Kim Nasmyth on The Chain Reaction of Knowledge
  Kim Nasmyth     Biography    
Recorded: 20 May 2004

Yes, where does the discovery take you? Maybe on a little aside—I mean you put it very well. But I’ll maybe—just before I answer the question—you’re right and you ask a very interesting question. I mean I think this is sort of the crux of what is it that distinguishes science from other forms of human inquiry. There’s been, you know, huge debates as to what’s special about science.

Most people would subscribe to some extent to the sort of Popperian view that what distinguishes science is testability, refutability. But I’ve never felt that that—and I should say one of the people that I, you know, in my intellectual development reading [Karl] Popper was very important when I was at University. I read a lot of his books and found him very stimulating. But it’s clear that refutability, testability—these aren’t really things that really distinguish science from other forms of inquiry. I mean, you know, if you go into a courtroom or you go to this historian, they are using the same fundamental logical principles. But I think really what distinguishes science from other forms of inquiry is this business of whether the discovery you make sets off a chain reaction of discoveries.

You see it’s all about opposing questions and if you say, you know, you pose a question and then you can answer the question and does that answer, does that just end the line of inquiry there? Is it just a sort of dead end, okay? Genghis Khan turned back from the gates of wherever it was because he had a migraine on that day, well, so what. Knowing that doesn’t really get you very far. I think really what distinguishes science from non science is this business of posing questions a) that are answerable— Peter Medawar I think would be one of the people who really sort of put his finger on that business. They are answerable, you can find out if it’s yes or no. But that’s not sufficient. It’s a question which when answered then raises all sort of other equally if not more interesting questions. So what actually happens you end up with this chain reaction. It’s what I would call a chain reaction of knowledge and that’s what distinguishes real science from what I would call not really science. I think most of us—you know that the discovery of the double helix is a classic example. It wasn’t just, Gosh, that’s the structure of the hereditary material, but the implications are X, Y and Z. If that’s true then that allows us to do a whole lot of to other things. So there are so many things in what we would conventionally call science that actually fall outside this view of what really constitutes science. That is, most of us most of the time, are posing questions that you don’t actually really need to know the answer to because when you answer them it’s a sort of so what, you know. It doesn’t generate this chain reaction. And it’s these big discoveries are by their very nature, ones which when you’ve got the answer to that question suddenly you realize, you know, what else is possible.

Chromatid cohesin interesting? Why was it interesting how you destroyed it? Well, I think if you’re remotely interested in heredity, which we all are. You know we’re all interested in our DNA. We’re interested where it came from and, you know, we’re all interested in genealogy. The DNA—there’s two sides to the whole business of heredity. One is you have this hereditary material and you’ve got to duplicate it. But that’s only half of the story. You’ve also got to distribute it to the progeny in order to propagate this thing. And so chromosome segregation is just a sort of totally fundamental part of life, is just as fundamental as replicating DNA. It so happens that it’s done differently in bacteria as it is in you and me, but it’s still a very, very fundamental process. And it’s a process that goes wrong in cancer cells. It’s a process that goes wrong as women get older and causes a lot of, in sense, social problems, you know, the whole business of wanting to have a career and then it being too late to have children and so forth. It’s a process that affects us all. Its why, you know, we’re here now. It’s the way we segregate chromosomes, means that we live we reproduce sexually with all the implications that has for what society is. And so I think it is just sort of utterly fundamental part of life and there are all sorts of aspects of biology that one is never going to fully understand unless you, you know, you understand fully what games are really being played in order to do this.

Already we know that this process is terribly important in meiosis. We know that proteins that are involved in sister chromatids, cohesin and probably involved in all sorts of other things. We know they’ve been around long before—that every organism on this planet has these proteins. They’re more ancient than nucleosomes. There’s a sort of protein complexes that are involved in sister-chromatid cohesion or in chromosome condensation. These are proteins that have been around really from the beginning of life. Long before nucleosomes came along. So it’s an absolutely fundamental piece of machinery that’s involved in helping to organize DNA inside cells. We still are brutally ignorant about how they work. There’s no question in my mind that when we understand the vocabulary of these proteins and how they work and what they’re doing, it’s going to shed huge insights into how chromosomes are formed, how they are regulated—you know.

Kim Nasmyth is the Head of the Biochemistry Department of the University of Oxford and the Whitley Professor of Biochemistry. He was educated in Great Britain and earned his Ph.D in Zoology from the University of Edinburgh. He did his postdoctoral studies in Ben Hall's labolatory in Seattle Washington. He spent one year at Cold spring Harbor Laboratories as a Robertson Fellow. He was the Director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna (Austria). He is one of the discoverer of cohesin, protein complex which during cell division is crucial for faithful chromosome segregation.

Professor Nasmyth is a fellow of the Royal Society and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received many scientific honours, including the Max Perutz Prize, the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the Wittgenstein Prize and the Unilever Science Prize.

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