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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 50 - August 2006   
 Sound in body and mind...
 "There is plenty to communicate…"
 Research and the philanthropists
 Fotis Kafatos: the model mentor
 Movement on the biofuel front
 What’s good for the goose…
 Deviance, the environment and genetics
 Alternative visions of the Euro-Mediterranean
 HD69830 and its three Neptunes

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Title  Science as a sign of the times

From Einstein to Picasso and from quantum physics to psychoanalysis, the 20th century was a century that overturned accepted concepts. We no longer think of time, space, matter or energy in the same way as before. But where is science headed today? What should we expect from our research on the living organism, nanotechnologies and the black matter and energy that are believed to make up most of the universe? We look at genuine areas of scientific progress and the real changes they could mean for society in the company of Pierre Papon, a physicist and humanist whose research and books seek to decipher the ‘signs of the times’ that science and culture trace for society.

Pierre Papon
Pierre Papon
Your book, "Le temps des ruptures", (1) presents the 20th century’s major theories and discoveries, from Einstein’s relativity to quantum physics and the helicoidal structure of DNA. Some of these have brought very significant technological innovations. In what way are we continuing to explore these avenues of research and what other lines of inquiry have they opened up? 

Contemporary science is continuing to build on a number of major paradigms developed in the course of the last century and that marked fundamental ‘breaks’ with previous knowledge. It is a heritage that includes many fundamental questions that remain unresolved. In physics, for example, scientists are engaged in a rather precarious balancing act as they have not managed to build a bridge between Einstein’s general theory of relativity – the key to universal gravitation – and quantum physics – a probabilistic explanation of the forces of interaction between subatomic particles, whose classification is being continuously expanded in the rings of the large accelerators. One of the major questions for contemporary physics – especially with a view to the 2007 start up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), built by CERN – concerns the quest for the famous Higgs boson. This holds the key to the ‘Standard Model’ that brings together the pieces in the particle physics puzzle. Although its existence has still never been demonstrated, it now perhaps could be, thanks to the LHC. But what if we fail to do this? Paradoxically, scientific knowledge will then be faced with the need for a conceptual ‘break’ similar to the one that brought the revolution in physics a century ago. This is the way in which science often advances. 

For their part, cosmologists tell us that the universe is expanding but that matter as we know it forms just a modest part of it. It seems it is made up of 70% black energy and 25% black matter. No one has the least idea of the physical nature of this black matter that is a theoretical master key to explaining the expansion of the universe in which it is believed to act as a kind of ‘anti-gravitational’ force. New keys to our understanding could be provided, for example, by innovative approaches such as the string theory in mathematics and supersymmetry. So there is a great deal of virgin territory to be explored by science in the 21st century. 

Nanotechnologies is a subject of growing interest for research programmes, especially in Europe. Would you consider this to be an example of a break with the past?

Genetic determinism is far from revealing all. A more complex approach – including interaction between genes and proteins and the roles of the various components leading from the gene to the cell – could result in a significant increase in our knowledge of life.

Genetic determinism is far from revealing all. A more complex approach – including interaction between genes and proteins and the roles of the various components leading from the gene to the cell – could result in a significant increase in our knowledge of life.
I see nanotechnologies as part of a progressive continuity inspired by the traditional bases of the quantum conception of matter. Over recent decades this has already been the foundation for the development of many fields of science and technology, from nuclear physics to solid state physics – for which the invention of the transistor in 1947 was the starting point – and including laser technologies. There has been spectacular progress in miniaturisation. The size of the first transistors, 60 years ago, was about one millimetre. We subsequently reduced integrated circuits to just a dozen microns and, since 1980, tunnel effect microscopy has opened the door to the ‘nano’ era as we start to be able to manipulate atoms, parts of molecules or DNA on the scale of just a few billionths of a metre. This radical development into the realms of the infinitely small and the remarkable innovations that can result seem to have more to do with progress in scientific skills rather than a revolution in knowledge. On the other hand, the birth of quantum computing – based on the transmission of information by the quantum spin or photons – opens the door to genuinely new possibilities.

But is computing, which lies at the heart of the concept of the information society, not very much an example of a major paradigm inherited from the 20th century?

Yes, but rather than a ‘computing paradigm’ – in which physics is a determining factor in terms of technological performance – it is better to speak of the massive changes generated by the emergence of ‘the theory of information’, which introduced the concepts needed for organising knowledge on the basis of giant constellations of signs and symbols. The most fundamental scientific progress lies in the sphere of logic and cognitive sciences. The results of this exploration, and of the processing of information, are pertinent not only to the world of networks and computers but also to cybernetics, robotics and, more generally, to modelling genetic information, climatological information, etc. 

Let us now talk about a genuine revolution, the one we are seeing in the life sciences. What point have we reached... and where are we heading?

The ‘central dogma’ of molecular biology was proposed by Francis Crick, the man who discovered the DNA helix in 1957. This states that genetic information is transmitted from the DNA to the RNA, then by way of proteins. This explanatory key, which has met with success and permitted the progress we all know, has also to an extent confined life sciences to the reductionist logic of a mechanism in which the gene is the deus ex machina for explaining life and influencing it. Yet many complex biological mechanisms remain a mystery. François Gros, for example, has no hesitation in writing that “genetic determinism is not as direct as we imagined previously”. This is why we are beginning to develop a ‘systemic’ approach that incorporates both interactions between genes and the proteins they encode, and the roles of the various components leading from DNA to the cell. This is a new and very interesting avenue of research that could lead to a major increase in our knowledge of life.

For their part, the neurosciences are benefiting from the considerable progress realised over the past five years in brain-imaging techniques. We are beginning to identify areas of the brain related to specific activity, or even desires, by studying variations in blood flow in very different circumstances, such as times of intense muscular activity or emotions. We are discovering some surprising things. Take for example the recent experiment carried out on two people standing to one another. When slight pain is inflicted on the first we see a particular area of the brain ‘light up’ when the pain is felt. The person standing next to him – who witnesses the scene without being touched and thus without feeling any physical sensation – shows a comparable MRI image at that same moment, quite simply out of empathy. That means we have, in fact, demonstrated a sentiment. For me this is considerable progress which, coupled with other techniques, provides us with a better understanding of phenomena belonging to the sphere of consciousness.

The big challenge for the neurosciences is to be able to formulate its own paradigms on which a theory of consciousness can be based. There is every chance that we will meet this challenge within the next ten or 20 years, even if it is unlikely we will ever understand completely the mechanisms of thought. We should be able to decipher the process of acquiring certain knowledge and certain mechanisms governing the functioning and malfunctioning of the brain, such as those which occur in illnesses such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. We may also succeed in lifting the veil on language and its acquisition, which remains one of the major enigmas of the human phenomenon. 

As you are an ardent promoter of European research, how do you see your role in the face of these challenges?

Increasingly sophisticated brain-imaging techniques reveal areas of the brain’s activity to the point where the presence of a sentiment can be demonstrated. Progress in these and other techniques is permitting a better understanding of phenomena relating to the sphere of consciousness and opening up new avenues of research for the neurosciences.
© U339/Inserm
The EU as a whole is failing to prepare sufficiently for the future by supporting long-term research. The Member States have long jealously guarded this domain as part of their national sovereignty and ‘scientific independence’. For this reason, apart from the field of nuclear research and the fusion programme, the European RTD Framework Programmes have been designed to develop targeted research designed to render European industry more competitive. They have only very gradually opened up to other objectives (environment, health, transport, etc.), and scarcely at all to fundamental research – except for support of researcher mobility, access to infrastructures and the organisation of conferences and networks.

It is, nevertheless, the case that a number of intergovernmental bodies exist in Europe to support fundamental research. European post-war governments realised that Europe would disappear from the world stage in several high-tech fields, the latter often requiring heavy investment (environment, health, transport, etc.), unless they pooled their financial and intellectual resources. This is why CERN, the ESO, the EMBO, the EMBL and also the ESA (2) were set up. So Europe has been able, in the space of a few decades, to acquire a network of major research infrastructures, and of international status, that are of benefit to entire fields of research. 

But beneath this visible tip of the iceberg, in many other fields, the picture is one of a very fragmented European presence. Too often it lacks coordinated goals, resulting in a dispersion of national efforts, a lack of coherence, pointless duplication of expenditure and difficulty in achieving the critical mass needed for certain fundamental research. There is insufficient competition between national research teams and this fails to drive research bodies towards excellence or committed involvement in global competition.  

At EU level, the creation of the European Research Council (ERC), for which I personally campaigned, marks a key turning point in creating the European Research Area, as it will make it possible to create a new dynamic on the part of scientific communities to support young teams and promote interdisciplinary approaches in fundamental sciences.

(1) Pierre Papon, Le temps des ruptures – Aux origines culturelles et scientifiques du XXIeme siècle, Fayard, 2004.
(2) European Organization for Nuclear Research (1953), European Southern Observatory (1962), European Molecular Biology Organisation (1972), European Molecular Biology Laboratory (1972), European Space Agency (1975).

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  Pierre Papon

An expert on materials physics, Pierre Papon is Professor Emeritus at the Ecole supérieure de physique et chimie industrielle in Paris. He was Director General of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) from 1982 to 1986 and President of the Institut français de recherche ...

  Pierre Papon

An expert on materials physics, Pierre Papon is Professor Emeritus at the Ecole supérieure de physique et chimie industrielle in Paris. He was Director General of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) from 1982 to 1986 and President of the Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer (IFREMER) from 1989 to 1995. Pierre Papon is today Honorary President of the Observatory for Sciences and Technology (OST) and member of the Scientific Council of the UNESCO European office for science and culture in Venice.

He is the author of various works that place science and technology in a social context, most notably: La République a-t-elle besoin de savants? (PUF, 1998); and Le Sixième Continent : géopolitique des océans (Odile Jacob, 1996). A committed European, he is also the author of L’Europe de la science et de la technologie (Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 2001).