This discussion with Lewis Wolpert took place in London on Monday 22nd May
The day that this interview was going online, the Royal Insitution gave Lewis Wolpert the
Faraday award for the Public Understanding of Science

.Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He recently retired as Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, but continues to present science on radio and TV. He has written six books, including 'The Unnatural Nature of Science' and 'Passionate Minds' with Alison Richards. His most recent volume is 'Malignant Sadness : The Anatomy of Depression'. Lewis Wolpert is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded the CBE in 1990. He recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


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Shebang: Lewis, you have a strong connection with the Public Understanding of Science.
Wolpert: Yes. The Committee for the Public Understanding of Science is a joint organisation of the Royal Society, the British Society for the Advancement of Science and
the Royal institute. And I was chairman of it for four years
Shebang: Until quite recently.

Wolpert: I gave up about a year ago.

Shebang: Lewis, you are, shall we say, a controversial figure.
Wolpert: [Laughter]

Shebang: You are wheeled on to add spice to TV and radio programmes. You say some amazing things. You're acerbic.

Wolpert: Mmm.

Shebang: You speak your mind.

Wolpert: I do. I just attacked Prince Charles. [On the subject of GM Foods] I lost my temper on the BBC World Service. I ended up saying, 'I'm just as moral
as he is. There's just one difference. I know what I'm talking about.
Shebang: You do appreciate that when you are talking about the question of whether Art has anything to do with Science you seem to be suggesting that Science in some way better than Art. That may not be what you intend to convey, but that's the impression you give. I happen to know that you love art.

Wolpert: Yes. It's visual artists... There's a very strong movement, very strongly supported by lots of organisations including the organisation that I worked for, promoting the public understanding of science, and the Wellcome Trust, which put a great deal of money into bringing artists - visual artists - and scientists together. I am totally against this. And I have to explain why. It's not that I don't want artists and science to come together, but, partly, there's this illusion, this sentimental nonsense that there is something very similar between art and science. Now, I am speaking here particularly about the visual arts: this nonsense does no credit to either subject. And I think it's

quite damaging to science if people really think that they're simlar. They are so different that to bring the two tigether as if there wer something similar and as if there had
been some important interaction does damage to both. And that's why I'm against it.
There's also a snobbery about it all which I find disgusting; that is that these artists want to feel that they are really scientists - 'there's not much difference between them' -
and the scientists feel that they're truly Artists. So it's all snobbery. Of all the people in the humanities who can contribute very little or for the most part nothing to the understanding of science it's the visual artists.
The visual arts are not like poetry, or theatre, or novels. They are not communicating ideas in the same way. in the history of science, I claim that the visual arts have contributed nothing to science. Of course science has ahad an enormous influence upon the arts, and of course you want to support that, that's fine.

But in some cases with these collaborations between visual artists and scientists, from the point of view of the understanding of science I think it really makes things worse.

Shebang: There are scientists who claimed to be helped by ideas of perspective, or physicists who at least declared their admiration for Picasso What if they went further and a scientist said he had been inspired, or had gained actively some insight from a painting or statue or an installation --

Wolpert: I deny it completely. I think it would be the most absurd idea that you could possibly come across.

Shebang: Leonardo? Michelangelo? Anatomy is your field...? The physicist Leo Szilard when he read the H.G. Wells story The Shape of Things to Come --

Wolpert: Ah - Sorry! You've got to distinguish between the visual arts and writing. No. Szilard certainly was influenced by H.G. Wells, but that's literature. If you want to
bring poets and novelists and playwrights together with the scientists, I am very keen on that because I really do feel they can contribute to understanding and to appreciate science. It's the visual arts that I think are totally incapable of this.
Shebang: I have seen scientists applaud visual artists who come and show their work at scientific conferences, their videos, or --

Wolpert: Sure

Shebang: Sustained applause -

Wolpert: We love it. I love Kandinsky. I love Paul Klee. And one of the ironies of life is that in biology many things are themselves intrinsically beautiful.

Shebang: Right. Look, we have to say, that as regards this debate, we've gone round and round the houses. The point is we understand what you are saying, and we understand what other people say about art and science -

Wolpert: They're just wrong [Laughter]

Shebang: You see differences between Art and Science and others see hu-u-ge similarities, and, tell you what, frankly, we couldn't give a flying fuck.

Wolpert: [Laughter] All right.

Shebang: At Shebang we look at the stories in science -

Wolpert: I think the stories are great. The history of science, yes. I am absolutely for it. That is what I want the public to know about.

Shebang: But you seem sometimes to put art down.

Wolpert: Certainly not.

Shebang: But? What? You just don't think that they speak to each other in the way that the people involved in those encounters want them to?

Wolpert: Exactly

Shebang: In fact what they do is very often ludicrous?

Wolpert: Totally

Shebang: You said at a conference a few years ago that science is not about ego. (!?!)

Wolpert: [Pause] I wonder. Did I actually say that?

Shebang: Yes.

Wolpert: Well that is a bit... No. No. I think there is quite a lot of ego in science.

But when you're actually doing it, one of the few rewards - about the only reward, really - apart from the self-satisfaction of having done the thing - is the admiration of your peers. You really want that. That's about the only reward, that pleasure. It's not financial. yes, you can get great enjoyment from solving a problem but... You wouldn't want
to keep it to yourself.
Shebang: But when you say that science has this system of peer review and art doesn't have that, what you're saying isn't altogether true, in that really great artists often
are chosen as great artists by artists of another generation. There is an assessment process, often after the artist has died. And the review takes place in time. It's perhaps different for work in the theatre - which is immediate -
Wolpert: Well the important realisation is about the individual. In science ultimately the individual is irrelevant. If Einstein hadn't made his discoveries then Punnoooffnique
or Fluff or Bloggs would have made them. If you rerun the history of science, it will come out differently, but you will come up with the same answers. You rerun the history of art, goodness knows what will turn up. It's completely and utterly different. The individual in science contributes to a common body of knowledge and is ultimately irrelevant.
Shebang: Are we going to keep going on about science and art, we told you, we --

Wolpert: Sure. [Laughter]

Shebang: What do you think is generally interesting in science now? And what do you think the future will hold in your field and in science generally?

Wolpert: I once wrote an article in Science: I asked 'Do We Understand Development?' That is, do we understand how the embryo develops? And I said basically we did and the rest was details. [Sighs] People were a little irritated with me. Because what I am saying is that all they are doing is filling in. And there is an element of truth in that. I don't think that there are any great mysteries left in developmental biology and how the embryo develops. I would be surprised if any really new principles emerge. That doesn't mean to say they won't. I'm just telling you what my view is.

Shebang: Right.

Wolpert: And if you look at what is happening in my subject, developmental biology, it's infiinite detail, and that's terribly interest - well it's not, actually, I find a lot of it really rather boring.

There are problems, still, but the real question is how one's going to integrate all this enormous amount of information. Sydney Brenner said it something like 30 years
ago to me, "Is the embryo computable?" What he meant by that is, if I tell you everything about the egg - all the molecules etc., could you tell me what it will develop into?
That's quite a deep question. How much do you really have to know from your starting conditions to be able to know that it is going to look like you when it develops. It's really tough, and one of the big problems is this enormous amount of information coming in and all the interactions within the cell - the complexity of embryos lies not in the interactions between the cells, but in what's going on within the cells themselves. Cells are very complicated. And all those interactions and how one simulates and understands that, that's a big problem.

You start off with a single cell, a fertilized cell, and end up with you, or a child from you. But within a cell, just let me tell you:

We don't know how many genes there are in our cells - the numbers are changing - whether it's 40,000 or 1000,000. And something like 5,000, 10 of the complexity of what's going on in a cell consists of one protein putting phosphates onto another one which takes it off another and having a phosphate on or off changes how the protein behaves. The enzymes involved are called kinases, and the networks are very, very complicated.

Shebang: And the big excitement about the work of Venter and others - ?

Wolpert: It's a wonderful achievement, that they're sequencing the human genome, but it's the equivalent - and other people have said this - I tell you the words of a Shakespeare sonnet. 'Let me not.....'

Shebang: 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,
Nor bends with the remover to remove...'

Wolpert: You take those words individually and you muddle them up. You've got all the words there. You know somewhere you have 'love' and there's an
impediment. But you have no idea of the meaning. And that's precisely the situation now. The really big problem is to understand how these things interact.
Shebang: So, it's not going to be next week.

Wolpert: Good Lord. Solving, getting the sequence of the human genome is trivial compared with finding out how all these genes work and what they do.
For people who are doing genetics and wish to identify it, it's absolutely invaluable, but in terms of really understanding what's going on, forget it.
Shebang: And the recent experiments with cows -

Wolpert: I'm the one who has offered on radio, TV -

Shebang: And via Shebang

Wolpert: And via Shebang, a bottle of champagne to anyone who will tell me one new ethical issue that cloning a human being raises.

Shebang: Sure. Done. And as for the science, Lewis, your beloved 'value free' science?

Wolpert: When it comes to cloning we still don't know how all the animals are going to do. There are real dangers. There are certain genes which are called
'imprinted'. Cloning is not the same as fertilising an egg. In terms of which genes are on and off it's too soon to know whether these animals that are cloned are going to age, have other illnesses and so forth. Nevertheless in terms of therapy for people, it could be very powerful. In other words, you've got a problem in your liver, yes? Liver transplant's hard to get hold of. But I can take one of your cells. I can get an embryo or an egg. I can put your DNA and your molecules in there. We can get what are called stem cells. And in a few years one will know how to manipulate these so that we can have liver cells identical to yours. Maybe we can graft them into you, and so get rid of the immune reaction. That's very powerful. What's more one can use cows to make pharmaceuticals, because you can manipulate cells before you clone. But you can also do it with plants. The real future i don't think lies with animals.I think the real future lies with GM plants.
Shebang: They're cross-species a lot of them.

Wolpert: Yes. Sure. No problem whatsoever. You want to make a whole series of pharmaceutical compounds, plants are probably the easiest way to do it.

Shebang: That's been realised.

Wolpert: Yes, but now that's technology, and that's not my world. For me - and I think it's for everybody - the really exciting area really is the brain. And I have a strict rule
that the word 'consciousness' may only be used in my presence with a special permit, which I give out very, very rarely. I don't think anyone has the foggiest notion about consciousness. And it all seems to me very waffly, because we don't understand really quite simple things about the brain. There are too many basic problems with the brain.
I'm obsessed with motor control. It's curious that my son also works on this. But I've always been interested in it. It seems to me more interesting than all this emphasis on vision and other things. If you really want to understand how the nervous system evolved, motor control is everything. If I ask you, or I ask any neurobiologist, to give me an explanation how do I [Moves] pick this up.

Shebang: Nothing to do with vision - focussing...

Wolpert: No - it's not about focussing the eye, I can do it with my eyes shut! Bliind people don't need that! Have you watched birds flying? Have you ever thought about the complexity of that motor control? Do they know when to flap their wings? A bird landing on a wire can't even see its feet!

Shebang: But focussing the eye is an immensely complex process.

Wolpert: That is complex, but I prefer the arm. That is also what I work on when I examine embryonic development. How does the brain programme the right sequence of
muscles with the right strengths in order to pick up a cup for example. They just don't know. Now if you don't know that, forget about the rest, just forget about it.
My claim is that the origin of the brain has a fundamental connection with motor control. Why don't plants have brains? They don't have to move. Movement. Therein lies the origin of the brain. That was the substratum on which evolution worked.

Shebang: Didn't the guys who worked with Boolean logic for computers study slugs, and note how their brains and the muscles worked, according to three main kinds of response --?

Wolpert: That's not something I know about, but I did ask my son last night, actually. Are their neural networks that can easilt generate a temporal sequence? It is a hard problem in computing - my son is a reader in the Institute of Neurology. He's working on motor control. Now most of your life is devoted to a temporal sequence. Language and motor control are from my point of view identical. It's not an original idea. There's a man called Lieberman, unfortunately, who has said the same thing. It's not strictly speaking my subject, but I have become a bit obsessed by it.

Language. You take words and you put them in millions of different sequences. And with your muscles [moves hand and jiggles body] - how does the brain organise these temporal sequences? No-one has a clue. There aren't even neural networks that are capable of doing it.

Shebang: But the brain does sort out different messages that come in at different times.

Wolpert: But I am talking about the brain generating millions of tiny sequences, meaningfully. The Chomskyan grammar will turn out to be the same - this Lieberman guy said it too - that sequencing will be the same as the mechanism by which the brain generates motor control. That's my story.

Shebang: The child learning to walk and talk... Lewis: One thing that is fascinating iIn this discussion and with a major exploration that you did -

Wolpert: Positional value. It's a modification of other people's work. It's the idea that one of the ways that cells know what to do during development is they acquire
what I call a positional value. That is that they have a particular parameter which relates as if they're in a co-ordinate system.
Shebang: I have only one question. You have a reputation in the scientific community and in the media as an arch-reductionist -

Wolpert: Yes

Shebang: But if a cell knows where it is in an entire system, are you not at one and the same time somehow dealing with the whole picture?

Wolpert: No. Absolutely not.

Shebang: Because?

Wolpert: Because very early on in development the embryo is broken down into totally independent units.

Shebang: But they grow together to make a whole human being.

Wolpert: They interact very little.

Shebang: It's not even 'a little bit holistic'?

Wolpert: I am totally against holism. I have just had a correspondence with an ecologist. Mad. Holism is the death of science.

Shebang: Because?

Wolpert: Because it doesn't give explanations! Once you have said that everything matters then nothing matters.

Shebang: It's not that everything matters, it's that things that we can study separately also interact, inter-relate -

Wolpert: But science is about which things inter-relate. Do you know about the electron at the end of the universe?

I asked Mike Berry [Sir Michael Berry, physicist, a Professor at Bristol] two days ago if this is still true and he said yes. I tell you I've got a box of oxygen. In this box are atoms and particles, and I can tell you about their position and momentum, I can apply the laws of Newton there, put the information into a computer, we can simulate and so forth. There's just this tiny bit of uncertainty. There is an electron at the end of the universe. But you don't know where. It makes all your calculations collapse.

There is a lot of interconnectedness in the universe. But if I want to know how oxygen works, I am not going to worry about an electron at the end of the universe.

Of course things interact. So what? That just introduces a certain amount of uncertainty. But all good science is reductionist. One does not need to be told about inter-relationships, but holism is against the idea that you can explain things in terms of concrete entities. I can assure you you can. It is very important to recognise the concept of different levels of organisation.

You take a muscle. You can talk about this, it's a large structure, and you can go down to molecules, and you get down to the physics. You are not allowed at any one level to contradict something known at another level. Idon't have to explain what I do in terms of the laws of chemistry, but I cannot do anything to conmtradict those laws.

When I am interested in embryos, they are really rather simple, and the interactions take place over very short distances in fact.

Shebang: You hate people using science as a kind of grab bag to bolster their own prejudices... But on the other hand can science really be 'value free'? After all, why does a person choose a particular kind of research? Looking at racial differences or research that involves gender?

Wolpert: Well, one of the questions is, will that work get funding? But, knowledge is knowledge, and all one can hope for is that when some findings do come out, they are used not just to attack some class or type of person but also to help, to discriminate positively, to assist.

Shebang: Your recent book was about depression. Did it have anything to do with your work.

Wolpert: Yes. Very much to do with it. I have worked on evolution.

Shebang: And was it related to doubts you have about your work?

Wolpert: No. I don't have doubts like that. I think, now, that even if the evidence were to be overwehlming against me, I would deny it. [Laughter] Abdus Salam [the Nobel prize-winning physicist} told me scientists should stick to their guns. Edward Holton, the scientific historian, said the graveyard of science is littered with people who gave up their ideas too early.


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Some articles by Lewis Wolpert