June 9, 2011 | 2
When I glossed over the list of Nobel laureates that attended the Lindau meetings in the first few decades, I was ashamed to discover that I only recognized a few. And when I did, it was rarely because I was familiar with the laureate or his work. I only knew the Nobel laureate Otto Warburg from the biochemical process that carries his name (the Warburg effect ), for example.
These people are yesterday’s greatest scientists. They spent years uncovering the knowledge we now take for granted. And yet all I know of them today is what happens to be written in some Wikipedia entry.
To remedy this lack of familiarity with past Nobel laureates, I turned to the Lindau Meetings’ Mediatheque, which you can find here. Mediatheque holds a set of recordings, chosen from sixty years worth of Nobel Laureate Meetings. Most of the older lectures are available in audio only, but they still are well worth listening to.
Browsing the Mediatheque feels like rummaging through your grandmother’s attic, where you never know which treasures the next box might hold. One surprising treasure I came across was the Lindau lecture given by Ragnar Granit (picture right, from Wikimedia Commons), in 1972.
In the crisp recording he comes across as a kind man with a sharp mind. This might be because of his delightful British-Scandinavian accent, but I think it has more to do with his carefully formulated thoughts on the nature of the scientific process, which still remain relevant today.
I knew nothing about Ragnar Granit before I heard his talk, but several online biographies proved helpful here. Granit was born in 1900 in Helsinki, where he also studied medicine. From his earliest years as a student Granit was fascinated by human vision. As a physiologist he performed bioelectric research on the visual nerve and retina. He eventually proved the theory of trichromatic vision in 1937, which was first put forward by Helmholtz half a century earlier. In 1967 Granit received the Nobel Prize for this work on the physiological and chemical origins of visual processing by the human eye.
By the time Granit gave his lecture (titled ‘Discovery and Understanding’) in 1972, he was already an established scientist with a complete career behind him. In his talk, he looks back at his younger self and sees a passionate, impatient researcher who is eager to leave his mark on the scientific world (Granit’s words are more poetic. In his talk, he refers to the joys of "courting Minerva").
Thirty years later, he tells his audience, he has developed a different attitude to the scientific process. The younger Granit was always on the hunt for the next big discovery, whereas the older Granit longs for understanding. He even looks back at his research in a mood of detachment. This is not a bad thing, he explains, since this detachment is accompanied by a feeling of understanding that is deeper than that provided by a single discovery. He assures us that discovery and understanding are two different, unrelated processes:
"There is in discovery a quality of uniqueness, tied to a particular moment in time, while understanding goes on and on from level to level of penetration and insight, and thus is a process that lasts for years."
It is easy to understand the overemphasis of groundbreaking discoveries in science, Granit says. Discoveries provide ‘instantaneous excitement’ and can count on ‘the immediate reward of appreciation of colleagues, laymen and donors.’
Scientific understanding, in contrast, takes many years to develop. But we should not forget that understanding is the true goal of the scientific endeavour, Granit says.
The development of the theory of evolution via natural selection by Darwin is the strongest example that Granit puts forward. The idea of evolution was not new when Darwin first proposed it, and he certainly did not come to his conclusions thanks to some flash of insight. It was only because he had spent 20 years collecting a body of evidence that was so comprehensive that he could convince his peers. Understanding trumped discovery.
The slow ripening of the fruits of science has many benefits. With it, deeper and richer flavours develops: "What we read, what we actively remember and what we ourselves contribute to our fields of interest very gradually build upto a living and creative structure within us." Acquired originality exists, it only requires time to grow and reach maturity.
This longer take on science process has come under pressure. That is true now, but it was already true in Granit’s days."The long and narrow and winding road to real knowledge has become harder to follow", he laments. Young scientists have become obliged to ‘fill journals with preliminary notes.’ Instead of fulfilling their full creative potential, they are becoming ‘great producers of small things.’ Granit warns that "there should not be too many people within a field who care merely for the technically solvable, and not about what is worth solving."
After hearing Granit’s lecture, it dawned on me that this man was still as passionate about science as he was in his younger days. The fire might have burned less fierce and more controlled, but it burned still. Here was a man who is not so much interested in the priority of discovery or the origin of an idea, but in the intricate patterns of science itself. I couldn’t agree more with Granit’s final words on the topic: "The long range program[…] fosters insights of the kind that makes disputes about intellectual ownership meaningless."
But really, you shouldn’t read these words of wisdom here, where I can barely do them justice. Go over to the Mediatheque, and listen to them for yourselves!
About the Author: Lucas Brouwers is a recent college graduate who obtained his MSc degree in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Lucas blogs on evolution at Thoughtomics and tweets as @lucasbrouwers. Besides writing about science, you’re likely to find Lucas listening to electronic music with his headphones on, or cycling through the Low Countries.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Cross-posted on the official site of the Lindau Nobel Community—the interactive home of the Lindau Meetings: Treasures in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings Mediatheque