A NOBEL PRIZE FOR HIV/AIDS?
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/04/05
“In Search of Memory” is a memoir by Eric Kandel, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of memory. I came to the book because of Kandel’s recounting of his childhood in Vienna in the 1930s and the influences on him of the Nazi takeover of Austria, experiences that I share. But I found the book highly interesting on several other counts as well. First, naturally enough, for Kandel’s explanation of his work, which brought astonishing insights into the biochemical reactions that are associated with memory. We are beginning to understand also the physiological or physical basis for the real differences between short-term and long-term memory (which unfortunately has practical significance for people of my age). I found particularly intriguing that Kandel combines radical reductionism—explaining mental functioning in chemical terms—with an appreciation of insights offered by psychoanalysis. The latter is often regarded as the very opposite of reductionist, but Kandel reminds readers that Freud himself believed that there are physical correlates to the processes he postulated as stemming from ego, id, and libido.
What prompts this blog entry, though, is Kandel’s story about Sir John Eccles, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1963 for elucidating the mechanism of synaptic transmission of nerve signals: electric impulses are carried across the gaps or junctions (synapses) between nerve cells by chemical messengers. Eccles had originally believed the transmission to be purely electrical, and had become thoroughly discouraged at being unable to prove conclusively that nerve signals cross synapses by “spark”, not chemical signals. Eccles was then working in New Zealand, where he met the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper explained to him that he should be encouraged rather than discouraged, that he should look as hard as he could for ways to disprove his theory, because that would also be a considerable scientific advance. Eccles followed his advice, disproved his own “electrical spark” theory, and thereby gained a Nobel Prize as well as increased scientific understanding.
That offers a lesson for the Pooh-Bahs* of the HIV/AIDS Establishment. Perhaps Gallo or Fauci or Montagnier might still win a Nobel Prize, by proving conclusively that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. After all, quite a lot of their work already points in that direction.
* When Barack Obama used this term a few days ago, many TV pundits seemed to be unfamiliar with it. Its origin is a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical, The Mikado, where Pooh-Bah is Lord-High-Everything-Else and exemplifies unwarranted and ostentatious pomposity.