Being Fluorescent

gfpThere was a Green Fluorescent Protein extravaganza at the Lindau meeting this morning, with back-to-back talks by the three 2008 chemistry Nobel Prize winners. We heard about Shimomura’s side project to isolate the protein from jellyfish, how Chalfie made it brighten up the life of worms and Tsien’s tinkering to make the protein fluoresce into a rainbow of pretty colors. Afterwards, lots of people were talking about Tsien’s "on-stage self-psychoanalysis," as one guy from Germany put it. Tsien gave a down-to-earth synopsis of his search for a scientific research area that would "suit my neuroses" and encouraged delegates to do the same. Some of Tsien’s mental health considerations: He feels really uncomfortable with competition. He's the youngest of three brothers and according to sibling psychology prefers to eke out his own niche. Then there's his penchant for bright colors. And finally, he feels that biology offers the "most interesting grand questions in all of science currently doable by individuals." (Big physics questions relying on expensive gadgets that you have to share among lots of people.) So deciding to apply his chemistry know-how to biology, he went looking for his own niche relatively free of competition, with, uh, obviously good results. Anyway, besides the self-psychoanalysis, Tsien also hasn’t hesitated to get political. At a press conference Wednesday, a Chinese journalist asked him what sort of advice he would give to help young Chinese people become successful. Tsien first noted that Chinese people are hard workers and have made important discoveries. "The problem right now," he said, "is intellectual freedom." Tsien added that it’s important that young people have the freedom to challenge what "big shot professors or politicians tell them." In addition to an eclectic assortment of international media, there are also some celebrity bloggers here, such as Coturnix and PZ Myers. Royalty has also made a cameo: Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn showed up for a couple of days. (Sirindhorn should not be confused with her sister Princess Chulabhorn, who has a PhD in chemistry and her own research institute.)

Author: Sarah Everts

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  1. That’s a pretty neat story about Tsien; think that bit about intellectual freedom is going to make it into his article?

  2. I would hope so, but I don’t typically wager bets on such things… I did get the feeling that another Chinese journalist present at the press conference was hoping Tsien’s answer would be something to the effect of, “The secret of success is to study hard.” I think this because this other guy later asked what some call a seeded question–where you seed your question with an answer, often the one you expect or want. The question was something to the effect of “Would you advise students to study hard at school?” Tsien–who referred to himself as ornery during his Lindau talk–replied, “Somewhat.” He continued to say that while some studying was obviously required to succeed, student shouldn’t make a “fetish of studying.”