Transcript from an interview with Professor Andrew F. Huxley, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 1963, on 5 December 2001. Interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.
Professor Sir Andrew Huxley, welcome to this interview and to the Nobel museum.
Andrew Huxley: Thank you.
You have had a long scientific career, and I know that you have thought a lot about how science is being performed and also have written once an article with the title Forgetfulness in Science.
Andrew Huxley: Yes.
Can you say …
Andrew Huxley: Well, I’ve come across serious examples of forgetfulness repeatedly in relation to my own work. First example, I think, was in relation to the work for which Alan Hodgkin and I had shares in the prize of 1963 and though that work was about the mechanism by which a nerve conducts its impulse. And just before the war, when I had just finished undergraduate work, I accompanied Alan Hodgkin to the Marine Laboratory at Plymouth to do experiments on this giant nerve fibre that squids have so we could put an electrode down inside. And we found that the action potential, the change of electric potential inside the fibre, was very much bigger than we’d expected or than was possible under the current theory.
On the current theory the inside potential should have gone from negative to approximately zero, we found it went substantially positive. And at that time, we had no explanation and we got onto the right explanation in 1945, which is that the membrane becomes momentarily a very permeable to sodium ions which are positively charged and they’re much more concentrated outside cells than inside. So when the membrane became permeable, these irons diffused in making it go positive inside.
So you have something like the electricity?
Andrew Huxley: Where that generated the electric change that’s been, well its existence has been known for about a hundred years and it was only after that the we came across a paper by Overton, an English scientist who worked first in Germany and then in Sweden. actually at Lund, and this was published in 1902 with the title in Germany on the Indispensability of Sodium or Lithium Irons for the Contraction of Muscle and how muscles work as their regards their excitability, they’re very similar to nerve. If we had known of this paper in 1939 I am sure we would have immediately realised what it was that made the inside of the fibre go positive.
Why was not his paper famous?
Andrew Huxley: He tried to repeat the experiment on nerve as well as on muscle and it didn’t work. He could put it in a sodium free solution and the nerve would go on working for hours. But actually in that paper he gave the correct explanation which seems not to have been accepted – I don’t know why – which is that every nerve, a group of a large number of nerve fibres, but each actual nerve is surrounded by sheath which holds the sodium salts in around the fibres. This sheath had been known from 1870 another paper in the 1890s, and Overton refers to this but nevertheless the work got forgotten. I don’t really know how, but anyway that was my first example.
So how would you explain that there is such regular forgetfulness in science? Is it too much work or it’s just wrong time to get out?
Andrew Huxley: Certainly in some of the other, well one or two of the other examples I have in mind, it’s due to a new discovery which becomes popular and overshadows other aspects of the particular topic and causes the old ideas to be, well, I don’t know whether one should say just forgotten or suppressed. After Hodgkin and I had finished our work on nerve, we couldn’t see what to do next in relation to nerve. Huge advances dependent on discoveries, improvement in electronics and on, well, the development of molecular genetics, Watson and Cricks work and everything that followed from it, that was all later, so we couldn’t see what to do and I moved into muscle.
And I’ve always had an interest in microscopy and I developed a new sort of microscope for looking at living muscle isolated muscle fibres and our voluntary muscle, each fibre is crossed by little bends that you can see with the microscope. And we immediately saw some things that were contrary to what was in all the text books and my collaborator Dr Niedergerke from Germany remembered that he had come across some papers of the mid-19th century, notably by Kraus about the striations …
So they were like 100 years old?
Andrew Huxley: Yes, nearly a 100 years old, 1870, and we were doing this in the early 1950s and I followed this up and beautiful work showing the things that Niedergerke and I had discovered and been surprised by, which lead on to the current theory of muscle contraction, which is that there are two lots of filaments that slide past each other. And another great coincident at that time is that this same theory was reached by a namesake of mine, Hugh Huxley, no detectable relative, by a quite different approach by electron microscopy. But as regards the old work being forgotten, I think the main reason why it was forgotten is the rise of classical biochemistry which got going round about 1900.
Influential papers say contractility must be a molecular process, you can’t see molecules with a light microscope, which is perfectly true, but then drawing the conclusion that you won’t learn anything from what you can see with the light microscope which as it happens is not true because there’s this larger scale of things representing well the lengths of these filaments which are clearly visible in the microscope. They were first seen by van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century and this was what we had been measuring and dutiful measurements had been made back in the 19th century, Kraus notably Engelmann but this got forgotten because primarily I think because of the switch of interest to the molecular level.
So this sounds like there was space on it for one idea at the time, you don’t have two ideas in parallel?
Andrew Huxley: Yes.
Is this how science works?
Andrew Huxley: Yes, the same thing happened in relation to genetics. I’ve not been personally involved in this but of course there was Darwin’s theory published in 1859 and by the end of the 19th century that was universally accepted that evolution was mostly due to natural selection, survival of the fittest. But then Mendel’s papers on the mechanism of heredity were rediscovered in 1900 and the science of genetics was started by that and the early geneticists insisted that evolution was driven by the particular mutations that happened to happen and this was the generally accepted idea and for 30 years after that rediscovery, Darwinian natural selection was, well not entirely disregarded, but the majority of people in the field did not think of it as the important thing.
So what you are saying is that science is working by different fashions, is it still so?
Andrew Huxley: Yes, yes.
What can be done against it, you would like to have more flexible minds in science.
Andrew Huxley: Yes, that’s very difficult. Well one thing I think the history of science should be thought more than it is, it tends to be side-lined and there’s so much new knowledge that the pressure is to look at the modern things and old things get forgotten.
But this sounds also that the young people that are fostered into doing research and into science they are also fostered to be quite opportunistic.
Andrew Huxley: Yes, well that’s natural and inevitable. Because it’s difficult to make the history of science interesting to the young, it’s very difficult to avoid making it seem that people who had well what are believed that any one time to be wrong ideas, it’s difficult not to make it appear that those people were stupid. I mean, well, ideas like flogiston and so on tend to be laughed at. But at the time they were very reasonable.
And also what you said before, lots of work was right but it was not the right time, people didn’t understand it.
Andrew Huxley: They didn’t realize that it was important, I think that’s the thing, not that they didn’t understand it, but it was not thought to be important and so it was neglected.
Because they couldn’t put it into the right context.
Andrew Huxley: Yes.
So it’s not good to be too early with your good ideas?
Andrew Huxley: Yes, and I often say to young people if you discover something and don’t put it into context and don’t pursue it to the point where you can put it in the context, it will be lost.
Because nobody will accept it or understand.
Andrew Huxley: Well, it’s not that they won’t accept it, they won’t pay attention to it, it’s just an odd observation and there are so many observations being made, the danger of things being forgotten is increased because of the enormous increase in the bulk of literature.
So how should young people make their science heard, their ideas?
Andrew Huxley: I would say that science courses at universities include a compulsory element of the history of science.
I would like to ask you about your family, your father, your grandfather, two of your half-brothers are very famous persons, can you tell us something about them?
Andrew Huxley: Yes, well, my grandfather was T H Huxley, Thomas Henry Huxley, commonly known as’ Darwin’s bulldog’ and notable for defending Darwin in the controversies, that were very strong for a short time after the publication of On the Origin of Species, they didn’t go on very long in The Origin of Species, the only reference I think to possible human origin is in the final sentence where I think Darwin says: Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history or something of that kind.
But it was obvious to everybody that the implication was that we are descended from apes and Darwin had avoided this topic because he knew it would be controversial, but he published a full length, very important book called The Descent of Man only just over 10 years later, I think, it was published in 1870, and the storm was over by then. And in 1880 my grandfather gave a lecture which was published in printed form entitled The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species, it was 21 years after the publication and he says it’s now difficult to realize the strength of feeling that there was in the first few years, these things now seem like prehistoric discussions and I think it’s not often realised how short lived the serious objections were.
Have you read your older half-brother’s book, the Brave New World?
Andrew Huxley: Oh yes, yes.
This is a very be-stopping vision of the world being well like over 500 years from now.
Andrew Huxley: Yes, and of course it’s based on this very controversial topic of human cloning.
Yes. It’s very actual now.
Andrew Huxley: Yes, sort of labouring work being done by Epsilons, the lowest grade of cloned human beings. I mean it’s a nightmare of what might happen if it’s not properly controlled and well, after that was written some years before the war, but after the war he wrote a sort of second thoughts on that book and he draws attention to the fact that he did not predict the use of atomic energy which of course has become a major factor.
More nightmares that he can imagine.
Andrew Huxley: But well he felt he might have done it. After all Jules Verne had an unspecified source of energy powering the Nautilus.
Andrew Huxley: 100 years before.
Earlier yes. Well, we could talk for a long while now but we have to round up, thank you very much Andrew Huxley.
Andrew Huxley: No, thank you, it’s always interesting to talk about these things, thank you very much.
Interview with Professor Andrew F. Huxley by Joanna Rose, science writer, 5 December 2001.
Professor Huxley talks about forgetfulness in science; about there being space only for one idea at a time (4:30); and that it is important to study the history of science in order to think more flexibly (9:59). He also talks about his famous family; his grand father T.H. Huxley, a friend of Darwin (‘Darwin’s bulldog’); and his half brother, Aldous Huxley, author of ‘Brave New World’ (12:44).
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