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Welcome to the website for Teknos, Thomas Jefferson's Science Journal, showcasing student articles, papers, and editorials. Enjoy!


Smashing Paradigms

            Since coming to teach in Northern Virginia some 25 years ago, I have been a fan of Thomas Jefferson High School. It is thus a great pleasure to introduce this issue presenting the extraordinarily sophisticated research of Jefferson students. I choose to present this foreward as the story of two scientists who represent a somewhat alternative view of the research enterprise. Thomas Kuhn, historian and philosopher of science presents ordinary science as the cumulative and continuous development of information within the accepted (textbook) view of the field that he designates as the paradigm. On rare occasions, a radically new idea, new concept, new instrumentation, or surprising new experimental results appears on the scene which leads to a radical change in the paradigm. Kuhn refers to such a change as a scientific revolution, resisted by many, but ultimately altering our view of that branch of science.

            It has been my privilege to be personally acquainted with two such paradigm smashers in modern biology and I will briefly recount some of their stories to let our students observe some of their stories to let our students observe that there are more than one pathway to contribute to the scientific enterprise in meaningful ways. The two scientists are Carl Woese who changed phylogeny by putting it on a molecular basis and discovered a new super taxon the archaea, and Peter Mitchell who won the Nobel Prize for a radically new view of the mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation.

            I first met Moese in 1950, during his first year as a graduate student in the Yale Biophysics Department. We met up again in 1955 when I was a junior faculty member and Carl was a post doctoral fellow. Yale Biophysics was the child of Ernest Pollard, nuclear physicist turned biophysicist. He encouraged asking big questions and believed that some of this students would one day shake up the world of science and one of them did. We did some work together over a five year period and Carl left for a job at General Electric when the best jobs were regarded as academic. He was respected, but not hailed as a superstore.

            A few years later, Carl's ability was recognized by Sol Spiegelman of the University of Illinois, himself a paradigm smasher, and later, in 1977, his epic paper had appeared, "Phylogentic Structure of the Prokaryotic Domain".

            The next decade was a difficult time for Woese, being confronted by the paradigm taxonomists, who did not want the long standing classical scheme based on morphology upset by chemical analysis, outside of their traditional tool set. Slowly, the tide turned, the revolution gathered adherents and the deserved recognition came to Carl. He did not rest on his laurels, but was the leader of a devoted group at Illinois, reexamining evolutionary biology in terms of the underlying physics and chemistry, the Ernie Pollard approach.

            The Peter Mitchell paradigm smashing seems as the natural outcome of his being a contrarian. His first thesis was rejected by the Cambridge Biochemistry Department. His second, while accepted, is in some ways questionable. So after a rocky start, he became professor of biochemistry at Edinburgh. In April of 1961 he submitted a paper to Nature on the trans membrane proton gradient theory of oxidative phosphorylation. The theory starts with the Krebs cycle driven synthesis of reductants. At the mitochondrial membrane, the reductants are oxidized and the energy is used to pump protons giving rise to a trans membrane proton difference. The back flow of protons drives the synthesis of the every carrier ATP.

            To realize how revolutionary Mitchell's theory was, I recall a conversation with a Professor at the University of Amsterdam where Mitchell gave his first seminar on the new theory. The new listeners  wondered in they should tell his family to seek psychiatric aid. Mitchell was off on another tack. He left Edinburgh to set up a private research laboratory in Bodmin, Cornwall. He remodeled a huge century old house half as the Mitchell household and half as the Glynn Research Laboratory. There were never more than a few people working in the laboratory at any time.

            Mitchell was competing with a dozen or more laboratories around the world from Helsinki to Los Angeles. There were worldwide arguments taking place. Most of the arguments were over fine points. If you didn't agree with him down to the last changing detail, then you disagreed. This may be characteristic of paradigm smashers.

            Around 1972 I got interested in the problem with particular attention as to how the proton crossed the membrane. With the help of Lars Onsager and John Nagel, I was able to apply Onsager's theory of ice crystal conductivity to mitochondria and published this support of the Mitchell view. Sometime in 1976, the new journal "Trends in biochemical Science" decided to run a debate about Mitchell's theory.

            R.J.P Williams took the challenge and hoped to get Mitchell to join the debate. He declined. No one took the challenge until they got to an American who was writing about proton hopping and supporting Mitchell. The issue appeared with William's piece "Proton Free Energy Differences in Membranes Drive ATP Formation" and mine "Stored Energy in the Electrochemical Potential of H+". This made me a welcome guest when I decided to go to Bodmin, see Glynn, and meet the enigmatic Peter Mitchell. I had an agenda, a coming sabbatical in which I was thinking of writing a book on Mitchell's theory as a Kuhnian type revolution in biochemistry.

            In the summer of 1979, after Mitchell had won the Nobel prize, my wide and I were off to start interviewing for the proposed book. From Heathrow Airport to London, serendipity sat me next to Daphne DuMaurrier's nephew. Several of her novels were placed in Cornwall at such places as Bodmin moor. At London we boarded a train label Penzance reminding us that we were going to an obscure site where an anti-establishment scientist in a small private laboratory had beat out some of the world's great biochemistry labs in the search to understand oxidative phosphorylation.

            Peter Mitchell was a true eccentric. For example, in response to doubts about the monetary system, he was coining his own silver pieces that he called Cornwall Guineas. We left Bodmin with me dubious about being able to capture "The Master of Glynn" in a book of scientific revolutions.

            And now to conclude about the paradigm smashers. They were both less than impressive to their early colleagues. They were both eccentric or more than somewhat eccentric. They were both very intense people. They both fought very hard for their revolutionary scientific views and they both won.

            To the student contributors to Teknos. Most of you will be major contributors to improving and developing the paradigm. It is a noble smasher. Be prepared for the pain and joy. Do what you love and love what you do. Thomas Jefferson High School has given you a great start.

Harold J. Morowitz
Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy
George Mason University