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Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse Addresses Baruch's Bio-Med Society

Photo - Nobel Prize winner Dr. Paul Nurse at Baruch on March 8.
Dr. Paul Nurse addresses his audience at the Bio-Med Society on March 8.

Students and faculty from Baruch College’s Natural Sciences department heard the Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University, talk about “the great ideas of biology” on Thursday, March 8.

Sir Paul was addressing the Bio-Med Society, its friends, and supporters at the invitation of Mary Zhitnikova ’07, president of the student club.

Sir Paul addressed the ideas that have transformed our understanding life in all its cellular complexity. Beginning in the 17th century with the discovery of cells, Dr. Nurse rapidly and lucidly sketched the emergence of genetics and natural selection via Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, the twin giants of 19th century biology, and on to the 20th century and the notion of “life as chemistry.”

New Metaphors and the Future of Biology

Noting that “in every cell, thousands of chemical processes go on at the same time,” Nurse talked about the need to better understand how this “highly organized chemistry” functions. He posed a fundamental question, one that has thus far stumped scientists.

“How do we get from chemistry to biology?” Nurse asked. By way of an answer, Nurse went on to explore the emerging idea that a detailed understanding of how cells generate, store, and process information will help us “work out the logical processes that underlie life.”

Unfortunately, he suggested that this next quantum leap in biology was likely to be difficult or impossible to visualize and not at all intuitively obvious. “We will need new metaphors and new computational models,” he predicted.

To the delight of his audience, Dr. Nurse’s talk was laced with entertaining asides, including a brief discussion of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and himself an important scientist and physician. “He wrote down his scientific ideas in the form of poetry,” Nurse reported. This was not a methodology that was trusted by his peers.

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