Happy birthday Greg Kinnear!

17 June 2013 by Malcolm Campbell, posted in Science Communication

“They say it's your birthday, it's my birthday too, yeah; They say it's your birthday, we're gonna have a good time; I'm glad it's your birthday, happy birthday to you” from Birthday by Lennon-McCartney

Happy 50th Birthday Greg Kinnear!

Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century. Whatever way you look at it, in a human lifespan, the fiftieth birthday is a major milestone. A time for celebration, and perhaps more than a little reflection.

Undoubtedly, you are spending some time to both celebrate and reflect. You’ve had a remarkable life so far – what sounds like a wonderful family; amazing international experience; a successful, multifaceted career; and, an enviable opportunity to interact with an incredible diversity of interesting people.

And this has all been set against a time of remarkable change in the world.

As you were conceived at the height of the Cold War, quite literally on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you’ve lived through marked flux in the global political landscape – the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the rise of China, the formation of the European Union, the roller coaster of world economics, and continued upheavals in many regions of the world.

Throughout your life, technological innovation has been running at an ever-increasing pace. When you were born, room-filling computers were owned only by large corporations and governments. Now, that same computer power is found in a device that fits in the palm of a hand, and can be owned by billions of people. At the time of your birth, global communication largely involved movement of paper from one location to another. Now, the world is interconnected through an electronic network that transmits messages in an instant. Messages that sometimes took days to reach their destination fifty years ago are now instantly conveyed. Fifty years ago, the first woman made her way into space. Since then, this first woman, Valentina Tareshkova, has been followed by over 520 other people, including some that walked on the surface of the moon. We now know precisely what our planet looks like, from space.

These are the things we tend to focus on when we reflect back on our lives. The things. Tangible stuff. Current affairs and technology.

But it’s not merely the tangible that has grown up with you.

Ideas have been born and grown with you too, Greg.

For instance, 50 years ago, a meteorologist from MIT, Edward Lorenz, published a beautifully concise and clear paper that focused on a simple, elegant conjecture: small things can have big effects. His paper, entitled “Deterministic nonperiodic flow”, showed that small variations in the starting conditions of s system could lead to profoundly different outcomes. In Lorenz’s own words:

Slightly differing initial states can evolve into considerably different states.”

Lorenz’s work was an astonishing proof of something that the great French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, had suggested 80 years previously. Poincaré suggested that, for some systems,

“it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. . . . Prediction becomes impossible.”

Lorenz had empirical and mathematical support for Poincaré’s conjecture, using meterological data and a computer that was about a million times slower than today’s laptop computers.

Despite its simple, but profoundly important premise, and its compelling supporting mathematics, Lorenz’s paper was virtually overlooked for a decade. It garnered less than 20 citations between the time of publication and 1972. Nevertheless, this all changed when Lorenz made a presentation at the 1972 meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The presentation, entitled “Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”, really resonated with people. It gave birth to the concept known as the “butterfly effect”. And so was born what was to be known as chaos theory.

At age 50, it is impossible to imagine a world without chaos theory. It has helped explained phenomena as esoteric as the spacing of Saturn’s rings, to something more down to Earth, like fluctuations in the Earth’s gravitational field, to the day-to-day, such as global finance or the beating of a heart. While some feel helpless in the face of the seeming unpredictability of systems as predicted by chaos theory – the theory actually provides good reason for hopefulness.  First, there is incredibly beauty in systems that seem unpredictable. They are unpredictable within particular bounds or constraints, and this produces “chaotic attractors”, which are frequently fractal in their nature – things of beauty in and of themselves. Beyond this, there is, embedded in chaos theory, the message that even small actions can have a large impact. In a world where the actions of the individual sometimes seem lost in the actions of the crowd, where it is hard to believe that an individual can make a difference, chaos theory says otherwise.

What a wonderful concept with which to share the same birthdate. And this is not the only idea that was born the same year as you, Greg.

In 1963, German biologist Peter Karlson suggested that an insect hormone worked by controlling the way genes were expressed. In insects, as in every other living being, genes are arranged linearly in chromosomes. In order for genes to fulfil their purpose, the instructions they contain must be read off the chromosomes. Now, in order to make a functioning organism, only certain genes must be read at certain times. In 1963, we had very little idea how this happened.

Peter Karlson’s insight was based on a series of experiments that he and a colleague, Ulrich Clever, had conducted in the late 1950s. They exposed flies (midges, to be more precise) to a steroid hormone. This hormone is called ecdysone. Ecdysone is a molecule that insects make at certain times of their lives and it encourages the moulting of the exoskeleton so that the process of metamorphosis takes place. Karlson and Clever found that ecdysone causes puffing of specific regions of the fly chromosomes. Karlson’s idea was that this puffing was indicative of changes in gene expression that were induced by ecdysone in those regions of the chromosome.

This may not sound like a big deal, but Karlson’s hypothesis was a crucial insight. Karlson was proposing that chemicals, like hormones, acted by controlling the expression of specific genes. In 1963, support for similar ideas was just emerging for bacteria. Karlson extended the concept to include multicellular organisms, like flies. Fifty years later, we know that Karlson’s idea extends to all multicellular organisms, including you and me. Right now, chemical changes in your brain are altering the expression of a subset of the 21000 or so protein-coding genes residing on your 23 pairs of chromosomes.  You can draw a direct line from Karlson’s insight to our understanding of how the brain works, how biodiversity arises, how stem cells work, and how to treat complex diseases like cancer.

Now, not all ideas in 1963 had as linear path to success as those of Lorenz or Karlson. In 1963, Peter van de Kamp, an astronomer at Swarthmore College, published a paper that changed the way we view our place in the universe.  Based on 50 years of astronomical observations, van de Kamp suggested that there was evidence for planets beyond our own solar system. His evidence was the “wobble” in the trajectory of a distant star. Such “wobbling” was thought to be due to the tug of gravity from a neighbouring object. van de Kamp suggested that this object was a planet.

Importantly, van de Kamp and his colleagues had observed such wobbling before, but the extent was so large as to suggest objects that were well beyond the size of any planet. The calculations for the object described in 1963 were much closer to planet size, but still considerably larger than even the largest objects in our solar system.

It turns out that van de Kamp’s conclusion that the object provided evidence of a distant solar system was premature. Nowadays, we would probably conclude that the object in question was a brown dwarf, another kind of star. Nevertheless, the impetus provided by van de Kamp’s conjecture propelled star-gazers on a quest for other solar systems in the universe. Today, there is compelling evidence for 900 planetary objects orbiting 700 stars.

While van de Kamp’s original conjecture was disproven, his thinking – his idea – lived on. It served as inspiration to many, many scientists. Ultimately, it has taken us to a place where we know for a certainty that solar systems like our own abound in the universe. We reside in a universe with a vast number of worlds, many of them likely orbited by moons like those found in our solar system. It may be that some of those planets harbour life like our own. And so we ride to the stars on such ideas.

Here’s the thing about these ideas. These are but three that were born the same year as you, Greg.

Even just these three help us to understand the very small and the very big in our universe.

They remind us that little actions have large effects; that everything is connected; that we are not alone in this universe.

And these are merely three ideas from 1963.

In 1963 alone, there were countless more ideas. Some were as grand as those of Lorenz, Karlson, and van de Kamp; some less so. Some gained traction, some have been honed and improved, and some sit dormant awaiting rediscovery. And so it has been every year in the 50 since you were born. And so it will be for the next 50. And beyond.

As you sit and take stock of the wonderful material things about you on this day of personal reflection, also spare some thought for the amazing ideas. They have been with you for the passage so far, and will shape our understanding of the universe for the rest of your days.

You have lived in an age bursting with ideas. You are uniquely positioned to share ideas through your craft. Aside from a life well-lived so far, these are the things to value, to build upon, as you move onto the next 50 years of your life.

Again, happy 50th birthday Greg. I hope it is a good one. I’ll be thinking of you, as I celebrate mine.

References:

Karlson P (1963) New concepts on the mode of action of hormones. Perspectives in Biology & Medicine 6: 203-214

Lorenz EN (1963) Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of the atmospheric sciences 20: 130-141

Van de Kamp P (1963) Astrometric study of Barnard's star from plates taken with the 24-inch Sproul refractor. The Astronomical Journal 68: 515-521

Image attribution: Greg Kinnear, by gdcgraphics (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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