Rohan: Through your studies and career, you are surrounded by people who most of us in India have read about it in textbooks – Abdus Salam, Julian Schwinger, James Watson, Francis Crick… This is the Nobel club. What was it like in the company of these people as a young student? And how did it shape your ideas and influence your career?
Gilbert: In some ways, that’s an exaggeration. Some of these people won the Nobel Prize later, in some of them there is a striking element. Students seek out somebody who is working on a fundamental question and then it turns out to be the reason for the Nobel Prize. I went to Cambridge as a research student and found Abdus, worked there for two years and came back to America. But while I was at Cambridge, I met James Watson. He was a post-doc about to take up a faculty job at Harvard and we became friends. Through James, I met Francis Crick and others working in biology. I spent my first graduate year at Harvard, then went to the University of Cambridge for two years, where I received my doctorate degree in 1957.
You did your PhD in physics. But James Watson enticed you to move to biology?
I was on the faculty at Harvard in 1958, teaching a whole range of theoretical physics. And in 1959, I was appointed assistant professor of physics. In 1960, James said something very exciting is happening in the laboratory. So, I went over and watched. He then gave me six papers to read which gave me a complete background of the field. And I went in the next day and joined those experiments. I worked with James on experiments to isolate the nucleic acid. And my career was focused on molecular biology.
After DNA, in the last 50 years, what according to you are the three most important developments in biology?
The relevance in terms of knowledge is one line – DNA makes RNA and proteins therefore, we understand how the cell works. The major element is the DNA sequencing. That discovery made it possible to read the sequence and…I won the Nobel prize for it. Frederick Sanger and I developed different methods to determine the sequence of the building blocks in DNA. We deciphered the genetic code and developed the sequence of amino acids in proteins. But there’s more than that… We gave away the sequencing methods and the world began to sequence fantastically rapidly, ever more rapidly, the methods improved steadily. So, you’ve had DNA sequencing and gene editing. The strong and most important part of biology is evolution, and that’s the underlying force.
In 1980, you were at the pinnacle of your research career. Did you ever consider retirement?
You don’t work for prizes. Prizes were exciting because it’s an affirmation by your peers on the quality of work, but the driving force behind the work is a curiosity about the world. They left a desire to understand physics with the same drive as molecular biology.
You are the only Nobel laureate who became an entrepreneur. Biogen is a $70 billion market cap company today. What was similar or common and what was different between those two lives?
I founded Biogen with 11 other scientists in 1978. In fact, after winning the prize, I became the CEO of the company and ran it for four years. As a scientist, you can wait for the results but as an entrepreneur, time is very important. You might run out of money if you haven’t done something at the right time. So, there is a great time pressure to make decisions and take the wrath if it goes wrong. In science, you must be very sure as to what you publish. This is not true of all scientists. I founded the company with two venture capitalists and 11 scientists. And the VCs don’t really know what it means to build a company, but they think their discovery is when you make patents and sell patents.
They chose me as chair of the group and so I got involved in money-raising and the whole cycle. Biogen is independent and I stopped being involved in 1992.
In your view, why is it important for a scientist or an engineer to know history or philosophy?
The most important thing is to know some aspects of history. I think it’s useful to know many fields. I was always fascinated by archaeology and reading all the classics. There was a time when the same person would write a novel, do experiments, write a book on philosophy, on mathematics and it was part of one person’s attitude. It’s a deeper question on the nature of creativity: how do you get novel ideas? In some ways, there are some loose structures in the brain that produce connections and you want to simulate those structures.
What is your view on the state of science in India?
I saw some striking scientific efforts in Infosys. I don’t think the state of science in India is commensurate with the size of the country. You must be three or four times the size of America. There are wonderful Indian scientists, but you’re not functioning at that capacity.
Is that a matter of prioritisation of investment in science from a public policy perspective?
A large part of it is at the level of education. And how well do you get down to the villages and find people who are bright and could use the opportunity. But the real problem is can you find these people, educate then and understand the possibilities that are there? Is the society open enough for them to blossom?
A lot of scientific advancement in the 20th century took place particularly around the war. Do you think we live in an age where scientific progress relies heavily on funding and you get more funding when one does things for the military? Can you have great peace-time science?
We do have peace-time science. The entire molecular biology is a peace-time work. Radioactive elements grew as a war-time effort. They were developed conceptually in peace- time labs. There is a basic interplay between basic research and research that’s applied to commercial ends. But the breakthroughs come out of basic research.
You’ve gone from being a physicist and biologist to a full-time entrepreneur and full-time artist. What would your advice to young people be?
My general advice to students is to find fields that they are passionately interested in. I love Francis Crick’s advice which is to work in fields that you like to gossip about.
In 1980, you got word that you have won the Nobel. I don’t imagine someone calling you. Did reporters reach out to you?
Reporters would learn at noon Swedish time. And in principle, they send a telegram. I got a telegram three days later.
There’s a lot of debate about AI in the future. Instead, the real worry should be if you have children in the future being able to do these changes, there could be an ethical problem…
There are two levels of ethical problems — deep ethical problem about should we modify the human species, should we modify ourselves as individuals? Modifying living organisms goes back to our entire attitude towards living organisms. The ethical questions get subsumed under other things that fact that I could modify a mouse. Some people think it’s horrifying and other people think it’s okay.