“When people write about science, the work is usually a highly sanitised version. They follow one step after another in the noble pursuit of truth. But real science is not like that. Mistakes, dead ends, competition, rivalry, impatience, ego, all of these that you find in a play or a novel, exist in science,” the eminent structural biologist said while discussing his latest book “Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome” at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet here on Tuesday.
Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath, for his research in the structure and function of the ribosome in 2009.
Describing his motivation behind the book with frank and honest revelations, ‘Venki’ (as he is popularly called) said: “Nobody thinks of science as very humane and a messy enterprise while writing. I wanted to bring in the science and also the scientist. I wanted to throw open their world. Also, I was influenced by one book ‘Double Helix’ by James D. Watson as it was the first time someone wrote about the human side of science.”
Explaining the importance of fundamental news, he said: “Government needs to set aside money for scientific research as it underpins all scientific knowledge. Scientists are needed to train doctors and engineers. Also, advance science and research is important to exploit development made elsewhere.”
Ramakrishnan, the current President of the Royal Society, gave an example of the discovery of laws of electricity and how it took almost hundreds of years to exploit its capacity.
“We still don’t know if we have exploited it to its fullest capacity. Also, one needs to know Newton’s Laws of Motion to launch satellites,” he said.
Sharing about his journey from Vadodara in Gujarat to the US at the age of 19, he said: “I had grown up at home and suddenly landing in America was a bit of a cultural shock for me. Another challenge was that when I started to research I realised that I was not cut-out for physics. I sort of retreated by doing things like playing in the chess team, hitchhiking.”
He decided to learn biology after he got his PhD in physics.
He feels an award like a Nobel ‘gives satisfaction’ but also makes people anxious.
“It becomes a sort of political campaign, everyone wants to be chosen but very few scientists will actually admit it,” Ramakrishnan said.
Speaking about the after-effect he said: “People treat a Nobel Laureate as a genius. For instance, I am asked about climate change but what do I know about it as I too just read about it. Outside my field I am just like anybody else.”