Century of Science; Unity of nature
Bruce feels the unity of nature. He's a potentially good bio physicist. The words and voice of Dr. Ernest Pollard professor of bio physics at Yale University and a prime mover of science in the 20th century the century of science WGBH Af-Am in Boston presents a century of science produced under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is an exploration of developments in 20th century science and of the implications they present for contemporary American society. Your host Volta Tory former editor of Popular Science and director of radio television programming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Ernest Pollard of Yale University seems to have the happy knack of being well ahead of most of us. I can recall immediately after the war when a good many of us had to find
out something about the atom in a hurry. We discovered a textbook in nuclear physics that Dr Pollard and one of his students had written this textbook was the source of a great many of the things that you've read about protons and neutrons and atomic forces in the newspapers I can assure you. But now Dr. Pollard is a professor of bio physics at Yale University and many of us are as mystified by bio physics as we were say 50 years ago. Nuclear physics and then bio physics of course suggests that this is somehow related both to biology and physics but I hope in this course of this program we will explain a little better what is meant by bio physics. What led you Professor Pollard from nuclear physics to biological physics. Well Mr. tare it was working at MIT at the radiation lab when the war ended and we were getting ready to disband. We had little time to think which is always a very good thing for a scientist to
have. And I asked myself why would a person who was experimentally inclined where he can contribute the most in a way that perhaps didn't require many decimal points and yet was exciting and interesting. The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that we had made no inroads whatever about the problems of life. And now that the atom bomb gone off we've almost written the most exciting chapters in the nuclear physics in the physics of the atom. But that we hadn't even begun to write the exciting chapters in the study of life as a an understood process. So I said well maybe that's what I'd better do. And I took the necessary steps to change over. And after a while I found I'd done it. And here I am. Well what what there's a physicist do is distinct from the nuclear physicist. Thinks about living things instead of thinking about the nucleus of the atom. That's the
main difference. The biophysicist keeps his attitude of mind which is that there is a regularity and an order in nature which he hopes one day to help find out and understand but that he looks now for the regularity in order in living things rather than the nucleus of the atom as a difference. What is a great surprised in the glee of physicist and I know more than one who has encountered this is to find that the apparent confusion in and jungle and uncertainty of living systems is really much simpler that in fact the constituents of the living cell are rather fewer in number than the chemical atoms in the periodic table. We can probably do quite well with 50 molecules in a cell as we've got or had in the ordinary way 92 chemical elements we have more now but those are what we began with. So it doesn't seem so hard to work on
living systems. Difficulty lies in the unfamiliarity of working with preparations that are not going to last that have to be kept carefully that have to be fed watched and courted and so on and I want to get used to this and get used to working with glassware and in incubating years in refrigerators instead of just in the laboratory with leaves and wire wire at one's attitude of mind is not changed at all and the challenge is so great that one becomes a very happy person and that's certainly what I am as far as the scientific work is concerned. Are these parts of a cell. Yes classifiable in the same way that we classify chemical elements as you have a periodic table so not as complicated a rather simple one the classification which them it is often finds is good enough for him is for big things in the nucleic acids and proteins and for little
things into amino acids and two or three bases three of four bases and sugar or two and some additional molecules. Not very many you know this and actually I think grouped in a more compact way. So it's not too bad. Well you make this a little simpler than I thought. Let's wait a little bit surprised first reported that this is apparently a fairly new idea. Well it's New only because it's been discovered recently. What one has in science is a sort of a page by stage development and one can see this coming along. Now the biologists had a tremendous amount of work to do before we could even think of a cell as a unit of biology that came quite late later than the atom came. And then as one studied cells and classified and group from the parts as cells began to be studied it wasn't really until about 20 years ago that
the importance of both protein and nucleic acid began to be understood. Our first feeling that the scientist has is or is one of. Great caution and conservatism with regard to believing it can be simple he wants it to be simple he desperately wants it to be simple. And if you press him he'll he'll say that he sure it will be the way I put it is that the odds are it is still simpler and I almost have that as a sign in my office. But one doesn't believe it oneself because it almost seems presumptuous to believe it. So what you do is to patiently keep working and as the patient work has gone on the these really 3 things have hardened in their what we believe to be the major items in the cell protein and two kinds of nucleic acid. And each of these is now seen to have a function of clear and simple function once more. And now our problem lies in understanding how they fulfill a function. So it becomes simpler now to talk
that way. Twenty years ago we couldn't have done it in 20 years time we'll look back on the way I'm talking as a still rather confused wonder why I didn't come out straight and clean and say well how the cell works because in 20 years time we're going to know well is the physicist contribution to this primarily a world of techniques or one of concepts or instruments or what. Partly it lies in a freshness of approach. The physicist has to become a biologist. He becomes so without the prejudices and the fears that the established biologist has. He also brings a kind of faith. He knows that physics has successfully explain correlated and unified an enormous realm of nature all the realm of inanimate meaning is really correlated and understood by physics. So he comes along with that so to speak. Helping him out
and it is really an item of faith. Then the other thing that he has he has an ability to think accurately and mathematically which is natural to him and not something he has to assume he loves it. And in addition to that he's not afraid either complex operators or handling a complicated mathematical expressions. He's ready for that too. And finally of course as the description of the cell becomes more and more complete it is necessary that the operation of physics begin to be seen because the forces between molecules the way they're arranged in ordered form part of the structure of a living system. There's a very easy way to think about this if you like to ask yourself wherein lies the most beautiful symmetry that you can conceive of in nature. And if you think about this quickly and philosophically you immediately say a living system. Now that symmetry
and perfection and beauty is in some measure bound to be the expression of the forces and the rules of order that pertain to the universe as we know it. Now physics has more than its share of understanding of these rules of order and therefore it comes naturally to the physicists to find the place where they apply. And as others speak feed those rules into the cell. So he finds himself very happy doing this and the only time he's impatient is when he finds that the description has to begin with isn't quite ready for him and has to go on to get more of it himself. Sure the first person that some people this will sound like brother of the hope because we have certainly a pretty deep seated idea that beauty and symmetry and living things are a qualitative thing was that. Well yes even if you did reduce them to mathematics and mathematics would be so complex that there would be
no hope of handling such mathematics. Well that's one way to look at it the other way to look at it is just to turn it completely around. There is the system which is a beautiful and simple and it works. I living seller say a simple one of bacterial cell which divides 20 minutes doesn't do a lot of mathematics and we use computer use and so on in the Vineet just does it. Now in the same way if you can find out one or two of the processes by which the cell works then the whole operation is almost certainly going to be a multiple of those and so you will be able to see if we can understand one or two will be unable to understand 100 or 200 and then a million or two million And finally we learn to stand the whole thing. Well now wait a minute I thought there were things and living things that are ripped of in this physical philosophy. Oh of course there are. And now there is the really the excitement of bio physics. I would not be in bio
physics if I really felt that there was no chance at all that we would find quite new laws of nature in living systems. If I really thought that you could just put together a lot of molecular descriptions and this would explain a living cell I think I'd probably be in business or lost something that I don't know and probably just looking at it. Abstractly we're going to find out new rules and Mr. tare the interesting thing about those new rules is that they may very easily be the rules we need to guide our conduct. One of the troubles today is that we've gained a great deal of scientific skill and we will learn the material. But we haven't learned anything to build our philosophy on. We've attempted our philosophy in terms of material things not doing too well I don't think. But supposing we had the operations
of the living things understood so that the things that were natural to life were understood by us. We have a fine basis for philosophy and I feel that we urgently needed you to get here. You're still going to first rate. How can our physics be applied to conduct I think of that as a law and religion and morality are things that we think of and those terms. Well let's just look at the impact of science on us. We really learn to understand the solar system how we learn that we weren't limited in doing things we can cross the ocean rapidly and all of these things make many changes to us. But while all the time we've learned that we've learned relatively little about the way a living system and we're certainly a living system not learned how it works now always we find there's a sort of analogy
between regularity and order in nature and our behavior. And we have I feel lacked that analogy. For instance here I am on a million million million cells all working together all of find me and as I sit here sitting in front of the microphone if I want to wiggle my foot and I am doing it I can do it as a unit and all of these million million system cells working together working for a single purpose working effectively happily and smoothly. And if we only find out how that was so why one second isn't work. Maybe we are relatively fewer human beings could learn to live together and operate somehow for our aggregate unit. That's a long way off to something the bio physics but it does not go on way from the drive behind understanding life. I think we have to remember that the understanding of life has got a big emotional drive underlying it and this is it. I'm not hiding it I'm saying it quite straight out that that's the drive 30 US or
the question that I heard and which one was a little bit in the other journalist Well wary of the great religious leaders such as Christ differently if he'd known as much about the distant planets other galaxies as we know. I personally think he would be released I think we would have had a different written word. And I think it would have been more apt and more easy for us to put into practice today had this been true. The great religious leaders have always used the knowledge that was present at the time used it simply and expressively in there in lies their power. I think that we would not make any harm at all and rather the other way around we would greatly strengthen the power of religious leaders good ones that is the true religion. If we had more understanding I don't see any conflict there at all. Personally I retain that good one.
You make this even more portentous than I had thought when I first began thinking about via physics. Is there sufficient support for this kind of research professor Pollard. Most of the talk with the newspapers is about more support for weapons research or investigation or space or things like that. We hear very little about increasing support for bio physics. Well let me say right away no. And then let me also qualify this way that I would not necessarily mean just for bio physics has done by the individual ones now working but I don't think there's nearly enough money spent for biology and for understanding life. I think we can very easily save some money on missiles and the cold dead things that are the hot stew. That we face and learn to live. The gentle this of when the kindly way of life. And I think I would be far better. So I don't think there is enough money and we've
seen with the utility of science as it's come in and as the nation has needed the nation has needed science primarily in warfare. Now we've had a kind of gentleman's agreement not to use biological warfare. And in a certain sense in a curiously distorted way this is heard because it's meant what we do use electronics and explosives and things like that. I had an awful lot of push behind them and so they've been developed now I'm not saying that we should put the push behind biological warfare. In fact if I'm ever quoted on our show tonight. Quickly. But on the other hand because that motive hasn't been there and the government just and the other people to the venture capitalists have been with the money and the biology that I think they should have done. And I mean that the disparity is very great and I think it's distorting our civilization. So where do your students in a subject such as bio physics come from. Are they
primarily young men who have started out to be a physicist in order to get young women a lot of women. Yes not a lot of good proportion about one in three. Well but I but I started to ask Les how do they become interested in this aspect of science did they start out interested in physics or did they start out interested in Elegy or what. Most of the ones I have by I think chance of being primarily interested in physics. I don't think that's a problem in attitude at all but that happens to be so. About two to one physics to biology is a common thing about them or not is that they love quantitative things they like accuracy and they also have a feeling that they don't want to waste their talents on something that hasn't much challenge. They are not the sort of five day a week worker. Likes to settle in a comfortable position. They've definitely got a pioneering feeling
and they definitely do have that response to a challenge. My experience with them is the extraordinarily happy group of really kindly and adjusted and very hardworking people and they're really a lot of fun to be with. How long that will last I don't know. I think each pilot years science has that quality to it. And as each science gets more developed and grows a little more staid and older. So the subject gets a little less challenge and I think the people working in it get a little less happy with it. Yes I feel that way and therefore a scientist does very well. A good one I was anxious to be a contributor to think carefully about his field and to pick the one where there's there's going to be change and progress in the sense of achievement. That's not a small thing. Well tell us after a while physics all that well either Physics has a long way to go. Son of the just beginning.
I mean the interested me that one group I know of it thinks they may have one problem like they don't but they have already begun to start thinking of the workings of the mind. For instance how if we understand the workings of the cell how the workings of the mind operate. And it's not too hard to see that you understand the cell and then perhaps you understand the mind. Maybe you might be in the understand society and so it's got a long way to go. I don't think there's any need to fear that the challenger will die out quickly in my life. I mean the way I was intrigued at a display of pendulums that simulated the way it was going in the air. I hadn't realized that you could make physical models of biological operations or processes to the degree that the suggested is a great deal of that. Yes there is actually even more than that that's one aspect. The the large scale models are important you can make models of many
things walking and vision and perception and so on are all very much in line for models. But there's another side too and that is that we've learned recently that the the cell the workings of the cell are really lower smaller levels than you can see in the microscope. So we're driven to make models of what we imagine. And they have to work. Now here of course is a strong analogy with nuclear physics. Since you mention the main unit we're never going to see an atomic nucleus yet a nuclear physicist can describe it rather accurately as to something green and the same is true of bribes and never going to be able to see the actual parts the working parts of a cell. We hope to describe them and they'll be done imaginatively and here in the U.S. is the nice thing about modern science it does really combine science and art because you can imagine my opinion without being this
somebody really an artist you may think you do it mathematically but then you'll find the mathematician uses that magic word intuition. And wherein lies the difference between the intuitive mathematician and the artist I think they're the same. Well a good many of us have the idea that all little boys can be classified all little girls too for that matter as little liberals are little conservatives or a lot of scientists or little artists know you're sort of suggesting that it's pretty difficult to draw such a line between the sort of artists nowadays I'm sure it is. I think they merge together a great many artists as scientists if you or put it this way a great many artists I'll say are technicians and I'm sure they're great many scientists artists and in fact one of the difficulties about science is that the artistic contributor has so often a very great man. Sometimes to get him to the stage where he can handle it technically Well the mathematics and make the experiments work is difficult.
Once there he has the imagination and the insight and he's a wonderful contributor and this is one factor this instantly. I think he one on one mind thinking more in the Young Allies the problem educating boys and girls. After they're educated they too become very comparably skilled. But to begin educating a girl you have to appeal very magination she doesn't go on the whole she doesn't see things in terms of symbols and pieces of hardware. She sees them in terms of concepts. The boy is more willing to play with the hardware and fiddle with the symbols. Girl isn't so interested and yet the girl has a great potential source of good by officers and one who has some out in the beginning who appealed to their imagination. Well that's a problem. What courses would you recommend that a high school student who is intrigued by a bio physics take out of her school.
Well that's a hard one because of course you can take is once part of their general education and I don't think there's any need to change mathematics physics chemistry and biology. As far as titles or subjects are concerned. What I would need for would be unity of teaching. Make good teachers feel that there is more unity to all their subjects. A partisan room feels the unity of nature is a potentially good biophysicist any way they can feel that. Is all that's necessary in their early train. That's not easy to come by. Well can there be. It is aptitude tests that we trust so extensively. Do you have confidence in that sort of class of students and not overwhelming confidence now. I should think there would be some danger that you would lose the current You were talking abut but looking for the other. Yes I think there is a politician is in danger Fortunately they
aptitude does correlate to some extent with general ability and perhaps it's all right but I do think to select for bio for this is no one's really thought about it. It's a good question you bring up one I haven't thought of. Perhaps a little bit more specifically the doctor probably did but turning to a specific problem in biophysics that would illustrate the current's of problems that by authors as a whole are mainly concerned about what do you consider a good typical problem until the problem we're working on is what radiation ionizing radiation does to living systems and it's a very good problem for bio physics because you mention the medical side. Well we have to know what x rays do to us if we use them foolishly you have to know what fallout does to us if we have too many atom bomb tests same time. It's an intriguing problem for itself we have to understand what the
radiation is like him to understand what it does to different parts of the cells. And finally it does when we understand it enables us to say something about how the cell works. So there is one quite large field in bio physics I suppose this would also apply to the general problems of using radiation to preserve food. It all goes together. A lot of industrial as well as strictly immediate health problems involved and strife. One of the fascinating things is to see always in bio physics you see different fields come together. Now we have pictures today and a very fine scale of the insides of a cell. We also know the cell does things well to put little marks on those pictures saying where each of the things is that does its job. Here's another very important feature of bio physics to say that the Haredi Terry part is in one place
or the part that you breathe with. Here aspire is in another place. The part that you go with is in another place all within the cell which is almost below the limits of our vision. This you see is a big problem and I might say then that perhaps this is something I get another third of all biophysical in there or is just doing that. And you see that's not chemistry because chemistry is really more concerned with the interaction of the little things the little molecules of bio physics is concerned with where the molecules are. You can see the difference it's a difference between ordering the bricks for a house if you like in this idea where to put the bricks and the chemist is perhaps a little more interested in the bricks bio for this is interesting way to put it always have to be together you can have the house without the bricks and you gon have it without the plans either and both are interesting and the bricks are no good then the house is no good and if the plans and when the house is no good.
Well you're building quite a house there. Thank you very much Dr. Ballard for talking to us about this is that all right. You have been listening to Ernest Pollard professor of bio physics at Yale University speaking on unity in nature. This has been part of century of science a recorded exploration of developments in science and their importance for the 20th century American. This series is prepared by WGBH FM in Boston by the Lowell Institute cooperative broadcasting Council. Your host Volta Torre a former editor of Popular Science and now director of radio television programming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Director for the series Lillian Amber seen oil producer Jack the Summerfield Bill Cavanaugh speaking century of Sciences produced under a grant in aid from the Educational Television and Radio Center and distributed by the
- Century of Science
- Unity of nature
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- This program features an interview with Ernest C. Pollard, an author and a professor of physics and biophysics.
- A recorded exploration of science and its importance to the 20th century American.
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Director: Ambrosino, Lillian
Host: Torrey, Volta, 1905-
Interviewee: Pollard, Ernest C. (Ernest Charles), 1906-1997
Producer: Summerfield, Jack D.
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-9-5 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- MLA: “Century of Science; Unity of nature.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 15, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-9g5gg35z>.
- APA: Century of Science; Unity of nature. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-9g5gg35z