Saturday, August 7, 2010

nobel prize for science 2009: a prize for 'communication'!

The Nobel prizes for biology, chemistry and physics this year give an opportunity to think about some of the characteristics of the technoscientific culture we are living in.

The prize for medicine was shared by Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn (University of California, Sanfrancisco, USA), Dr. Carol W. Greider (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, USA) and Dr. Jack W. Szostak (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA), for solving the long existing conundrum in biology regarding the chromosomal self protecting mechanism. They found the role of telomeres (the sheaths on the tips of a chromosome) and the enzyme telomerase in resisting degradation and successful copying of the chromosome during cell division (mitosis). Dr. Ada E. Yonath (Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel), Dr. Thomas A. Steitz (Yale University, New Haven, USA) and the US scientist of Indian origin Dr. Venkataraman Ramakrishnan (MRC Laboratory, Cambridge, UK) bagged the Nobel for Chemistry, for their contributions in understanding the structure and functioning of the ribosome (the protein production device of a cell) at the atomic level. The Nobel prize for Physics this year but raised the eye brow of at least some, as it was awarded for technological inventions in collaboration with corporate R&D labs than foundational research in universities and institutes. Dr. Charles Kuen Kayo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong was honoured for devising optical fibre technology forty years ago, and Willard S. Boyle and Dr. George E. Smith of the Bell Laboratories (Murray Hill, USA) for developing digital image sensor (Charge-Coupled Device: CCD) which revolutionized photography and digital transfer of images.

The interesting point is that all these scientific achievements suggest a crucial factor: that the Nobel Prize was actually acknowledging communication as the paradigm of contemporary science, across disciplines, across laboratories and across scientific cultures.

The history of this paradigm however goes back to the Second World War. The War demanded more effective communication techniques and combat technologies, and the cutting edge research in Physics (both fundamental and applied fields) turned towards meeting these ends and it led to the emergence of areas like wireless communication and electronics, not to mention nuclear research (let me omit the well-known story of nuclear energy here). The researches in these areas completely changed our ways of life all over the world as it inaugurated a telecommunication revolution with the use wireless communication for civilian purpose, and then onwards the world moved to an era of electronics and image transfer technologies and finally to the digital mode of communication, mobile phones, computers and internet. And physics was the most legitimate/authentic science of the twentieth century.

Biological sciences (especially molecular biology) developed as a major discipline in the twentieth century modeled on Physics. The emergence of genetics and molecular biology among other sub-disciplines succinctly indicate the rapid development of biological sciences around the central image of ‘communication’: communication and date transfer across organs (for example, neurology studied the communication/information flow between brain, the control room, and other organs, wired together by nerves/neurons), across generations (the transfer of genetic information from parents to offspring: genetics) and finally, the intra-cellular communication (molecular biology).

The intracellular communication is a major research focus today. And the Nobel Prizes for medicine and chemistry were given to the contributions in understanding the communication processes, mechanisms and devices at the intra-cellular level. The Prize for Medicine was given to the discovery of the functioning of telomeres that ensure the accurate reading of the genetic information stored in the chromosomal DNAs while the chromosomal replication (copying) occurs during cell division (mitosis). The Prize for chemistry was for understanding the chemical composition and functioning of ribosome, the ‘protein factory’ of a cell. Although the reference to ‘factory’ in science textbooks invokes a nineteenth & twentieth century industrial metaphor, contemporary science is more obsessed with communication than production: the Nobel laureates’ discoveries contributed to our understanding of the communication mechanism in the cell and the ways to influence and alter the communication, mostly for therapeutic purposes. The genes are triplet codes made of nitrogenous bases (Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine & Guanine) in the DNAs (DNAs are in the Chromosomes, which are in the nucleus of the cell). A series of triplet codes (genes) consists of the blueprint for the production of a specific polypeptide chain (chain of amino acids: a protein). The message in the DNA sequence is transcribed and passed to the ribosome (which is seen in the cytoplasm of the cell, i.e., outside the nucleus) with the help of mRNA (messenger RNA) and the tRNA (transfer RNA) in the ribosome deciphers the message carried by the mRNA and produces the poly-peptide chain (protein). Dr. Venketaraman and other Prize winners this year focused on the role of the ribosome in this process. The successful deciphering of these messages in the DNA (transcription) (which are passed from generation to generation) and the consecutive production of polypeptide sequence in the ribosome (translation) is the basis of the functioning of a cell. Or, to put in another way, this process is fundamental to the existence of organisms and therefore, communication is the fundamental scientific principle of life itself.

The Nobel Prize for physics this year also was awarded for the winners’ contribution to the communication paradigm. Dr. Kayo was honoured for his path breaking invention of optical fibre, a communication device that turned the world upside since 1960s. The entire internet revolution was made possible by this invention. Also remember the role of optical fibres in other domains, especially in medical sciences. The other technologists who shared the Prize for physics invented the CCD which revolutionized imaging and image transfer, thereby ‘digitalizing’ communication.

The story reveals that understanding of contemporary science is contributive in crucial ways to our understanding of the contemporary society and culture, and vice versa. As recent research in Science Technology & Society Studies theorise (See for Example the recent works of Sheila Jasanoff and Yaron Esrahi’s book, The Descent of Icarus), the natural order is always co-produced with the social order. Both the natural and social orders are constructed with the same ideas, discourses and materials. In this sense the coproduction thesis has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the nature, body and the social/material world. Therefore no one can avoid investigations into how deeply and intricately the natural and social orders are interwoven, to understand ourselves and the world sedimented around/within/with us.

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