Edelman's thought factories; UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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The Independent Culture
Imagine Darwin making a grant application, "I would like to go on a four-year voyage on which I am sure that I will discover something interesting ...". Or Einstein wanting money to allow him the time to think about being in a lift falling through space. And what chance would Fred Sanger, now with two Nobel prizes, but with years of a meagre publication record, have today? No, "the poetry", as Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman sees it, has gone out of government-funded science, and novel ideas are having a hard time.

Edelman sees much of current science as characterised by technological narrowness; experiments are determined by powerful techniques, now easily available, rather than imaginative new approaches. Also, science has become more competitive and any hint of weakness results in rejection.

His model of how science should be organised is based on eminent physicist Niels Bohr's institution in Twenties Copenhagen, in the days when quantum physics was being discovered. He had the charisma to attract brilliant young workers, including Pauli and Heisenberg, even if his model of the atom did turn out to be wrong. Edelman is convinced that the deepest creations in science have come from small communities which are not too competitive. He believes that the organisations which the gods wish to destroy, they first make large. So he conjured up a romantic vision - a scientific monastery which could recover some of the poetry that has been lost from scientific endeavour.

And his vision is now a reality, his "monastery of the mind", as the architectural journals praise it, is a magical creation in La Jolla, southern California. Clad in light-coloured fossil limestone, it is a building that fulfils his aim that even where there are no views over the hills, there are pleasing geometrical forms to be seen. And there are sufficient funds so that scientists can take a long-term approach to their work.

Edelman is sure that his Neurosciences Institute can encourage creativity and to achieve all this had to raise money from private sources. He managed to communicate his excitement to the donors, who recognised that the brain is at the centre of future biological research. Many take a continuing interest in the work.

Do scientists need special environments, like calm, and beauty in order to do their most creative work? A colleague of mine at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, shares a corridor/office with two others, when I visit one must make space for me to sit down. He survives.

The famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge had the reputation for having very crowded and inelegant facilities. I was always impressed with the small office that those two amazingly creative molecular biologists, Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner, shared in the laboratory of Molecular Biology, where a notice on the wall pronounced "READING ROTS THE MIND". Brenner has recounted how important the sharing of that cramped office was to him. They could say anything that came into their heads and convince each other of theories. Some of the sessions were completely mad and contained much nonsense. Yet from that office came some of the most important ideas of molecular biology. But that was in the golden age.

Edelman's is a brave and beautiful experiment. The scientists are just settling in, but their enthusiasm shows and there are exciting new results. Ironically, if it were already successful he would have to think that it had failed - it is fundamental to his conception that the measure of success depends on projects that take time to bear delicious fruit. I will wait impatiently.