Life’s Mysteries & Howard Hughes – HHMI’s Science is for Everyone

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We believe in the power of individuals to advance science through research and science education, making discoveries that benefit humanity… [And] pursue fundamental questions about living systems.                                       – The Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The HHMI website is the best place for free information about the basics of the body – something all of us should know in order to just take care of ourselves. In these days of universal healthcare, the truth is much of the ‘care’ has fallen on our own shoulders and knowing our own body becomes ever more important. (And even more important that we are not receiving information from people who are trying to sell you something).  But there are extra rewards: If we know what our body is made of, it’s easier to understand how it works and what it needs. Ultimately, we can begin to clarify who we are, and where we stand in the world – know thyself  has been with us since the Greeks.

I really enjoy these videos though they are made for 5-12 K kids (police officers use the site’s addiction information to help with their work too):

  • What is a DNA molecule and how does it determine what we are?  (2 minutes)
  • How did Watson and Crick discover the DNA structure? (A tiny bit longer)
  • The annual Holiday Lectures on Science on subjects like Medicine in the Genomic Era, Changing Planet, Lactose Digestion in Infants, or why we have jet lag. (Get ready for a lecture)

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute was founded in December, 1953. At the time of founding it may have been the richest independent research entity in the world – it owned the Hughes Aircraft Company. The latter was sold to General Motors for $5.2 billion in 1985, and made HHMI the richest charitable foundation in the world, surpassing the Ford Foundation at the time. The sale provided the Institute with more flexible funding sources. Today, the Institute spends close to one billion dollars a year (2011) funding biomedical research through a unique program supporting individual scientists within major research centers in universities and other locations around the globe. It especially encourages high-risk, high-reward work that may have no near-future applications. This is pure science at its best – supporting mavericks at the beginning of their career, emphasizing people, not projects.

The eccentric billionaire aviator-experimenter, Academy Award-winning filmmaker (and hypochondriac extraordinaire), who was himself the very epitome of science and art, founded the Institute and endowed it with his stock in the giant defense contractor that bore his name. Its mission: to find the mysteries of the genesis of life. Nineteen-fifty-three was of course a historic year for biology. In April,  Crick and Watson had published their momentous paper describing the double helical structure of the DNA molecule – the foundation of life had been revealed, validating, beyond any doubt, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the origin of species, published a century before.

Now we knew the molecule that allowed life to reproduce and proliferate on earth, and the related process, by natural selection, of evolution. But just how does DNA direct the making of protein molecules – the brick and mortar of our body? And why are we not perfect in spite of such perfecting processes? Howard Hughes was probably the first one who needed to know, living the final twenty years of his life in decrepit seclusion, with deep fear of invading germs.

The Institute not only invested early in the Human Genome project but also produces educational materials for teachers in schools; and its annual Holiday Lectures invite high school students to participate. It brightens my day to hear these kids, on-site and on-line, from Boston to Moscow, ask the simplest of daily questions that pertain to such advanced research: Do all living things have circadian rhythms? (From a sixth grader. The answer: almost all).

Or, the question that strikes fear in all of us (excepting perhaps biologists), can robots take over the world?

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