In search of lost time

In the preface to his essay collection I Wish I Had Made You Angry Earlier Max Perutz, the 1962 Nobel laureate of chemistry, looks back on his time as the Chairman of the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. This laboratory has an extraordinary track record, indicated by Nobel prizes and Royal Society awards, for example. Consequently, Perutz was occasionally interviewed by determined social scientists wanting to unravel the secrets of this successful interdisciplinary organisation. Or, according to our contemporary language, an exceptional innovation ecosystem.  

Perutz draws interesting parallels between science and arts. How is it possible that the Renaissance began from 15th century Florence, with a population of less than 50,000? It is unlikely that the rulers of the Florentine Republic consciously decided to kick in motion one of the most important periods in art history through an interdisciplinary innovation ecosystem of painters, poets, architects and sculptors. Naturally, the accumulation of wealth played a role, but similar development occurred in other states that failed to produce their Leonardos and Brunelleschis. One suggested explanation is the freedom of the individual. This, in combination with increased possibilities for funding, created a nurturing environment for artistic development.

According to Perutz, both artistic and scientific creativity arises from individual talent, but importantly, it can be fostered by a supportive environment. However, it can also be butchered by “hierarchical organisation, inflexible bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork”. In his essays, he gives the reader an opportunity to observe the great scientists of the 20th century in action. He fondly recollects Francis Crick and James Watson having long discussions and appearing to do nothing of great importance. In his opinion, this seemingly unproductive working and thinking time had a major role in their discovery of the DNA double helix, resulting in the 1962 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.  

It is unlikely, and unnecessary, that we should all become Nobel laureates, polymaths or artists par excellence. Unfortunately, it is impossible to go back in time to evaluate the true underpinnings of success, be it Cambridge or Florence. The funding situation of the modern-day scientist is perhaps direr than that of the Florentine artist, and time allocation issues are a universal problem. We can always hope that those in the leading positions will do their best to decrease the unnecessary “mountains of futile paperwork” or their electronic equivalents. What can be done on an individual level, though, is to nourish our stressed brains by giving them adequate time to rest, and refreshing stimuli, for example in the form of inspiring reading or other great works of art.

“Both artistic and scientific creativity arises from individual talent, but importantly, can be fostered by a supportive environment.”

Anna-Maija Tolppanen

Associate Professor

School of Pharmacy

UEF Bulletin 2019