Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Happy Birthday Sir Isaac Newton, born on 25th December 1642!

Christmas day is often associated with the "Heavens" and the appearance of stars in the night sky. Indeed, why else would we decorate trees and houses with fairy lights, if not to celebrate the contribution made by (arguably) Britain's greatest scientist, Sir Isaac Newton who was born on the 25th December in 1642? Newton not only laid the intellectual foundations for the Space Race that dominated the 1960s, but he (along with Liebniz) developed calculus, optics and in his later years made sure that our coins were the right size, shape and value (really!). 

So, from apples (fruit used to be a common Christmas gift, and we have some red balls on our Christmas tree, don't you?), to starry skies all the way through to gold coins (these days commemorated by chocolate covered in gold foil); it isn't surprising that Sir Isaac is so fondly remembered every year at this time. I am of course joking, but he was reportedly born on Christmas day!

So why is Newton so important and why do many believe him to be the most significant scientist/mathematician (possibly) ever? Also, why in recent years has his reputation been "damaged" by revelations of his fascination with "alchemy"? (I can recommend Michael White's "The Last Sorcerer" as a last minute book for Christmas, if you want to read more on this). I believe Newton's greatest talent was to bring together the scientific concepts that dominated the "Natural Philosophers" of the day within a robust mathematical framework. As I complete my undergraduate third year course on Systems Biology, I am frustrated by our (the large community of Life Scientists, Physical Scientists and Mathematicians, including Computer Scientists) tardiness in producing a coherent mathematical framework for most of the observations made in molecular and cellular biology over the last hundred years. Granted, there have been some examples of significance, but it is difficult to imagine how we are going to extract the full potential from the recently announced 100 000 genome project! However, we shall, even if it takes longer than many of us would like! Newton might have dabbled in alchemy, but everyone loves an enthusiast, and let's face it not every book published, play performed, painting painted or piece of music written by the great artists over the years have been all of the same standard! So for me Newton is my favourite Scientist, and the one whose talents I most admire. We need more Newtons!

Does the Life Science field have an historical figure as powerfully influential as Newton? Of course we do! It's Charles Darwin. Born a couple of days before St. Valentine's day in 1809, Darwin's ideas are, like Newton's, made so profound by his ability to draw strands of information together to produce a coherent whole: hence the Theory of Evolution. (I recommend "Darwin" by Adrian Jesmond and James Moore for those interested, and Steve Jones' update on Darwin: "Almost Like a Whale"). The challenge for everyone at the UTC, is to bring your talents, enthusiasm and imagination to bear on the genome revolution that largely lies ahead of us: harnessing the knowledge of the 20th century to improve Global Health. We need more Darwins!

So, no pressure then!

Happy Christmas to all students and staff at the Liverpool Life Sciences UTC, and see you all in the New Year to see what we can achieve! 

Dave Hornby

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