Sunday, January 23, 2005

Beyond the Gene

So Friday night was another ISEPP lecture at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Broadway, our most opulent old-style downtown theater. We have a district named Hollywood too (where I used to rent a basement studio) so maybe we're trying to mirror the American showbiz world in microcosm. Plus our ISEPP lecture series mirrors way more than that: top name scientists and mathematicians from all over the world have helped make this one of the most prestigious gigs in the country (as that Morgan Stanley guy exulted from the podium, with special thanks to Terry) . We've heard lectures (sometimes more than one) from Jane Goodall, Stephan Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan, Richard Leaky, Jean-Michael Cousteau (son of Jacques)... and the list goes on and on. You can check out the stellar roster at our web site (I say "our" because my wife Dawn is the ISEPP bookkeeper).

Our featured talent of the evening was Dr. Evelyn Fox Keller, a physicist turned biologist. The gist of her talk was that (a) she'd been prescient in predicting that yesteryear's gene talk would be overtaken by a more sophisticated chatter in which the atomistic idea of "genetic building blocks" would come to appear quaint and obsolete and (b) biology shows signs of eclipsing physics at center ring in this circus. Biology is where the action is -- and the money (more about that below). However, fortunately for the other sciences, biologists are ravenous for expertise in other disciplines, including physics, and especially computer science. The new management isn't going to be mean, arrogant and elitist (unlike some other managements we know).

Given Dawn and I have been ISEPP groupies from the beginning (we've known Terry since well before the Ione Plaza penthouse, which was in turn well before the newly restored Linus Pauling House on Hawthorne), we usually attend the more intimate followup dinners at the nearby Heathman Hotel, where our illustrious guests are wined and dined then put back behind a podium, to take questions from some of Portland's most science-literate (we might've been podunk before, but after all these lectures, we're quite the discriminating crew -- like Viennese to music).

Dawn asked a cancer-related question, which got Dr. Keller launched on a diatribe against moneymaking. What happens, all too often, is corporations will find a financially rewarding formula, and then stymie further evolution, because money is the sole measure of success. So even if the biology is from the dark ages, as long as consumers don't know any better, advances are slow, and all too often merely superficial and cosmetic. And unfortunately consumers may be counted on to not know any better, because look at the sorry state of their knowledge base (present company excluded of course). Like, most people still buy into the old gene talk, are pretty darned clueless about the ongoing renaissance in the life sciences. This was music to my ears of course, given recent brainstorming about pedagogy going on among the Wanderers.

Speaking of Wanderers, "ecology boy" was to my right (I added him to my cell phone, with a photo), and "energy boy" to my left next to Dawn. I'm concealing their true identities (not trying to be patronizing -- these "boys" are both among my heros). Energy boy schedules megawatts for daily delivery over the regional power grid, but for a firm with far more integrity than Enron. We often indulge in grid talk, which, after a few glasses of wine, tends to get rather raucous and jovial. He's quite the libertarian.