The art of Wally Gilbert

It’s a tough job, but someone has to talk to two Nobel Laureates in two days. Wednesday Jim Watson; Thursday Walter (Wally) Gilbert.  Gilbert’s name isn’t as familiar to laypeople as Watson’s, but it certainly deserves to be. First of all, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980, along with Fred Sanger and Paul Berg. Berg got it for developing the ability to make recombinant DNA molecules, Sanger and Gilbert for the pathbreaking achievement of discovering how to sequence DNA. In some ways that was the capstone of the work begun by Watson and Crick in 1953. And of course DNA sequencing is a huge deal today, huge in basic biological research, in medicine (Gilbert’s firm Myriad holds the patent on one breast-cancer gene), in tracing people’s immediate and evolutionary ancestry, and in determining the evolutionary relationships of organisms.

But Gilbert was educated not as a biologist or biochemist, but as a physicist. Born in 1932, he got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics and his master’s degree in physics, both at Harvard. His Ph.D. was from Cambridge University, also in physics. He returned to Harvard as an assistant professor in physics, and then, under the influence of Jim Watson, got interested in molecular genetics, moving over to first to biophysics, then to biochemistry, and finally to molecular biology.

Besides developing ways to sequence DNA, Gilbert is famous for the “RNA world” idea: that is, that the original replicating molecule on Earth might not have been DNA but RNA. In 1978 he introduced the term “intron”, suggesting that genes may often be split by noncoding regions that are removed from the messenger RNA sequence before it is translated into proteins.  That is, there are noncoding “introns” and coding “exons” in many genes.  Gilbert also did pathbreaking work on messenger RNA, and helped isolate the first “regulatory element” of any gene, the lac repressor of the bacteria E. coli. This repressor had been postulated by Jacob and Monod (both of whom became Nobel Laureates) but was experimentally confirmed by by Gilbert, Benno Müller-Hill, and Mark Ptashne. Finally, Gilbert helped found the biotech research companies Myriad Genetics and Biogen.  Now he devotes virtually all his time to his art, although he’s also head of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, an organization that awards post-Ph.D. fellowship for independent study.

I knew of Wally because my own adviser, Dick Lewontin, had co-advised a graduate student with him—my friend Marty Kreitman (now in my own department at Chicago); but I had never spoken more than a word or two to him. Yesterday I had the luxury and pleasure of finally getting to know him, for he was here to give a talk on his art, his science, and their relationship.

Yes, art.  About 12 years ago Wally decided he wasn’t devoting enough attention to science, and was more turned on by art, photography in particular.  Yesterday he gave at 2-hour talk (which, sadly, I had to miss) in the art department; the topic was his art (with many slides) and its relationship to his science, something he discusses in the video below.

In our hourlong chat we barely mentioned science, for we’re both photography buffs, though he’s far more accomplished than I.  His work is really good, and of course I find these polymaths (physics, Nobel Prize for Chemistry, work in biology, very good artist) quite intimidating. But Wally is extremely amiable and doesn’t have the least sign of the arrogance that plagues so many Nobelists.  You can sense his amiability in the photo below. I asked him to pose with one of his photos that he particularly liked, which was a picture of a series of columns on a building in Berlin.

Wally and photo

His work comprises mainly photographs, but also some abstract drawings that he creates on Photoshop. He’s had many shows and is quite feted in the art world. In fact, Marty told me that he once went to one of Wally’s art openings in Los Angeles, and Wally, dressed as an artist and sporting a scarf, held court without people realizing that they were also talking to a world-class scientist and Nobel Laureate.

Here are a few of his works; I concentrate on the straight photographs because that’s the stuff I do myself. Wally used to use a 35 mm digital camera, but now uses a small point-and-shoot, which creates pictures that can be blown up to 6 X 10 feet! Oh, and he goes by “Wally Gilbert” as both an artist and scientist.

This is my favorite; it’s a grease stain on a factory wall in Poland, transformed into a golden abstraction:

52821A staircase in Thessalonika, Greece:


An art museum before the paintings are hung. This picture looks to me like a Magritte painting, but it is a photograph:


Gears in an abandoned Polish factory. When I was younger and a more avid photographer, I’d also roam abandoned lots and factories looking for “accidental art” in industrial debris:

NorblinGear7WarsawEvocative chimneys in Paris:


Marzipan figs, Italy:


A colorized image from New York City:

watertowerNYsat1 36x24 email

And one abstract (there are many). Wally also took photographs of the Boston Ballet for over a year. They’re terrific, but I think I’m not allowed to show them (and I can’t find any):


Of course I had to have the obligatory vanity picture. Does that shirt make me look fat? I have to clean up my act when meeting these laureates!

WG & me

Here’s a nice 18-minute interview with Wally when he had an exhibition in Poland; he describes not only his art, but his scientific achievements. It’s definitely worth watching.

Oh, I forgot to add that, according to Wally, he follows this website.


  1. gbjames
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Excellent photos.

  2. Hempenstein
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Very cool photos! I particularly like the Polish sprocket and the Parisian chimneys (that look like something from a 30’s Buck Rogers set.)

    Warren Gilson of Gilson Instruments, who co-invented the Pipetman, was very interested in photography, too. I remember talking with him at the Gilson booth at a FASEB meeting over 20yrs ago. He had on display some poster-sized shots of flowers that were possible to make because of some new development that involved CIBA, but I can’t remember if it was the film, paper, or process. He also told me that their annual consumption of poly(propylene?ethylene?) for making pipette tips was on the order of 20tons!

  3. bonetired
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Yes, polymaths like our own Professor Cobb. Zoologist and military historian ……

  4. Matt Bowman
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I don’t think you look fat, just big boned. Love the photos! By the way, the Chicago Sun Times fired all of their professional photographers. And, while I’m on the subject, a free account on Flickr now gets one terabyte of storage.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I love the stair case photo and I’m jealous of all polymaths but only when their jokes are funnier than mine to boot! 😀

  6. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Great! I like the simpler images with the blocks of bold colour such as the Berlin columns & the empty art gallery

    The spiral stair is called Stair #1 – Greece 2005 & I’m guessing the real stair didn’t have that many turns, but I can’t spot the join. The image has been used for the cover of nature magazine for obvious reasons

    P.S. I like the groovy shirts

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      Correction: nature mag cover is the mirror image “Stairs #2 – Greece 2005”

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      I count seven turns. Surely they have seven-story buildings in Greece.

  7. steve oberski
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    I can’t say about fat, but that chair makes you look short.

  8. Chris
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    “This repressor had been postulated by Jacob and Monod (Jacob was also also Nobel Laureate)…”

    Jacques Monod was also a Nobel laureate (in 1965).

  9. Posted May 31, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Um, hello, Mr. Wally Nobel Laureate! Great photos, and thanks for all the genetic analysis stuff!

    <crawls back in hole once again amazed at the thought of being so close to so many real Titans />


  10. Marcoli
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    I always wear Hawaiian shirts to work, but they tend to not be tailored for a fit and trim look.

  11. Posted May 31, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    “Oh, I forgot to add that, according to Wally, he follows this website”

    Too bad he doesn’t comment much…unless he’s using a pseudonym…

  12. Marcoli
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Hmmm, which one of us is he?

  13. darrelle
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    A paramount example of how untrue the tired old cliche that scientists are not capable of creating or appreciating, or interested in, the arts. Only people that do not understand the pursuit of science would think that.

    Creativity, imagination and an appreciation of aesthetics are all valuable characteristics for engaging in the pursuit of science, and they are common among scientists. Only people that do not understand the pursuit of science would think that.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 31, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Err. Scratch that last repeated sentence.

  14. Vaal
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne,

    Thank you for introducing me (probably most of us) to that wonderful art!


  15. Edward Hessler
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    There is much to thank you for here. One is for the introduction to Mr. Gilbert’s images. I loved the door and am glad the link added more doors and colors. But I also liked very much the colorized image of New York. But that grease stain and the way it is lighted is incredible. The interview is not to be missed and I very much appreciated the interviewer’s thoughtful questions and for letting him respond. And he has an infectious amiability. I’m glad you added it.

  16. Jiten
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I have really loved your posts about Watson and Gilbert. It’s been like a mini Life Scientific, an excellent radio programme about the lives of scientists on BBC radio 4.

    And no that shirt doesn’t make you look fat. Only being fat makes one look fat.(sorry for humour fail)

  17. marksolock
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

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