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The case for science From asteroids to X-rays to human health, it's all interconnected

On the first day of the nineteenth century, an Italian astronomer by the name of Piazzi discovered the asteroid Ceres, one of the thousands of little celestial bodies revolving around the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Unbeknownst to the astronomer, the discovery would ultimately prove to be of great importance to human health.

That's because Piazzi's discovery, made during his pursuit of knowledge within both his own specialty and the general realm of science, would be the start of a series of such pursuits and discoveries that would coalesce one day into the tools we are using now to unlock biomedical secrets at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and elsewhere throughout the world. And that process -- the search for answers to questions in a wide range of fields, and the eventual coalescing of those answers in sometimes surprising ways -- offers powerful support for the value of scientific research.

Although Piazzi's discovery caused a great deal of excitement in astronomical circles, within five or six weeks he lost the little asteroid, in all likelihood because it went around or behind the sun, and so was no longer visible from Earth. The time that it could be observed was such a short interval that a precise orbit was not determined for this asteroid. So when Ceres returned to the neighborhood of the Earth and could be observed, no one knew where to look for it.

In the meantime German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, probably the greatest mathematician of all time, discovered a very important and far-reaching principle, which came to be known as the principle of least squares. Gauss made the first application of his discovery in calculating a precise orbit for the asteroid that had disappeared, and when astronomers looked for this asteroid in the position that he predicted it would be in October of the same year, indeed they found it there.

This was regarded in astronomical circles as little short of a miracle. Gauss became famous overnight, and his principle of least squares came to be one of the most important tools in further scientific discoveries.

How could the discovery of this little asteroid, and the rediscovery of it by Gauss, be of such importance to our health today?

The answer lies in the way both contributed to the development of a technique known as X-ray crystallography more than a century later, in 1912. But it wasn't a simple path. Before getting to X-ray crystallography -- which happens to be my scientific specialty -- there were stops at several other contributing discoveries made during the 19th century.

One, which on the face of it seems to have no possible connection to human health, was the development of modern algebraic theories. A second, born out of that in about 1820, was the discovery of the concept of group theory by the young French mathematician Galois. It turned out that group theory was the basis of the essential method used for studying all kinds of symmetry, in particular symmetries of crystals. Crystals are very symmetrical objects, and the proper study of crystals depended upon Galois' theory of groups.

But not so fast. Another essential development in the science of X-ray crystallography was the invention by the French mathematician Fourier of what has come to be known as modern harmonic analysis, or Fourier theory. And finally, there was the research by a German physicist, P.P. Ewald, who was writing his doctoral dissertation in the year 1912 under the complex academic title, "On the Propagation of Electromagnetic Radiation in a Medium Consisting of a Regular Arrangement of Resonators."

Again, one may wonder how any of this could have anything to do with the improvement of human health. And again, the explanation is that the work was instrumental in the creation of the science of X-ray crystallography. Because when Ewald described his findings to the German physicist Max von Laue, von Laue had only one question: Were they valid for wave lengths of arbitrary size? Ewald's answer was yes, where upon von Laue suggested an experiment that would direct a beam of X-rays at a crystal.

He predicted that the crystal would scatter the X-rays in different directions with different intensities, and that the nature of this so-called diffraction pattern would be uniquely determined by the structure of the crystal, which is to say the arrangement of the atoms in the crystal. The experiment was conducted and von Laue's prediction was dramatically confirmed.

The year 1912 therefore marked the beginning of the science of X-ray crystallography. The development of this science in the 20th century must be considered one of the most remarkable developments in the whole history of science because, again, it provided a connection between the diffraction pattern and the structure of the crystals, or the arrangement of the atoms in the crystal. It gave us a way to "see" how those atoms were arranged.

Methods based upon this experiment were developed and strengthened to the point that it has become possible, in fact even easy, to determine crystal structures and molecular structures routinely, even for very complex molecules consisting not merely of tens of atoms or hundreds of atoms, but even for molecules consisting of thousands of atoms. And that means that protein molecules can be clarified by means of this experiment.

That's the key to the relationship of all these discoveries to human health. Once it became routinely and easily possible to determine molecular structures of biologically important molecules, it became possible to relate molecular structures to life processes. In other words, one could understand how living things work at the molecular level -- and what this meant is that finally drugs with specified properties could be designed.

We are now in a position of being able to design drugs that will do precisely what we want them to do with a minimum of adverse side effects. It has become possible to improve the therapies for treating disease and for preventing disease. Thus the improvement to human health -- whether in reducing cholesterol levels or high blood pressure, or treating diabetes and other diseases -- became more routine.

And all of this became possible only because of the preceding discoveries, from the discovery of the asteroid Ceres, to Gauss' discovery of least squares, to the discovery of X-ray diffraction and X-ray crystallography -- all of which had been done with no thought of the possible usefulness in improving human health.

None of that improvement would have become possible without the development of basic scientific research. And by that I don't necessarily mean basic biomedical science, but science in general.

It clearly is important to support basic scientific research. Piazzi went looking for an asteroid. One can hardly ask for a greater benefit from that astronomical search than the improvement of public health, and, therefore, of society in general.

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