His specialism? Cryomicroscopy. His latest news? Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 4 October 2017. His university? UNIL. His future? Discussing, participating and philosophising.
Jacques Dubochet, what is the paradox behind your research?
It’s a double paradox. To be able to see something tiny you need to use an electron beam, but this smashes up and destroys the chemistry of the tissues you are observing. This problem has been ongoing throughout the history of electron microscopy. As for the second paradox, to see clearly using these instruments you have to work in a vacuum, meaning that water (the main component of living matter) must be eliminated completely. Scientists therefore had to work out how to get rid of water without destroying the specimen. All kinds of methods were used, such as replacing water with resin or coating the particle being dried in a protective substance.
Richard Henderson, who was awarded the Nobel Prize with Joachim Frank and myself, obtained the first protein molecular structure with Nigel Unwin in 1975 using sugar: a coating more forgiving to the molecule. Then came our discovery: vitrification, meaning solidifying water without it becoming ice. This means that the particles bathe in their original water. This has been our mission but to do it we had to learn vitrification, which was considered impossible.
Didn’t you make a mistake at the outset?
At the time I was working with a group from Munich on the issue of damage caused by microscopic observation. On the basis of our deficient data, we thought we had discovered conditions whereby adverse effects on the specimen observed were considerably reduced. However, our assessment was somewhat wide of the mark. We lacked the perseverance required to falsify our own theory.
The ‘refutability’ dear to Karl Popper…
Yes, that’s the right word, thank you. You were talking about paradoxes and here’s another: research is paradoxical by nature. Think of a scientist with an idea who spends their life proving it’s correct: this is normal and human! We went on a wild goose chase for several months but thankfully our supervisor believed in us. It was Sir John Kendrew… It eventually became clear that, contrary to what we believed, the specimens were not being protected from electron damage. But at the same time we were working on the water idea and the real discovery was already looming!
How do things stand with human and social sciences?
Whatever the scientific discipline, you always have to base things on the facts. If someone comes along to refute vitrification, all you need to do is show them the process. However, in other areas proving validity in this way is harder. What is science? It’s about having just one master: nature. And here I include society, the whole environment, the whole of world reality, my subconscious… So, yes, exploring the subconscious is more complex than vitrification, but we do it nevertheless. In general, in good science you have to observe nature as well as listen to someone else telling you what they have seen. I cannot know anything alone and nothing comes to me via divine intervention. I just know those things taught to me by nature, although over time this method has proved powerful and even led to the atomic bomb being built… Nature is always much bigger than us so scientists should stay modest.
How can you protect your own teaching from political interference?
It’s easy in electron microscopy. But in history, for example, why exclude political issues? City management can be part of teaching and relationships with students in the form of a discussion based around historical data. It’s important not to try to convert people to dogmas, but we can reflect together. I haven’t changed one iota since my Nobel Prize and yet it’s given me a voice: I now find I have a kind of ‘loudspeaker’. I will not keep quiet about key issues such as global warming and migrant tragedies. It seems to me that these things are all part of the culture transmitted to young people. I’m rather supportive of including more politics in our discussions as these issues really do affect everyone.
It’s not my area. I’m like an astronomer observing the sky without resorting to a God hypothesis which doesn’t interest me. Many people need transcendence. We can study this strange attraction and respect it naturally without involving it in every area of life. During my childhood in Valais, God was omnipresent in education. That’s not the way to do it! Disrupting a class with such arguments is simply intolerable. Things should be said without rejecting either the person or their beliefs. Coming from a religious background is honourable: I myself have. But what should we do about religion? That is the question. If it incites political activity or real action it cannot be accepted. For example, if it affects the advancement of women some will always say that this is an age-old culture. I understand the argument but am more on the side of those who criticise it. Of course, it is complicated and these issues must not be exploited when the effort to integrate culturally that must be made by those arriving in unimaginable conditions from afar is much greater than we might think.
How can we inspire young people?
Your question reminds me of another that frequently arises: the meaning of life. We tend to think of a form of transcendence dictating what is right and wrong, but life has no meaning! You are the one who must decide what meaning you will give it. In an open world where the future remains unwritten, the only real issue is responsibility. I often say: dead fish float away on the current while living fish go places. This is also valid for our society: where do we want to go? I believe that an honest person asking themselves this question is unlikely to answer that they just want to amass money, consume as much as possible before it’s too late or kill people who do not share their religious beliefs. If we decide to integrate ourselves into reality in a non-dogmatic way by seeking our own direction with all the limitations created by place, background and smallness of mind compared to the vastness of nature, I believe we will all come to seek personal and collective harmony.
And what of the limits long imposed on women?
As a biologist I note that evolution has developed sexual differences with quite different roles. However, this construction mainly came about with the hunter-gatherers. We are now experiencing delicate times as male and female biology is not well adapted to the terrific current conditions. Equality between the sexes is a fundamental value. We can discuss the topic or say it’s not like that in nature, but what a great achievement by humanity! In my view, it’s the most beautiful thing currently happening and still has a few shocks for us up its sleeve. We are not equal in that we are uniform but we do have equal potential and human rights. Whatever the sex, origins, strengths and weaknesses of each individual, we are all human beings. We must support the weakest by respecting their freedom and knowing that all freedom involves learning: nobody freely chooses to do nothing in their life; to see it as already determined. It goes back to what I feel remains the splendid issue of responsibility.