My Top Ten Scientists – Paul McAuley

SF author and biologist Paul McAuley's cites
the scientists born in the 20th century who have inspired him.

 

First, a shout-out to my Ph.D supervisor David Smith, a pioneer in research into the physiology of symbioses involving unicellular algae and the use of radioisotopes to trace movement of photosynthetically produced carbohydrates from algal symbionts to their hosts. His patient mentoring helped me to discover my inner scientist, and he later encouraged me to apply for a grant to work at UCLA; I’m still mining the experience of that transplantation in my fiction. David Smith was a friend and colleague of Lynn Margulis, and I was privileged to experience at first-hand her fierce questing intelligence. She successfully revived and elaborated the theory that eukaryotic cells – which contain nuclei and specialised organelles – were the result of symbiotic merger of bacterial ancestors, endosymbiosis; now widely accepted, it was considered somewhat crackpot back in the 1970s. With Jim Lovelock she also co-developed the Gaia hypothesis that all of life on Earth functions as a self-regulatory system, and her ideas about the evolutionary importance of symbiosis and cooperation between different species, which I mined shamelessly for The Secret of Life, are significant counterarguments to the tenets of neo-Darwinism.

In The Secret of Life I exercised my fascination with ideas about the evolution of life and the genetic code, borrowing from the work of Carl Woese, whose book The Genetic Code: the Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression (1967) supported the RNA World hypothesis that the earliest forms of life used single-stranded RNA as their only genetic component. Woese also overturned the classification of life on Earth, using sequences of ribosomal RNA to define a new kingdom of life: the Archaea. These vastly diverse single-celled microbes were first thought to be extremophiles, able to live in ecological niches characterised by extremes of geochemistry and temperature and pressure, but are now known to be distributed throughout Earth’s biosphere. If any kind of exolife is discovered in the oceans of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Triton and other moons and minor planets in the solar system, it may very well be similar to the Archaea.

The discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson of how genetic information is coded in the structure of DNA’s double helix was one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century. A newly fledged undergraduate, I sought out in the library of Bristol University’s Department of Botany and Zoology the original one-page paper published in the April 1953 issue of Nature, and also read Watson’s personal account, The Double Helix, which is wonderfully compelling but is also shot through with a streak of meanness; Watson doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t care who knows. He was especially mean to Rosalind Franklin, whose painstaking X-Ray diffraction images of crystalline DNA were key to unravelling its structure. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958; Crick, Watson, and Franklin’s supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962. Efforts to recognise Franklin’s contribution – including Brenda Maddox’s fine biography – continue to this day.

J Craig Venter is perhaps the most famous (or notorious) of the cadres of biotechnologists whose work on the genetic code is radically changing our world. He’s certainly one of the most science fictional, building a research empire on the proceeds of his development of high-speed shotgun DNA sequencing and, like a character in a Heinlein novel, turning the quest to map the human genome into a race between public science and private enterprise. His biotech company has mapped biodiversity in the oceans, turned one species of bacterium into another by genetic transplantation, and created the first fully functioning synthetic organism. Having appeared in several lists of the most influential people in the world, Venter is now – shades of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long – working on how to extend human longevity.

There are many heroes in science, but sometimes there are also villains. Trofim Lysenko just missed being born in the twentieth century but was very much part of the worst of it. I certainly don’t admire him, but his story is horribly fascinating. His pseudoscientific ideas about inherited temperature adaptation in crop plants attracted the attention of Stalin; his attacks on genetics and Mendelian inheritance led to the sacking, imprisonment or execution of more than 3,000 biologists; application of Lysenkoism to Soviet agriculture led to declines in crop yields and set back Soviet biological sciences by decades. His malign influence survived Stalin’s death, but at last he lost political support, Lysenkosim was thoroughly discredited, and his death in 1976 was barely mentioned in the Russian media, an anticlimax that would be hard to sell as an ending now, when we require our villains to go down in the flames of their exploded hubris.

At around the same time as I read The Double Helix, I also read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; I still have the Penguin paperback I bought in a long-vanished bookshop in Bristol. Carson’s forensic examination of the devastating effects on the environment of uncontrolled use of pesticides was instrumental in altering assumptions that pollution and environmental destruction was an inevitable side-effect of triumphant technological progress, and remains a central text for the environmental movement. Like Franklin, Carson died, far too young, of the cancer for which she was being treated when she wrote her seminal work.

I once met David Attenborough FIBiol at a symposium for rising young scientists (it was a long time ago), and he was as charming and quietly charismatic as his TV persona. While not a scientist (although he has a yard-long list of honorary degrees and doctorates), it’s hard to think of any other naturalist who has had more influence on the public perception of Earth’s vast and rich biological diversity. A pioneer of television natural history documentaries, his Life on Earth series are comprehensive explorations of plant and animal life, combining his enthusiasm and crisp commentary with cutting-edge camera technology. Latterly, his programmes have become a catalogue of loss and damage; a threnody for the damage done to Earth’s biosphere by human activity, and an urgent call to action.

Paul McAuley

 

Paul McAuley is a biologist by qualification and the past quarter of a century an SF author. His extensive novel writing career began with Four Hundred Billion Stars that won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1988, and its sequel Eternal Light (1991) was nominated both for a BSFA Award and the Aurthur C. Clarke (book) Award. More recently he has written 'The Quiet War' quartet that ended with Evening's Empires , and the 'Jackaroo' duology.  His latest book (out October 2017) is Austral, a thriller set in a future Antarctic peninsula which in a globally warmed world is becoming habitable and whose protagonist is biologically altered to survive the conditions there.  You can catch up with Paul's latest news at unlikelyworlds.blogspot.co.uk/.

 


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