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RNA Tie Club from Alexander Rich

Kevin Kelly — The Technium:
[Via The Technium]

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors:

Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

Kevin discusses a specific instance of scenius but the idea is something that needs greater examination. Because innovation, creativity and new insights rarely if ever happen because of a single person in isolation. They happen in a social network made up of the right mix of people to allow innovation to blossom. However, an important aspect, especially today, is that the scene for this genius does not need to occupy the same space. The specific network can be made up of people physically separated.

An example from my set of the woods involves a single man who was able to create a scenius that transcended location. It starts at Cambridge University in England in the mid to late 1950s. Using their superb intellects and their well-connected social network, Watson and Crick were able to discern the structure of the DNA molecule. They published this in 1953.

Now this great discovery was noticed by a pre-eminent physicist, George Gamow, who, to my mind, is one of the great scientists of the 20th century, not only for his own work but for his impact on other scientists. Here is how Wikipedia starts his entry:

George Gamow (pronounced as IPA: [ˈgamof]) (March 4, 1904August 19, 1968) , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov (Георгий Антонович Гамов), was a Russian Empire-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, big bang nucleosynthesis, nucleocosmogenesis and genetics.

Nice, wide ranging scientific career. Look at his accomplishments (again from Wikipedia):

Gamow produced an important cosmogony paper with his student Ralph Alpher, which was published as “The Origin of Chemical Elements” (Physical Review, April 1, 1948). This paper became known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow theory. (Gamow had added the name of Hans Bethe, listed on the article as “H. Bethe, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York” (who had not had any role in the paper) to make a pun on the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha beta gamma.)

The paper outlined how the present levels of hydrogen and helium in the universe (which are thought to make up over 99% of all matter) could be largely explained by reactions that occurred during the “big bang“. This lent theoretical support to the big bang theory, although it did not explain the presence of elements heavier than helium (this was done later by Fred Hoyle).

In the paper, Gamow made an estimate of the strength of residual cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). He predicted that the afterglow of big bang would have cooled down after billions of years, filling the universe with a radiation five degrees above absolute zero.

Gamow published another paper in the British journal Nature later in 1948, in which he developed equations for the mass and radius of a primordial galaxy (which typically contains about one hundred billion stars, each with a mass comparable with that of the sun).

Astronomers and scientists did not make any effort to detect this background radiation at that time, due to both a lack of interest and the immaturity of microwave observation. Consequently, Gamow’s prediction in support of the big bang was not substantiated until 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson made the accidental discovery for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978. Their work determined that the universe’s background radiation was 2.7 degrees above absolute zero, just 2.3 degrees lower than Gamow’s 1948 prediction.

I have to love any genius who authors a paper that makes such a great pun. Some of the best geniuses are great tricksters (Feynman loved to pick locks or break combination safes.)

But my story is not about Gamow and the big Bang theory. I’ll let this, from, discussing the breaking of the genetic code, provide some context for Gamow’s genius, and how he created a scenius that spanned continents:

When the structure of DNA was made known, many scientists were eager to read the message hidden in it. One was the Russian physicist George Gamow. Many researchers are ”lone rangers” but Gamow believed that the best way to move forward was through a joint effort, where scientists from different fields shared their ideas and results. In 1954, he founded the “RNA Tie Club.” Its aim was “to solve the riddle of the RNA structure and to understand how it built proteins.”

The brotherhood consisted of 20 regular members (one for each amino-acid), and four honorary members (one for each nucleotide in nucleic acid). The members all got woolen neckties, with an embroided green-and-yellow helix (idea and design by Gamow).

Among the members were many prominent scientists, eight of whom were or became Nobel Laureates. Such examples are James Watson, who in the club received the code PRO for the amino acid proline, Francis Crick (TYR for tyrosine) and Sydney Brenner (VAL for valine). Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine as recently as 2002, for his discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

Early Ideas Sprung from the “RNA Tie Club”

The members of the club met twice a year, and in the meantime they wrote each other letters where they put forward speculative new ideas, which were not yet ripe enough to be published in scientific journals.

In 1955 Francis Crick proposed his “Adapter Hypothesis,” which suggested that some (so far unknown) structure carried the amino acids and put them in the order corresponding to the sequence in the nucleic acid strand.

Gamow, on the other hand, used mathematics to establish the number of nucleotides that should be necessary to make up the code for one amino acid. He postulated that a three-letter nucleotide code would be enough to define all 20 amino acids.

Eight out of 20 won Nobel prizes (although there is some humorous ways to look at this that give better clues on how this was accomplished). Not very bad odds. Much like Kelly’s mountain climbers. The scenius attracts, nourishes and sprouts geniuses. But it is the first scientific scenius I am aware of that was not tethered to a single location and some very critical things came up from these interactions. For instance, Crick delineated the 20 amino acids used to make up proteins as an intellectual exercise, written on a pub napkin. He was right.

This group worked a lot to try and figure out how RNA made protein, thus the name RNA Tie Club (Gamow made sure each had an appropriate tie for their amino acid). There were many informal and speculative papers that they wrote to each other (remember that this was a time where biology and genetics were mainly descriptive. Speculation and deductive approaches to biology were not commonly used.) Many of these approaches were flat out wrong. But these errors allowed them to eventually gain some wisdom.

Some of the papers have become parts of biology lore, because the speculations turned out to be correct and led to really important breakthroughs in the field. Here is the most important one, Francis Crick and his Adaptor hypothesis, the paper for the RNA Tie Club that developed tRNA and a degenerate genetic code as a model. On Degenerate Templates and the Adaptor Hypothesis is one of the most famous unpublished papers I know of.

To get some idea of how this all worked, check out Watson’s response to Crick Adaptor paper for the RNA Tie Club. Watson was at CalTech at the time.

Gamow. was here for 4 days – rather exhausting as I do not live on Whiskey. Your TIECLUB note arrived during visit. Am not so pessimistic. Dislike adaptors. We must find RNA structure before we give up and return to viscosity and bird watching.

So, Gamow, who was at George Washington University at the time, was in California visiting one RNA Tie Member when the paper from another member arrived. Pretty interesting network.

So much of the early innovations in molecular biology were driven by the interactions of the RNA Tie club. All because a tricky physicist created a scenius without a specific location. Think what could be accomplished today with such a network using Science 2.0 approaches.

Being able to create and foster such a scenius will be an important part of many organizations.

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