Matthew Meselson on Learning Science: Then and Now
  Matthew Meselson     Biography    
Recorded: 17 Jul 2002

I don’t think it’s any fundamentally different in the sense that if a student becomes interested in one little piece or a fundamental piece of a science, then from there he can still move forward. He can find the right things to read, he can find the people to talk to, even a hundred years ago—well I don’t know about one hundred years ago, but even fifty years ago, there was a huge literature. Don’t get the idea there was nothing written. There were huge libraries already.

Nobody at that time was familiar with everything that had been written or even with a few percent of everything that had been written in biology or in chemistry. I mean, look at Bilstein, even then he could fill a room. That’s just an index of organic synthesis. It was the case then and it’s the case now, that if you’re really deeply interested in science and you find one thing that really interests you. For example, maybe you’d get interested in the question of: how does RNA get out of the cell nucleus? What’s behind export? It doesn’t just come out passively. It turns out there’s all kind of signals on the RNA molecules; special adaptations, different kinds of molecules get out in different ways.

So if a student got interested just in that one narrow subject, then it’s like boring a hole through a piece of granite. You can then—on the other side you can expand. I’m not saying this very clearly, but I don’t think it’s different.

But what may be different is what we’re—what impression we’re giving this student as to what is expected of them. Maybe we’re not telling them: look, find something that really interests you and just pursue it. Maybe we’re telling them that they have to do too much. That’s a different question. I don’t know how it’s coming across.

I think one main thing the student body has certainly changed. Many more of them are, I think, aiming at doing something practical in the industrial world or in medicine.

I think that they’re maybe, I’m not sure of this, the attitude of the classes is very different now. You don’t get as many good questions. They seem too respectful. They don’t exhibit—they used to hiss us and when I would say something that was particularly neat, like if I could get to the end of a derivation at Caltech in thermodynamics where it is something here where I wasn’t teaching a mathematical subject here—that was particularly neat, the students at Harvard used to hiss to mean “oh, you put it over on us.” But they would hiss. No one does that anymore. Or if they thought you made a mistake, they wouldn’t hesitate to say, that’s wrong! But now, they’re more passive it seems to me.

Matthew Meselson earned his Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago in 1951 and from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 under the tutelage of Linus Pauling.

In 1958 with Frank Stahl, Meselson experimentally showed the semi-conservative mechanism of DNA replication as predicted by Watson and Crick.

He is currently the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences in Harvard University's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. His laboratory studies sexual reproduction and genetic recombination, and how and why they are maintained in evolution.

Since 1963 Meselson has been interested in chemical and biological defense and arms control, has served as a consultant on this subject to various government agencies and is a member of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Meselson has received the Award in Molecular Biology from the National Academy of Sciences, the Public Service Award of the Federation of American Scientists, the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and the 1995 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal of the Genetics Society of America. Dr. Meselson is presently a member of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.