From wayne Mon Jan 16 01:32:21 1995
Subject: Summary: 9 Nobel Laureates Lecture in Toronto
Newsgroups: sci.astro,,sci.chem,tor.general,ont.general,ut.general,ut.dcs.general
From: wayne
To: rjackson@alchemy.chem
Status: RO

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- William Silvert (]

This is my summary of the Nobel Lectures.  I was lucky enough to be
able to attend all 9 of them (to the detriment of thesis work... oh
well... some things are more important than my thesis -- sorry, Ken
:-)  These notes are entirely from my memory; I didn't take notes
during the lectures.  I have definitely missed volumes of things that
were said.  Everyone has selective memory: I remember the things that I
thought were important or interesting; somebody else could easily
remember completely different things.  In addition, some of my memories
are jumbled between lectures.  I may attribute some of the ideas/quotes
to the wrong lecturer.

[Additional comments by others who subsequently responded to this posting
are added in square brackets, except for lines beginning with '<', which
are comments added by ("D. Hugh Redelmeier"), who was
also at the lectures, graciously added some facts and comments, and
ran it through a spell checker.]

With that disclaimer, here we go...

These talks were part of the Inauguration Celebrations of the position
of the John C. Polanyi Chair in Chemistry, the first occupant being, of
course, John C. Polanyi.  He is the U of Toronto Professor who recently
won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  There were 9 lectures, each by a
different Nobel Prize winner.

Thursday's festivities started about 20-30 minutes late, because the
Laureates all arrived in a bus about 20-30 minutes late.

U of T President Robert Pritchard talked for awhile about how Canada
has never had so many Nobel Laureates in one place, welcomed everyone
to U of T, etc.

Dr. Polanyi introduced all of the speakers.  He joked about one of the
researcher's areas (maybe his own?) being in phase transitions and
remarked that the reason they were late in starting the lectures (about
30 minutes late) is because they had been stuck between floors in an
elevator.  (Phase transitions... elevators... between floors... get
it?  I guess you had to be there...)

All of the talks were supposed to be aimed at a general audience; I
think James Watson's was; the second was a little less so, and the
third was over the head of probably 95% of the audience, but was about
chaos, physics, philosophy, etc, so I was lucky enough to be able to
follow most of it.  The audience included some high school groups.

On to the lectures:




James Watson (Medicine 1962) The Human Genome project.

- joke about old scientists seeing this as an important project even
though it wasn't "clever" (like young researchers are), and old guys
having the self-interest of wanting to get more knowledge about these
diseases which mostly afflict "old fogies".  (Or was it "old cretins"?
Something to that effect.)

- cost: $20/gene, 3 billion genes = $60 billion-- TOO MUCH, so
optimistically assumed they'll get it down to $1/gene, asked for 3
billion from Congress.

- very serious questions about privacy, ethics (for which 2-5% of the
budget is devoted).  For example, if you have your genes scanned for
disease (possibly for the purpose of deciding if you want to have
children, if your parents had a geneticly transmitted disease which you
may or may not have inherited), who should be allowed access to the
information?  Your spouse?  Children?  Employer?  Insurance company?

- eugenics was only labelled as "bad" after Hitler.  It was actually
considered a Good Thing(tm) early in the century, although it was not
scientifically based (eg, if your mother was a prostitute or your
father a criminal you may have been labelled as low-quality genetic

- many genetic diseases have already been mapped: Hutchinsons (?)
disease is, eg: we can scan your chromosomes and say with 100%
certainty if you'll develop it.  It's only a matter of time until many,
many more inherited diseases are mapped (ie, the gene/genes responsible
for them are found).

< I think he was referring to Huntington's Chorea.  I first heard of it
< because Woody Guthrie had it.  See the movie "Alice's Restaurant".

- in future, gene scanning may become so cheap that anybody can get it
done.  More to the point, they can get it done to their unborn fetus.
Then what?  Under what conditions is it ethical to abort a fetus? But
should we let parents have the final decision?  Having a debilitating
genetic disease may be a good reason, but should we allow parents to
choose the sex of their child?  What about eye color?  On the other
hand, is it ethical to *allow* a child to be born with a debilitating
genetic disease?  If the parents decide that they'd rather have the
child and handle the extra burden, that's fine, but what if the extra
burden is also going to require society's help, taking money and
resources away from other, less predictable diseases?

< He made brief mention of the fact that various advocacy groups
< for disabled people consider eliminating fetuses with those
< disabilities is genocidal.

- there were many other difficult questions.

- he made several remarks about education of the public in ethics of
genetics.  His final remark was the statement of the opinion that, in
the case of abortions, the state should not *force* abortions in any
case.  The decision to *not* abort is, in the end, that of the
mother.   (Even though the decision *to* abort should be limited, eg
parents should not be allowed to abort a fetus because it has the wrong
sex or eye colour.)


Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry 1986) - The Shape of Molecular

He was by a very animated speaker.  He was expecting a small crowd in a
small room, and so had brought lots of overheads, but alas this wasn't
feasible in Con Hall (actually it is, and I'm surprised the organizers
were so badly organized in this regard).  He just basically waved his
arms for 25 minutes about various bits of history of chemistry for the
last century or so.

- two beams of blindfolded hockey players, about 20 player-lengths
apart, crossed beams, collisions, "exchanging torso's and such",
watching collision fragments.  - little improvement of putting two
holes at the exit points of the beams to avoid junk from beams hitting


The final talk was by Ilya Prigogine (Chemistry 1977), called "Time,
Chaos, and the Two Cultures".  It was by far the most technical talk,
way over most people's heads; by the end some people were openly just
talking; very inconsiderate.

- exponential divergence of nearby trajectories, so that no "point" can
really be considered as "representative" of it's neighborhood-- there
is no predictability in the final outcome given any particular initial
condition.  But probability distributions (ie, ensembles) of
trajectories *do* have deterministic, predictable outcomes.  eg, a
tight gaussian ensemble will quickly disperse into a uniform
distribution; in fact any distribution will disperse into a uniform
distribution (at least, for some chaotic map he described, I think
f(x) = frac(2x).)

- it's not clear to me how all this relates to time, other than to say
"the future is not generally predictable".  Nor am I sure what he meant
by "The Two Cultures".

[ This is related to the irreversibility of time. Basically most
classical equations of physics (Newton, Relativity, Schroedinger Eq.)
are reversible in time, i.e. invariant to the transformation t --> -t.
Irreversibility of time (or evolution) was introduced in physics
through the 2nd law of thermodynamics. However, thermodynamics where
ensemble averages over random events are considered were always
considered less exact.  Prigogine claims that irreversibility can in
fact be imbedded in a more general formulation (where time becomes an
operator) of dynamics. Intuitively this makes sense, everything around
us seems irreversible, however the classical equations tell us it ain't
     About the two cultures: Scientific versus Artistic. Prigogine
argues that classical science has little to do with art and literature
because it does not really deal with time and change (which obviously
are important in most art).
     Get his book "From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the
physical sciences". Not an easy book (I am not sure if I understand it 
completely)  but I found it very stimulating. He discusses the "two
cultures" in more detail in his book with Stengers, called "La nouvelle
alliance" (in french), but I have seen it in english in bookstores.
     Definitely a must for anyone interested in science and art and who
is not afraid of heavy math.
- (Jos Stam)]

< I think he was saying that once you get (effectively)
< non-deterministic, you lose symmetry in time.

< The "Two Cultures" refers to a book by C. P. Snow (later Lord Snow) of
< that name, from around 1960.  "The Two Cultures and the Scientific
< Revolution" 1959 I found the following quotation from it in my 1968
< Bartlett's:  "Literary intellectuals at one pole -- at the other
< scientists....  Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension." It
< refers to scientists vs.  arts-oriented, more or less (I haven't read
< it).  In this century, people can consider themselves well educated and
< still be proud that they don't understand anything about
< science/technology.  Some scientist are proud they don't read novels.

- his talk was long and involved and I wish I remembered more of it.
It was quite technical and very interesting.  If anybody else took
notes during the lecture, I'd be happy to hear from you.


Morning Fri Nov 4 -- Series II: SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE 21ST


Henry Kendall (Physics 1990) -- Global Prospects: The Next 50 Years.

Kendall is (was?) the president and one of the founders of The
Union of Concerned Scientists, a global
association of scientists, many of them very pre-eminent, who are
concerned about the moral use and possible repercussions of science and
technology.  They have drafted a document that has been signed by
hundreds of very eminent scientists worldwide, entitled (from memory)
"A Warning to Humanity from Scientists and Technologists".  About half
of all living Nobel Laureates have signed it, and many uppity-ups in
famous scientific circles, eg England's Royal Society (correct name?)
Swedish Academy of such-and-such, etc.  He read the first few sentences
of the declaration, and it was very blunt, something like (very
paraphrased from my memory) "Humanity cannot continue it's present
level of exploitation of the Earth for much longer.  If it continues,
calamity on a global scale as never seen before will occur in the
foreseeable future."
Salient points made during his lecture:

- cannot possibly actually predict the next 50 years, because there are
going to be many unforeseen circumstances and advances.  But we can say,
generally, the possible bad outcomes of continuing "business as usual"
on a global scale for the next 50 years.

- population is basically the root of most global problems.  Viz:

- population now is 5.7 billion - 1 billion in industrialized
countries, 4.7 in developing countries.  In 50 years, it will grow to
10 billion, however only from 1 to 1.2 in industrialized countries --
the remainder in developing countries.

- 1 out of every 5 people in the world right now are malnourished; 1 in
10 children are severely so, such that they will either die or suffer
permanent physical/mental damage.  Although part of this food shortage
can be attributed to bad distribution, it is in large part an actual
shortage.  We are pushing the limits of the Earth's ability to produce
food for increasing billions of people.

< I don't know the difference between what people now get
< and reasonable basic nutrition.  It might not be that much.
< Of course, in the computer field, a factor of two isn't too
< large.  I inferred from things Kendall said that the margins
< are much smaller here.

- Due to the projected distribution of population growth, it is clear
that the food problem will only get worse in developing countries.

- food problems are caused by many factors: about 80% of all arable
land in the world is already in use; some of it is not being used
properly, eg no crop rotation, so the soil is highly strained and not
producing good yields.  Erosion of said soil is also a problem, eg in
places like the Amazon basin, forests are cut down to grow food; within
a few years the soil is eroded away because crops do not hold soil like
a forest; and the farmers must move to a new patch of forest.

< And is our current use of fertilizer sustainable (the "green
< revolution" to which he referred)?  I think that
< it depends on non-renewable resources (e.g. petroleum).

- irrigation is another major problem.  Even if the soil is arable,
getting enough water to the area can be difficult.   This is even a
problem in the US, arguably the most advanced industrialized nation.
If it's hard for the US, it is not reasonable to expect other nations
to have the resources to properly irrigate.  (improper irrigation, even
if enough water can be found, can again lead to erosion).

< Not to mention buildup of various salts in irrigated soil.

- technology is not a "magic bullet".  It is unreasonable to expect
that technology will soon provide an answer to the food problems.  In
addition to the basic problems of irreversible soil erosion and water
shortages, we must realize that, when crops are done "properly" (ie, in
the industrialized nations), the yield is about as close to 100%
efficiency as is possible; at the very least, close enough that a few
percent increase is negligible.  We are quickly approaching a hard
limit -- a "brick wall" -- in food supply.  And even if we could
increase food supply by, say, a factor of 3, there is still the
distribution problem, and the fact that the current exponential growth
of population means that any constant increase in food supply is going
to give us no more than about an extra 50 years (less than one human

- Fish shortages are the best example of the strain we're putting on
food supplies.  Although only about 2% of the world's food comes from
fisheries, the critical fish shortage starting to appear worldwide is
an indicator of forthcoming problems.  I'm not sure I'm recalling the
following correctly, but I think he said that Canada is one of the only
countries in the world that is officially recognizing the problem and
forcibly (by law) stopping it's own fishermen from overfishing.
< I don't remember him saying this.  It sure appears to be true.
other countries are not (I don't recall if he mentioned any other
industrialized countries); it can be shown that economically, it is
most profitable to hunt a species to extinction, and then forget it.
Of course, it is reasonably obvious that this is not a good idea
ecologically.  Not only are the fish gone, but we have no idea what
other indirect problems this can cause to the global biosphere.

- Population is a global problem, and industrialized countries must not
think that the population problem is somebody else's problem, even
though the actual growth is in developing countries: "It's not true
that only one end of a boat can sink."

- We are already seeing the beginnings of mass migrations of
"ecological" refugees: people who can't live in their traditional homes
for simple lack of food, water, etc.  Imagine how much worse this will
be with twice as many people on the planet.  It will be the cause of
serious political unrest, both intra- and inter-national.

- Industrialized nations must help underdeveloped nations in many
areas:  education (farmers, birth control, higher education to give
people something else to do other than reproduce, especially women);
money to help build better systems.

- ended with an impassioned and reasoned plea to "the more intelligent
people such as those attending these lectures", to lead the way in
curtailing population growth worldwide, in curtailing pollution, etc,
etc, etc.


Charles Townes (Physics 1964) -- Unpredictability in Science &
Technology, their mutual development and the problem of long-term

He never did mention anything about long-term investment, but I think
the gist was that it's impossible to do without constant attention (ie,
you can't put all your money in one place for 50 years and leave it
there and expect good returns).

< I think that his "investment" point was that it is
< necessary/worthwhile to do basic research, even though you
< don't/can't know what it will get you.  E.g. math about Bell Labs.

                                 His talk was very entertaining,
consisting in large part of examples of predictions in the past that
have been utterly wrong.  He had many, many direct quotes.  I can only
remember a few of them.

- someone predicted, about 3 years before the Wright Brothers, that
heavier-than-air craft would never fly.

- someone (IBM?) in the 1970's said that there would never be a need
for anyone to have a computer in the home.

< Gordon Bell of DEC, he said.

[My own favourite, not mentioned by Townes, is that someone in the
1940s predicted that computer miniaturization would proceed so fast
that "many decades from now, computers that currently take up an entire
building and weigh several hundred tons may take up only a single room
and weigh only a few tons".  Of course now we can have computers on our
wrist. - WH.]

[Another one that perhaps he did mention is that scientists and engineers
predicted that electrical power generated by nuclear fission would
be so cheap and abundant that metering it would be uneconomical.
- Russell Sutherland (]

["No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris ... [because]
no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without
stopping ..." -- Orville Wright (c. 1908)
- Mark Brader ]

His basic point was that we generally can only predict what will happen
in the future based on extrapolation from current trends.  These
predictions are usually wrong because we cannot possibly predict the
effect of revolutionary inventions/discoveries, precisely because we
can't predict the actual inventions/discoveries themselves.  If we
could, they wouldn't be discoveries, would they?

"Making predictions can be difficult, particularly about the future."
-- Mark Twain

He pointed out that not all predictions are wrong:

"We must increase education, employment, decrease spending, (etc) in
order that the purse of the people not become depleted." -- Cicero
[ancient Roman lawyer, politician, senator, died 44BC
- Christian Jaekl ]


George Porter (Chemistry 1967)  Chemistry Under the Sun.

This was almost a pure science lecture.  I don't remember much about

- he talked about Chlorophyl alot, and the chain of chemical reactions
that turn sunlight into food.

- defined life as "That which is common to all living things".  It sounds
tautological (laughter here), but not as tautological as some previous
humorous definition that was something like "all things alive".  It's
not tautological because of the word "common" in there.  For example,
we can eliminate things that are NOT common to ALL living things: wings
are not necessary, nor are skeletons, brains, or chlorophyl.  What *is*
common to all living things (on Earth, anyway) is DNA, RNA, and some
basic proteins.

- The biggest thing I remember is the chart that described the various
efficiencies in the steps from sunlight to the creation of the final
product -- food -- in crops.  There were about 5 numbers, all in the
range of 0.1 to about 0.4, giving a final efficiency of 2%.  His
biggest remark was that, by playing with the genes of these plants, it
may be possible to increase this efficiency up to about 10% -- but no
more, since a few of the numbers in the chart were due to fundamental
physical limitations.  This would increase the food supply by a factor
of 5.  [Of course, as Kendall pointed out 2 hours ago, this doesn't
really amount to much in an exponentially growing population, factored
in with distribution problems, because by then erosion will have
eliminated some fraction of the arable land on the Earth. - WH.]


Afternoon Fri Nov 4 -- Series III: LIFE - THE COSMIC IMPERATIVE


Michael Smith (Chemistry 1993) - Synthetic DNA & Biology.

I hardly remember anything about this lecture :-(.  He talked about
gene sequencing, I think, and introduced us to some basic ideas about
DNA, how it interacts with the proteins around it, and how to
synthesize it.  He mentioned Jurassic Park and how, *if* we could find
a suitable source of dinosaur DNA, that the technical prospect of
brining back extinct species *may* be feasible.


Christian de Duve (Medicine 1974) - Life as a Cosmic Imperative.

The first half of his lecture was somewhat theoretical -- or at least,
I don't remember what he talked about.  Here's my selective memory at
work, though: the second half of his lecture was about how life on
Earth teaches us about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  I'm
very interested in this, so I remember alot about the second half.
- talked about evolution.  Defined 3 historical driving forces behind
evolution, debunking 2 of them: 1) undirected (non-teleological), the
currently accepted view of evolution.  2) Finalistic: eg, the stomach
evolved *in order* to digest food.  This implies that evolution somehow
knew where it was going from the start, and seems unreasonable.  3)
(term I forget), meaning that there is a life-force, independent of
matter, that drives evolution.

- His biggest point was the following.  An argument (that he disagrees
with) about the probability of life is that even if conditions such as
occurred on the Earth 4 billion years ago exist in abundance, the chance
that life occurs is extremely remote.  His argument against this is as
follows.  It has become painfully obvious over the years that the
number of pre-requisites for life is very large -- ie, the number of
conditions that need to be satisfied is huge, probably in the millions,
at least.  (If you've heard of the Drake Equation, he's basically
saying there are millions of terms in it.) *IF* it were true that the
majority of these terms were close to zero, then the probability of
life arising anywhere, including the Earth, would indeed be grossly
astronomical -- never in a billion billion billion... universe
lifetimes would life arise.  But since the fossil record on Earth shows
that life arose almost immediately upon conditions allowing it (ie,
when the surface stopped being uniformly molten, about 4.0 billion
years ago, and life has been detected in abundance in 3.8 billion year
old rocks), it seems that, *if* the conditions are suitable, then life
will arise quickly and easily, almost with-probability 1.  [His
argument was actually alot more convincing than this; I think I've
forgotten some major points, but it seemed very reasonable at the
time.  - WH.]

- the question now is, what are the conditions, and how common are
they?  He argued that many of the millions of terms in the equation are
actually inter-related, so that existence of one implies the existence
of many others, and in fact that many are inevitable.  [Again, he was
alot more convincing than this.  He had so many good points that I was
reeling with dizziness by the end of his lecture.  I'm really sorry I
didn't write them down. - WH.]

< The idea I took away was that all the steps were evolutionary
< (in the original sense of the word) and likely.  All the hard
< stuff is in the microprogamming (my extrapolation & pet theory)
< i.e. encoded in DNA which is much more plastic than direct wiring.
< More of my pet theory: encoding in general causes dramatic
< reductions in the various costs of complexity.  This gives
< advantages to systems with DNA, brains, books, computers...


Max Perutz (Chemistry 1962) - Living Molecules.

This talk was entertaining and completely academic.  He did some actual
chemistry experiments in front of the audience;

< He separated DNA from what he called "deadly bacteria" (the bottle
< said "salmon sperm nuclei" when I looked afterwards).  I kept
< some of the DNA.
                                               he had a bunch of
molecular models that he fiddled with, building some of the basic
chemicals of life and showing how various carbon and (phosphorus?)
compounds link together at the molecular level.  He also had some
movies of computer animations of some simple chemical reactions.  What
I remember most from these movies was when he alternated between a
"before" and "after" shot, in 3D (and rotating), of some large molecule
and a single atom being added to it.  What impressed me was how adding
this single atom slightly perturbed the shape of the entire molecule in
3D; it was still basically the same shape as before, but near to where
the atom was added, the angle between various bonds were different by a
great amount, and farther away from the addition point, the angles
changed less and less, but even at the periphery of the molecule (it
had hundreds of atoms in it), the angles were different.  I don't know
how realistic the computer model was, and in fact in hindsight it's not
very surprising the shape of the molecule changes slightly, but it was
still very neat to see it.

< I think this was a movie of Hemoglobin (the structure of which he
< was the first to elucidate, if I remember correctly).

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