Elegant defense of the humanities by noted structural biologist

This crosspost first appeared on 20 November 2010 at the PLoS Blogs home of my free-range blog, Take As Directed. I'm not in the protein crystallography field. Instead, the way that I came to learn of Gregory Petsko at Brandeis University was via a tweet from literary agent, Ted Weinstein, about an hour ago. Ted's tweet referred me to an open letter that Dr. Petsko wrote in Genome Biology to the President of SUNY-Albany, George M. Philip. Now referred to as UAlbany, that state university campus announced six weeks ago that they were suspending admissions and eliminating several arts and humanities departments, including French, Italian, Classics, and the Theatre Arts. President Philip himself earned a BA and MA in history from UAlbany and a JD from Western New England College School of Law. He became president of the university in 2009 after having been chief investment officer of the New York State Teachers Retirement System, described in his university bio as "one of the 10 largest public retirement funds in the nation, with more than 400,000 members and managed assets of $105 billion." Petsko, US National Academy of Sciences member and past-president of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, crafted a simply beautiful defense of the value of broad university education. I'll just direct you to read it because he is such a clear communicator with a quietly biting wit. In case you don't have time right now, here's one paragraph to give you the gestalt - Petsko uses as an example his own monthly column in Genome Biology:
One of the things I've written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including - especially including - the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It's also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You've just ensured that yours won't be one of them.
His admonition to the UAlbany president is meaningful on many levels, not the least of which is having a prominent biochemist using his humanities knowledge to skewer a university leader. Petsko even draws on history, Philip's own original area of training, to demonstrate how then-unpopular fields (virology, Middle Eastern languages) became hot commodities after major historical events (the emergence of AIDS and the 9/11 attacks, respectively.). Knowing almost nothing about his science but what I've learned in the last hour, Petsko appears to be a wonderfully elegant and clear thinker. Take another four minutes of your life and watch his short TED talk about the coming epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases. I love being in a rich university community. I had the luxury during part of my career to have a 100% research appointment - while it was indeed fun, I felt as though a part of my soul was being starved. In my current university environment, I feel tremendously enriched by my colleagues and programs in music and theatre, communications, history, criminal justice, and social and behavioral sciences. I'm delighted to see a scientist of Petsko's stature use his own education to demonstrate the necessity of breadth in a modern university education. UPDATE 22 November: London-based editor, Anna Sharman, tweeted me over the weekend that not only is Greg Petsko cool, but that she had the luxury of editing 10 years of his Genome Biology columns into an e-book by BioMed Central. Keeping with the open-access policy of the journal, the book is free for download and suitable for your iPad or Kindle. So, chemists: how has your humanities training been of benefit to you?

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Education shouldn’t be confused with a vocational school. Each field of human endeavor exercises the brain in slightly different ways, and we don’t know yet how being ‘fit’ in these different modalities interacts. For instance, there’s increasing evidence that musical training assists learning in other fields.

    The most brilliant scientists I’ve met have not been narrowly educated in only the sciences – they had interests in many other ares as well. Werner Heisenberg used to have a book of poetry along with him when he traveled, and used that time to memorize poems…


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