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Dare to Be 100: Language and Science

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As I age I become increasingly aware of the critical role that the use of words plays in the development of the domain of science.

First, I acknowledge my good luck in this historical era in which English is the established universal language for science. 70 years ago, in my youth, French and German were both jousting for prominence as platforms. But now English is it.

I recall during my fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich in 1962 my professor Fitzi Lynen who went on to win the Nobel Prize later that year used to invoke me as oversight for his many grand papers to insure adequate English, no translation necessary.

So today English is the established international tongue for science. But the tongue sometimes gets twisted. My dear friend Richard Strohman at Berkeley in 2010 lamented the rush to find agent -based genomic- proteomic explanations that resulted in the substitution of agents for agency which he held to be "an epistemological error of great moment". (1) Is life a noun or a verb? Scarcely a trivial question.

Earlier, philosopher Thomas Nagel reflected on the absence of understanding in biology. He concluded that our finite mental and computational capacities mean that we either cannot grasp the ultimate physical explanation, or we cannot fruitfully link the old universal physical laws to higher order phenomena, a structural lag. Our brain finds it much easier to grasp things than processes.

I recently wrote a paper entitled "Updating Homeostasis" that I published in Biological Systems.(2) Homeostasis is the generally accepted term that reflects the organism's extraordinary capacity to adjust to diverse environments (Bernard, Cannon), but the word itself is wrong. There is no stasis in life. The only stasis is death. The correct present term was provided by another close friend, Gene Yates of UCLA, who coined the term homeodynamics as the vital substitute, again a language essence of great moment.

Richard Lewontin is a master biologist at Harvard. His book the Triple Helix asserts "it is impossible to do the work of science without the use of metaphors. Virtually the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain in words phenomena that cannot be experienced directly. The metaphor helps to make complexity more comprehensible."Language becomes an imperative proxy for reality.

My chosen domain of science is aging. Again the dearth of adequate terminology has unsettled me. This spilled over when I gave a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin three years ago. The title of my talk was "the Plasticity of Human Aging." The site for my talk was the very lectern used by Erwin Schrodinger who provided the critical breakthrough in his 1945 lectures titled "What is Life?" He invoked thermodynamics as the key to the Rosetta Stone comprehension of life. Molecular biology was born by this incisive terminology.

Freeman Dyson upgraded Schrödinger's treatise in his book "Origins of Life" in which he bifurcates Schrodinger's treatise into two salients, replication and metabolism. Since Schrodinger was a quantum physicist he found greater ease in predicting the elemental ingredients of replication by conjuring an aperiodic crystal which turned out to be, a short while later, the cornerstone of DNA.

Yet Dyson faults Schrödinger for undervaluing metabolism as a root of life. Schrodinger had provided an awkward term, negative entropy, negentropy, as a crude root to understanding metabolism.This has proven tobe of little explanatory value.

The explosive cascade of biophysical research has since yielded the keys to the process of aging. Hayflick announced the solution to aging that he finds within thermodynamics. This interpretation is still largely unrecognized and was therefore the theme of my talk, "The Plasticity of Aging" that I delivered in Dublin. The fundamental agencies of aging are attributable to metabolic events and are therefore susceptible to measurement. Metrics evolve, therefore in Dublin I proposed a new physical field that I called "The Metabolic Field (Schrödinger") to aid in our further understanding of the complexities of aging and development. I borrowed heavily in this proposition from Einstein who wrote, "the concept of the field is the most important invention since Newton. It needed great scientific imagination to imagine that it is not the charges or the particles but the field in the space between the charges and the particles that is essential for the description of physical phenomena."(3) I have since published this proposition in the journal Medical Hypotheses.(4) I nominate addition of this concept to our vocabulary of aging. Several years ago I presented my idea at the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Phenomena. I had hoped for an earnest critique and discussion. Instead I was greeted by positive head nods, of course they had already prejudged my ideas and found them congenial.

So deep in my ninth decade I participate in the shaping of a deeper scientific discourse on aging.

Words matter, a lot. This awareness is gratifying.

References 1) Strohman, R. Ancient Genomes, Wise Bodies, Unhealthy People: Limits of a Genetic Paradigm in Biology and Medicine 1993 Perspec.Biol.Med. 37: 112-145.
2)Bortz, W. Updating Homeostasis 2015 Biol Systems Open Access, Aug 6.
3)Einstein A, Infeld H. The Evolution of Physics: the Growth in Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta 1938 Simon Schuster,NY.
4) Bortz W. Metabolic Field (Schrodinger): an Explanatory Platform for Biology, 2015 Medical Hypotheses 85:894-897.