Double Nobel laureate Fred Sanger dies - but we'd rather write about Jeremy Paxman
Thursday 21 November, 2013
It's happened again. SubScribe shouldn't be surprised. If most papers could hardly be bothered with John Tavener or Doris Lessing, what hope had a mere scientist?
He'd only won a couple of Nobel prizes. Nothing to write home about, three others had done it. Three others in the 112-year history of the Nobel Foundation. Three others among the 876 laureates who have been honoured since 1901.
He was a member of the Order of Merit. So what? There can be 24 of those at any one time; 24 eminent exponents of the arts, literature, learning and science, personally selected by the monarch.
The death of a Nobel prizewinning scientist at 95 turns out to be even less newsworthy than the death of a Nobel prizewinning author at 94. Old people die all the time. We'd much rather write about Miley Cyrus or house prices or that it might be cold in winter. Or print pictures of women in bikinis or furry animals doing something cute or trees that turn gold in the autumn.
How many readers who have got this far have the faintest idea of who I'm on about?
Here we are in the most dynamic age for science in history, trying desperately to show young people that science is cool, that the future is there for the taking. But unless it's got Professor Brian Cox in it, no newspaper wants to know. It was hard enough to get them to write about graphene* until someone suggested that it might lead to the development of thinner, more comfortable condoms. A dead old man had no chance.
Fred Sanger's work unlocked two heavy doors. One led to the ability to analyse any protein in the human body, the other to the mapping of the human genome.
Ah, the Human Genome Project, we've heard of that - even if we're not sure what it was. There was that pretty Christmas decoration thing, wasn't there? We can name Crick and Watson and if we're trivia merchants, the Cambridge pub where they made their big announcement. We're weaker on the third person to share their Nobel prize, but we're vaguely aware that Rosalind Franklin had something to do with it. Wasn't she one of the women the feminists wanted on the tenner?
Our knowledge of science is poor. And it's all just too complicated for newspapers to unravel. It's so much easier to publish a mattress company's dubious survey about what people wear in bed than to try to understand which research published in which learned journals are true breakthroughs and which are small steps on the road to something arcane that may or may not have significance 50 years hence.
Unless you are the Express, of course, in which case every press release offers a cure for arthritis, cancer, heart disease or dementia.
Sanger was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1958 for his work on the arrangements of amino acids in insulin. Yes, insulin, the stuff that diabetics have to take. Well it's a protein and Sanger made it possible for scientists to analyse any other protein in the body. This is important because almost everything that goes on inside us involves proteins and if something goes wrong, doctors will want to know what's happening within those proteins.
Twenty-two years later Sanger won his second Nobel prize for chemistry. This time for reading the molecular 'letters' that make up DNA. Scientists all over the world recognise that this, more than anything else, made the the Human Genome Project possible. The Sanger sequencing technique is still used to this day - much to the surprise of Sanger himself, who thought that after more than 30 years it would have been superceded.
SubScribe can't make this sound exciting because Gameoldgirl isn't a science journalist. But it is exciting. These were truly ground-breaking discoveries made during a lifetime of 'messing about in the lab'. So exciting that Sanger retired in 1983 because after these triumphs anything else would be an anti-climax. Rather like an England footballer retiring soon after winning the World Cup for a second time.
Except you'd read a lot more about him when he died
So what did today's papers make of our scientific genius? Sadly, he didn't grace a single front page, even as a nib.
If Sanger had been a pop singer, there'd have been a page lead, loads of pictures, a sidebar on his nights of shame, a factbox on his greatest hits and a commentary on his impact on the music scene/his greatest gig/the first time I saw him or whatever. And that would be just the serious papers. The tabs would have published entire supplements.
Indeed, now I come to think of it, they all - even the 'qualities' - did that when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. How many lives has he saved?
Papers have for years been accused of dumbing down. Over the past week they've had three opportunities to bring to life the achievements and foibles of people who have had a huge influence on our society in both the arts and sciences. They failed.
The argument that readers won't have heard of these giants doesn't hold. Readers haven't heard of most of the people who feature in newspapers. It's what they do that counts. And the fact that the 'doing' was done years ago, doesn't make it old news. The ramifications of Sanger's work are still relevant today.
I'm not suggesting that papers should turn into history pamphlets. But those who have the privilege of addressing millions of people daily should make it their duty to tell their audience what it doesn't know. And that includes giving due recognition to someone who was seriously important - even if it was ten, twenty or fifty years ago - when they die.
The Order of Merit
Members of the Order of Merit sit for the family portait with the Queen in October 2002.
Back row (left to right): Lord May, Sir Roger Penrose, Sir James Black, Lord Foster, Sir Aaron Klug, Nelson Mandela, Sir Denis Rooke, Sir Anthony Caro, Sir Tom Stoppard, Lord Rothschild, Sir Edward Fox.
Front row, Dame Joan Sutherland, Lady Thatcher, Dr Frederick Sanger, Professor Owen Chadwick, Sir George Edwards, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen, the Prince of Wales, Sir Andrew Huxley, Dame Cicely Saunders, Sir Michael Atiyah, Lord Jenkins.
Since this photograph was taken nine members have died - Sutherland, Saunders, Black, Rooke, Caro, Fox, Edwards, Huxley and Jenkins.
Their places, and an existing vacancy were filled by the former Speaker Lady (Betty) Boothroyd; naturalist Sir David Attenborough; Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum; Sir Tim Berners-Lee, father of the internet; Sir Michael Howard, the historian, not the politician; Lord (Martin) Rees of Ludlow, astrophysicist; the Rt Rev Lord Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh; Jacques Chrétien, former Prime Minister of Canada; Sir John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia and the artist David Hockney.
Update January 2014:
With the deaths of Sanger, Mandela and Thatcher, the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub and the classicist Dr Martin West were admitted to the order on December 31.
why all the fuss?
*Graphene is the thinnest, strongest material known to man. It was discovered in 2004 by two scientists at Manchester University, who were awarded the 2010 Nobel prize for Physics for their efforts. The university is now the beneficiary of a £100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to develop the condoms of the future.
Yesterday Applied Graphene Materials, a company linked to Durham University that has found a way to mass produce the material, floated on the Alternative Investment Market in London. Its share price ended the day up 40%.
This is not just about condoms. It is about all areas of industry. It is important.
So it will be interesting to see how many business news sections make it their main story tomorrow.
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