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.
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:
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:
Marzipan figs, Italy:
A colorized image from New York City:
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!
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.