Elbert Branscomb on Science and Spirituality
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

So this is really a different focus on what I was just talking about. Again to be very self referential and personal about this, I grew up in an essentially illiterate environment, in a very conventional, uneducated environment. Quite isolated personally. And struggling with issues that troubled me about the nature of the world around me. I can’t tell you how, what a big deal it is for me that things that puzzled me as a child have now been revealed during my lifetime. Why is it that the mountain ranges in North America are parallel to the coast? You know, like many other children, I wondered about things like that. And I wondered about all of these mysteries. I was in a very rural environment. I was watching animals come and go and weird things about what I now understand is due to genomic segregation and the effect of that on phenotypes of—when my parents would talk about the runt of the litter, I was thinking why would—they took it for granted that there would be a runt of the litter. Why would there be so often individuals produced that were not viable, not very viable? I also, of course, worried about being, as I was literally the runt of the litter myself, so it seemed very cruel and unfair now. And, you know, I watched this happening and flying ants and in birds in the nests and so on like this. What was going on? And it is incredible that we now, now it is a gift of this time. This is the age of epiphany, that we now have clear answers to many of these things.

My education is all in physics at which I didn’t succeed, but nonetheless, during that time wonderful clarification and insights have been achieved partially, but still profound. And in this context, in understanding life, not just some detail mechanism but more qualitatively, this is the age of the gift of discovery and of epiphany. So as that small boy, I on my own had rejected the religious and spiritualistic views of life fairly early on, but cryptically. I mean, keeping it to myself. I sometimes joke when I’m asked, again, I’m often asked by people who come up in the audience and say, may I ask you are you at all religious? And I sometimes answer, I think fairly accurately, I was an agnostic until I was 7 and have been an atheist ever since. And because, but again privately, this was in my secret, illicit mind. But I couldn’t get a magical view of life down my throat at any time. And what has been discovered about life, both in this mechanistic business that DNA is the foundational metaphor for almost. But also in all sorts of details about the study of how, what we can infer, what is the property of organisms that arise by the process of natural selection. Natural selection does not generate organisms of arbitrary properties. It generates organisms with particular types of properties that are up to certain things, and optimized for certain things, invariably so. And it is this deep insight I now understand about myself and others so I see it. Things that were inexplicable and seemed unfair to me and strange and weird and awful, but now make sense. So I am pretty much a complete mechanistic materialist. And so all of these discoveries have been to my mind, a beautiful vindication.

We had William Shatner come to our place as Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, came to the JGI (Joint Genome Institute) about three years ago to interview us about the genome because he was writing a book which subsequently appeared to my mortification. But at any rate, he was a very live mind, and went after us hammer and tongs and he—at one point when we got to the business about most of the DNA appeared to be not relevant to function or at least not tightly relevant to function, he rose up out of his chair, slammed his fist on the table and said, “That cannot be!” I was delighted. I wanted to rush around the table and kiss him because that is so much the sweet soul of science. Discovering things that just couldn’t be true. It’s quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is that sort of thing to the enth power. The fact that the continents are rafting around like mad on the face of the earth and being scrunched up and producing all the earthquakes and all the mountain ranges and everything else all the time, that couldn’t be either. American academic geologists rejected that for decades as ridiculous, and yet it is just true! It just is the case.

And here in the genome we see all sorts of things that violate common sense so deeply that audiences always say to me, in all due respect, Dr. Branscomb, but that couldn’t be true. There not so emphatic and didactic as Captain Kirk, but nonetheless, and so for myself I just love what is for me a beautiful clarification of how we got here. Even such things as why we have the spectrum of elements which was a mystery when I was first studying this. Why do we have this fraction of hydrogen, this of helium, this of iron and so on and so on. Now we can compute this in a computer from first principles to a few percent or better because we understand the nuclear synthesis in supernova. And we can do the computation. And so on and so on.

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.