instead of current antibiotics, which are effective over a broad range of pathogens.

This would make the antibiotics more efficient and help in controlling antibiotic resistance. Most of these antibiotics are also not digestible by humans and non bio-degradable are being passed into the environment, circulating back to us after passing through various eco systems.

Therefore she called for the development of environmentally friendly antibiotics, which she is working on currently. Yonath talked about her blue dream, in which the entire world would have a high life expectancy that can only happen if humanity overcomes the challenge posed by antibiotic resistance. She urged pharmaceutical companies to develop specific, environment-friendly antibiotic strategies for the benefit of humanity rather than for profit.

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