My Top Ten Scientists
Fantasy author and epigeneticist
Ian Green cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
I tried to think about the top ten scientists born in the 20th century, and I was absolutely terrified. How could you begin to choose? And what the hell do I know about maths or physics (nothing- I know nothing!)? But this is personal- as an SFF writer, and a scientist, I’ve had the chance to meet some incredible scientists and they’ve left their mark on me and my work.
I loved nature and so biology and ended up following that chain- at undergraduate I studied physiology at the University of Aberdeen, and then spent a year in industry working on the epigenetics of inflammation and immunity for my masters. Epigenetics for me was the field where the transitive and wild nature of biology met with the stern reality of chemistry and the intricacies of genetics. Epigenetics- an entire field about modifying and messing with another field. The packaging and wrapping and annotation- the scribbling in the margins of that list of instructions that makes a cell a certain type, that manual for life. What’s not to love?
Now I write fiction, and I work on the editorial and communication side of scientific research. The impact of these scientists on my writing is profound, including the respect for the process they’ve instilled in me, the audacity of the goals they are willing to shoot for, and the enduring fascination they have for that subject I love most- biology.
David Attenborough – As a child, nothing entranced me more than the excellent nature programming of the BBC he helmed- exceptionally produced and meticulously captured, portraying the incredible variety and complexity of that most fascinating subject- life. From there biology fast became my passion.
Bob Brown- A geneticist and cancer researcher, Bob supervised my PhD atImperial College. I learned more from him about the scientific process than anyone else. He was always patient, and always knew the right question to ask. What I loved most was his passion for practical application- before then my research had always seemed fascinating, but with him there was always the consideration of clinical benefit in combination with the desire to understand how things work. Bob also taught me to question even the most well-established models of how we think things work, and brought my own research into focus specifically on cancer.Tim Spector- using the UK twin study (more than 10,000 twins!) Tim does some fascinating work across many disease areas, using genetic epidemiology to parse out the intricacies of our genetic and epigenetic difference. I’ve followed his work for years and I love the way he uses the unique data he has access to ask interesting questions across a staggering breadth of fields, rather than being constrained to one narrow area of study.
Elli Papaemmanuil - Elli is a clinician and researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York- for me she is the ultimate example of the current generation of cancer researchers. Her research takes complex statistical modelling and applies it to population scale genetic data to pull out actionable outcomes in paediatric cancer. An inspiration in terms of taking on the most complex problems in the field and applying the cutting-edge of basic science to make a difference- but doing so without falling into the traps of previous generations in terms of work culture or ego. A lesson that one can be brilliant, but also kind!
Robert A. Weinberg - Bob Weinberg is best known for finding the first human oncogene, Ras (an oncogene is a gene that can drive cancer). As my fascination with cancer grew, Bob’s position as someone who produced seminal work in the field (and continues to do so for decades!) was combined with a deep respect for a man who never lost his fascination with the biology- at a conference, Bob will be walking around poster sessions asking junior researchers about their work. His enduring work ethic, fascination, and unpresuming manner left a huge impact on me.
Carl Sagan - apart from the biologists in this list, Sagan inspired me as the first scientist whose work I encountered that took the concepts of extra-terrestrial life utterly seriously and academically. As a science fiction writer there are ideas you want to explore that are often waved away as outlandish- Sagan was a figure who understood that in the vastness of the universe, there was a lot of room for outlandish! His pioneering popular science work helped me fall in love with the stars, and what might be beyond.
Jane Goodall - Jane Goodall is an elusive figure to me, someone whose work I’ve always interacted with tangentially, but whose findings and presence has always seemed to quietly command the attention of the world. Our place as thinking apes, so different to what came before, is placed in sharp contrast with the idea that actually some of what we pride in ourselves (tools, war, complex culture) can be found in our closer relatives. As a child I thought of her as an idyllic figure, the scientist deep in the forest studying behaviour- no laboratory coats or meetings! The sense of wonder and adventure I found in her work left a stark impression I am always trying to recreate.
Frederik Sanger - It is hard to think of a figure whose influence in genetics is so far felt. Sanger sequencing was the keystone of our ability to investigate the genetic code, and understand our place in the world. Beyond this, Sanger’s legacy continues in huge endeavours such as the Sanger centre, where audacious and complex science can be followed for the good of all.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are my ninth and 10th choices. They are the pioneers of CRISPR genome engineering, I have chosen these two scientists because to me they showed that any paradigm can be broken. I spent many days and weeks laboriously modifying the DNA of cells- the speed and precision that the CRISPR system allows has in a short few years fundamentally changed the toolset of biologists, allowing increasingly sophisticated approaches to the challenges of biology.
Ian Green is a fantasy and science fiction writer born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He has a PhD in clinical epigenetics from Imperial College London and works in science communication. His short fiction has been widely broadcast and performed, including winning the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines competition and winning the Futurebook Future Fiction prize. He is the author of The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath and The Gauntlet and the Burning Blade, the first two instalments of an epic fantasy trilogy. You can find him on twitter @ianthegreen or at www.ianthegreen.com.
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