Selected Press Reports, Interviews
Many people will be shocked
Eörs Szathmáry, Collegium Budapest Permanent Fellow and Professor of Evolutionary Biology, comments on discovery of new bacteria living on arsenic, in an interview with Origo Tudomány (Origo Science).
Eörs Szathmáry, Corresponding Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
He was born in 1959 in Budapest. He has specialised in theoretical evolutionary biology. He is a full professor of the Biology Institute of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences and a member of Academia Europae.
“I think, it is an important discovery, but I have not been particularly shocked. It will, however, shock many people”, Eörs Szathmáry, Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Head of Collegium Budapest’s Astrobiology Group, told Origo Tudomány (Origo Science). He warned that further experiments will be needed to confirm results, but the announcement calls attention to the increasingly intense debate on what is absolutely necessary, and what is randomly necessary, for the emergence of life.” On the bases of work by the late Tibor Gánti (former Collegium Budapest fellow, father of Chemoton Theory), who passed away in 2009, we know that to work out the concept of minimal life, we need to define the organisation structure of life, and the ways sub-systems are connected to one another”, Szathmáry said. “What specific materials we need to fill into the system, is a question of secondary importance”, he added. He mentions amino-acids as examples, from which also a set that – as a whole – is similar to the existing one, but is different in terms of components, could have been suitable for building up proteins for living creatures, Szathmáry said.
How far is it possible to go in replacing the materials necessary for life? A few experts can imagine variations far more serious than the exchange of phosphorus with arsenic. “Many scientists have already made thoughts about the possibility for carbon to be substituted by another element, but it may also be possible to find a solvent other than water,” Szathmáry said. He thinks that the really important thing would be to determine the evolutionary relationship of the bacterium using arsenic, and the relationship between its unique biochemistry processes and the usual metabolic routes of other living systems.
Leontief Medal to „Socialism’s Gravedigger”
Russian Academic Award for Economist János Kornai
It is the problem of economic planning that connects Nobel Laureate US economist Wassily Leontief, who was of Russian origin and created the input-output analysis, and academician János Kornai, Professor Emeritus of Harvard University and Permanent Fellow Emeritus of Collegium Budapest. This may have contributed to the decision of the St. Petersburg-based Leontief Centre, passed upon by recommendations of an international board of experts, to grant one of this year’s awards, the one designated to an international economist, to János Kornai. By this, the author of Economics of Shortage joined an illustrious group. Previous recipients of the award include former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who has recently passed away; Nobel Laureates US academicians Robert Solow and Lawrence Klein; and Leszek Balcerowicz, the first Polish Finance Minister after the change of the system. The laudation speech placed special emphasis on the impact of János Kornai’s work on the views of Russian economists.
The praises are not without preliminary events. Two years ago, Russian political scientist Dmitry Travin wrote a review on János Kornai’s autobiography By Force of Thought, which Professor Kornai classified to mta.hu as the most interesting response to his academic work. In his review, Travin called the Hungarian economist, who started is career as a Marxist, “the gravedigger of socialism”. He pointed out that János Kornai had abandoned Marxism as early as before the Hungarian revolution of 1956, at a time when most members of the Central European intelligentsia still believed in the possibility to reform the socialist system.
According to Travin, Kornai was able to explain the real functioning of the socialist economy at a time when “all what researchers of Soviet political economy were doing was to imitate the academic activity in the form of performing magic spells.” The Hungarian economist did not only recognise, but also demonstrated the disfunctionality of a hyper-centralised economic system. János Kornai made it clear that the socialist state’s practice of saving its own companies from bankruptcy, covering their losses from central budget funds even in the case of those with the poorest financial management, was unfeasible in the long run. This leads to the emergence of the phenomenon that he called the soft budget constraint in the Economics of Shortage. His analysis of how the socialist economy functions in reality brought him to the conclusion that socialism may not be reformed. However, Kornai was compelled to face his inability at the time to describe how to transit from a one-party system into a multi-party one; from socialism to a real market economy, in other words, to capitalism.”
Researchers focusing on mathematical planning challenged official slogans on the almightiness of planning, but did not abandon the idea of planning. They understood the constraints imposed by reality. “Mathematical planning: dreams and reality”, was the title of Prof. Kornai’s talk held after receiving the Leontief Medal in St.Petersburg. In his interview with mta.hu, the economist said that this award was an important acknowledgement for him also because he had been attracted to the clarity, transparency and symmetry of the thoughts of Leontief, famous for his input-output theory, since he first met them more than 50 years ago. He first came across Leontief’s methods via papers by Hungarian economists, including András Bródy, Zoltán Kenessei, Vilmos Nemény and György Szakolczai, while he met Leontief’s works directly only later.
He has always shared the Russian economist’s respect for precise data. At the time, thoughts expressed with numbers proved to be more usable also because socialist censors tolerated them better. Mathematical models did not remain stuck within academic institutes and universities, but the Central Statistical Office, planning institutes, the Central Planning Office and the various ministries applied them in practice.
His initial enthusiasm, however, faded later, Kornai admitted in his lecture. One explanation for that was the difficulty of the calculation and processing of large amounts of data and large mathematical models. This difficulty gradually ceased to exist later, he added. Other obstacles to rational planning did, however, continue to prevail in the long run. And so did the uncertainty of forecasts based on unreliable data, the deliberate distorting of information necessary for decisions, and clashes between various interest groups. The latter were enough on their own to impede the definition of a common objective and the establishment of an action plan to achieve it.
As a result of a series of negative experiences, as was also mentioned by Travin in his review, one had to face the bitter truth: that instead of increasingly fine planning models, the solution to the problems of a socialist economy may be a more efficient planning of work and also the institutions, ownership structures and incentives supporting that planning. The conclusion was that reforms imagined within the framework of the socialist system cannot resolve the problems, and that a different system was needed in the place of the existing socialist system — it was a system with market economy based on private property that was needed.
In his talk, János Kornai spoke about the fate of economic planning after the change of the system. When the socialist system collapsed, planning, previously handled as a sacred cow, all of a sudden became a pariah and discredited. It was even labelled as “Bolshevik”. And today one can even graduate as an economist without ever having heard about Leontief or the input-output model. Thus at this point, medium- and long-term planning covering the entire economy appears to be history. “Planning is the most ambitious thing that a society may create in the field of the economy”, as János Kornai quoted Wassily Leontief. It may not only be a dream but reality that researchers prepared to carry out “indicative planning” based on the French model may work out alternative economic scenarios and debate them publicly.
In his lecture, János Kornai made a personal remark. The Leontief Model did not only affect his professional, but also his private, life. He was studying the input-output model when he met a woman, his future wife, in the Central Statistical Office. Then, they met again at a conference and their common interest linked their lives together. “We might have never met without Leontief”, said Professor Kornai, shedding more light on his feelings about the Russian-American academic.
Proving inaccurate heredity precisely
What emerges easily is not evolvable, what is evolvable does not emerge easily, says a theory proven by Eörs Szathmáry in an exemplary way in his recent article in PNAS.
Eörs Szathmáry, Corresponding Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
He was born in 1959 in Budapest. He has specialised in theoretical evolutionary
biology. He is a full professor of the Biology Institute of the Faculty
of Natural Sciences of Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences and a member
of Academia Europae.
Many researchers of the origin of life represent either the “metabolism-first” scenario school or the “template-replication-first” scenario school (the method of how the genetic information of the DNA and the RNA was transferred), biologist Eörs Szathmáry explained to mta.hu. In his article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [of the U.S.A.] (PNAS), the academician analysed the evolvability of early systems that are only based on metabolism, and he has proven that this ability is rather limited.
Certain chemical systems resembling metabolism (e.g. a formose reaction chain producing sugars from formaldehyde) may emerge easily, but they do not experience evolution. At the same time, no tangible evidence exists that could explain the origin and spontaneous multiplication of evolvable, DNA-like, replicable molecules (templates), Szathmáry emphasized. At the same time, he pointed out that a theoretical model elaborated by Doron Lancet and his colleagues at the Rehovot-based Weizmann Institute raised the prospect of a successful in vitro monitoring of evolution based on metabolism.
A small group working at Collegium Budapest, comprising Eörs Szathmáry, junior researcher Vera Vasas (both from ELTE, Budapest), and Mauro Santos from the Autonomous University in Barcelona, carried out a reanalysis of the entire model and refuted many conclusions and ideas expressed in earlier theoretical assumptions. This has a major general impact on ideas of how life emerged, Szathmáry said, adding that their paper may lead to major scientific conclusions that are difficult for ordinary people to interpret. In connection with this he expressed the view that evolution theories are explained and interpreted extremely poorly at Hungarian high schools and universities.
We generally expect units of evolution to multiply and demonstrate heredity as well as variation, and among the hereditable features they must have some that affect prolification and/or the ability to survive, Szathmáry explained, adding that evolution based on natural (Darwinian) selection may emerge in populations of such units regardless of which level of material organization they take place at. The sets of molecules examined by Lancet appear to fulfill all these criteria, although no template-replication takes place in them; in other words they do not contain an own hereditary substance, he emphasized.
With equations by the Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen worked out in 1971, the team at the Collegium has managed to rephrase the model; something that has rendered it suitable for computer-based processing. This analysis revealed that natural selection is unable to fulfill a specific objective; or as rephrased by Szathmáry more simply: “What emerges easily is not evolvable, and what is evolvable, will not emerge easily.”
Independently of the specific model, the paper fulfills a professional-cultural mission, Szathmáry said in summary of its significance. He claimed that in an area that is difficult to describe with the tools of theory and to analyse experimentally, statements should be expressed or refuted at least at this level.
- Did you have a master?
- Yes, fortunately I have had several ones, all of them excellent. Let me note that by master I also mean a person who has fundamentally contributed to my view of nature and way of thinking. I was lucky enough to meet, as early as a teenager, theoretical physicist Frigyes Károlyházy and theoretical biologist Tibor Gánti at the association for the dissemination of scientific knowledge TIT in Bocskai Street (Budapest). Later, I worked together with Tibor Gánti on several issues related to modelling the origin of life. Let me point out his completely astonishing scientific path. His book - disguised as a popular science book - on the basic phenomena, modelling and the origin of life, was first published in Hungary in 1971. In 2003 Oxford University Press published a revised version of this book, completed with a few of Gánti's other papers, as a new scientific work. His observations are gaining ground in international science only now, with millions of dollars and euros being spent on the modelling and the chemical synthesis of minimal cells and with most papers listing him among references. In my modest opinion, the Hungarian scientific community, including the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is indebted to Gánti and should, therefore, pay tribute to him. I have profited from Gábor Vida's fascinating knowledge of the evolution and so have I from Pál Juhász-Nagy's population-related and stochastic method of thinking. Last, but not least, let me mention the greatest scientist of all, the incomparable evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith who also used to be an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I was lucky enough to write as many as two books in cooperation with him, both also published in Hungarian. He was outstanding both as a person and a scientist. When working at the mathematical biology laboratory of the National Institute for Medical Research, London in 1991-92, I visited him during the Easter Holiday in his Sussex home. We talked about many things without me knowing what was at stake. Later, after returning to London from a short visit in Hungary, I found on my desk the draft of The Major Transitions in Evolution, our future book, with his proposal for me to be the co-author. It was a great moment of my life. This note has been my greatest award ever since.
- Are you involved in international research projects?
- Yes, and although being aware of the importance of "hungarica" (or typically Hungarian phenomena), everyone, who is not involved, raises my suspicion regardless of his/her rank in the academic hierarchy. Let me add, however, that a great many forms of involvement are possible ranging from occasional common papers to large international projects and common collection trips. I am in the race in many categories myself. But one needs to be careful, as the game of "cooperation" increasingly typical at EU level does impose threats. It definitely benefits brilliant, but otherwise mediocre, networkers. One needs to maintain support for, and preserve the dignity of, quality "small science". That is because great innovators do not have many partners at first.
- What is the open question that you want to answer?
- In the book The Major Transitions in Evolution we wrote that defining
a new question might be as valuable as answering an old one. It is no
secret that all great evolutionary transitions are questions that are
more or less unanswered at this point. What I find most exciting now
is the origin of the genetic code and the human aptitude for language.
If I manage to make a basic contribution to this, I will be very happy.
Both phenomena implied a radical innovation in storing and transmitting
information. Many consider the origin of language the most difficult
scientific problem today. One may challenge this, but I also view it
as one of the hardest nuts to crack. It is a process that involves three
temporal scales: individual learning, the spread of language in a population
and the genetic evolution of learning mechanisms. None of them is independent
of the other two. On the other hand, the language used at the time by
the other individuals of the same species also influenced biological
fitness; in other words, natural selection depended on frequency, just
as in evolutionary game theory. The latter was, perhaps, the most important
contribution by Maynard Smith to science.
Social impacts of extraterrestrial forms of existence
The London Scale, developed by Iván Almár aims to express how significant an announcement of existence of extraterrestrial life can be and what impact it makes on society.
It has become well-known today that the laws of physics, chemistry and astronomy apply on Earth the same way as they do in any other part of the universe. Major research efforts are targeted to find out if there is also such a thing as universal biology, astronomer and space researcher, as well as Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Iván Almár told mta.hu. Prof. Almár presented the London Scale, suitable to quantitatively express the importance and social impact of any possible announcement on the detection of extraterrestrial life, to the London-based conference The detection of extraterrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.
A number of scales have been worked out for a quantitative description of the social impact of significant events that occur very seldom. With regard to research into extraterrestrial life, the London Scale is such a scale, Prof. Almár explained. The scale rates the importance of a possible such detection with a figure ranging from 0 to 10. A rate of 0 is given to announcements that later prove to be mistaken or deliberately misleading. A rate of 10 would be given to a sample if it were detected and analysed in a laboratory, if it were found to be a complex living organism functioning on the basis of something else than DNA, and if it were indeed confirmed to be a form of life fundamentally different from those on Earth. The highest ever rate so far was 3.6 given to fossil-like features detected in a meteorite from Mars in 1996. Some researcher groups consider them traces of emerging extraterrestrial life, Prof. Almár added.
The astrobiology conference organized in London this year was prominent in terms of popular science education. Talks were held by prominent experts of the individual topics and were open –free of charge – to the public. Iván Almár presented the London Scale, worked out together with the US Astrobiologist Margaret S. Race, in the afternoon of the second day. It triggered major interest from both experts and the lay audience. He shortly presented his topic at a press conference before his speech. This opportunity was only given to him from among Tuesday’s lecturers, including Baruch Blumberg, the Nobel Laureate biologist; Frank Drake, the father of the famous Drake Formula; Paul Davies, the world famous popular science educator and physicist; Christian de Duve, Nobel Laureate physicist focusing on the origin of life, and Albert A. Harrison, social scientist.
The conference focussed on three aspects of this very popular topic, Prof. Almár said. Astrobiological research into how simple organisms emerge primarily investigate our solar system. The 50-year-old SETI (Searh for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program searches for traces of intelligent civilisations around distant starts with the help of optical and radio telescopes. The third aspect of research is targeted to explore the social impact and consequences of possible forms of extraterrestrial life, or perhaps, of extraterrestrial technical civilisations. The current main focus of search for extraterrestrial life is Planet Mars. Prof. Almár said that there is growing evidence for the existence of water on Mars even at present rather than only in the past. That is important, because as far as scientists know, water is indispensable for the emergence of life.
Collegium Budapest has – for years – hosted a Hungarian research group that is also involved in research into possible life on Mars. Astronomers have so far detected more than 400 planets beyond our solar system. Of them, however, only a few resemble Earth. Scientists claim that with technical development, chances of detecting an increasing number of Earth-type planets suitable to host life have increased. Hungarian researchers are also involved in this kind of research. In the future SETI research projects will also be assisted by high-capacity radio telescopes similar to the North-California-based Allen Telescope Array (ATA) that is continuously expanding the number of its antennas, or to a radio telescope with a diameter of 500 meters currently under construction in China.
Talks of the conference will be published in Royal Society Philosophical Transactions that celebrates its 350th anniversary this year.
"Budapest's intellectual heart beats in the city's historic castle district, in a beautiful baroque building on Trinity Square, just opposite the famous Matthias church. The former city hall of Buda, which sits on a hillside overlooking its twin city, Pest, now plays host to the Collegium Budapest. This haven for theorists has a rarefied, cloistered atmosphere - as befits an institute, established in an unashamed attempt to emulate the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey.
That's an ambitious aim: launched in 1930, the Princeton institute's early fellows included such luminaries as Albert Einstein and the logician Kurt Gödel. The Collegium Budapest can't yet claim to compete in the same league, but after just a decade in operation, it has established itself as one of the most prestigious academic addresses in Eastern Europe. With five permanent research fellows plus a roster of 20 or so visiting scientists, the Collegium is carving out a niche for theoretical work in disciplines from physics, through linguistics, to evolutionary biology.
Hungarian scientists hope that the Collegium's success can serve as a springboard to reviving their country's past scientific glories. Budapest, they argue, is ideally placed to lead attempts to re-establish a cosmopolitan culture of science among the countries of the former Eastern bloc.
Many of the discussions in the run-up to the explosion of the first atom bomb, for instance, were conducted in Hungarian - the presence on the Manhattan Project of Leo Szilárd, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller saw to that.
"We always had strong links to the West, but the relation is lopsided," says Imre Kondor, a physicist at Budapest's Eötvös Loránd University and rector of the Collegium Budapest. While young Hungarian scientific talent continues to enrich leading labs around the world, few foreign researchers visit Hungary, even for short sabbaticals - the facilities just aren't attractive enough.
Thanks to funding from the EU and individual European governments, and by concentrating on inexpensive theoretical research, the Collegium has made itself an exception to this rule. Tamar Gendler, a philosopher and psychologist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is one of 18 foreign fellows currently working at the institute. Gendler was attracted by "the ridiculous beauty of the guest house in walking distance to my office and the inspiring discussions with co-fellows", and is using her sabbatical to write a book on the neuronal basis of imagination, self-deception and 'fictional' emotions - such as the smile you wear when you imagine you're in a room with someone you like.
As well as isolated academic jewels such as the Collegium, Hungary also boasts a healthier high-tech industry than many of its East European neighbours. " (...)
Collegium Budapest : The past and the present meet at Szentháromság square
A few steps away from Matthias church lies a scientific research institute that works at a very high professional level, but that is unknown for most people; an institute founded by European superpowers and luminaries of science. One of these prominent scholars is Wolf Lepenies, rector of Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, who recommended the foundation of Collegium Budapest in 1989 for the purpose of developing East-Western scientific relations. Apart from the governments of Austria, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Hungary, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a few foreign private foundations have also lined up behind the initiative that has led to the opening of the institute in 1992.
"The objective was to establish an institution where prominent scientific researchers are able to write in one year the book that they had planned, establish new relations and receive new ideas," rector Imre Kondor told Nepszabadsag. Institutes of this type were set up on the model of Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which hosted Albert Einstein, Janos Neumann and Robert Oppenheimer. By now, an entire network of such institutes have evolved with two similar international institutes operating in the United States and three others in Europe.
Its international character is properly reflected by the fact that most of the 30-35 scholars hosted by Collegium Budapest every academic year are foreign. During their stay, they are able to get connected to Hungarian science. By this, the institute helps - even if to a slight extent - counterbalance the asyimetry of Hungary's international scientific relations that are mostly based on Hungarian scholars travelling abroad. After spending an academic year in the Collegium's multidisciplinary environment, researchers often obtain new knowledge and ideas and turn to new issues. The main virtue of the Collegium and institutes alike is the interaction between various schools, research cultures and disciplines.
Although Collegium Budapest is an independent institution, the lack of long-term financing compels it to adapt itself. That is because with the imminent EU accession, euphory over a reunited continent have become replaced by the new members' integration problems. At the same time, the general will to help, targeted to Central-Eastern Europe in the early 90's, now focuses on regions lying further to the south and the east. In the Collegium's case it has brought along a decrease in foreign sponsorship. Also, the founders are divided about the institute's future. The private foundations tend to sponsor autonomous research, while governments, managing taxpayers' money, urge an operation that is project-related, and connected to financial settlements and deadlines. This contradiction, which is subject to debates all over the world, represents the general conflict between these two interpretations of science's social role and financing. Thus, Collegium Budapest should find a compromise between sponsors' divergent intentions. The number of scholarships offered by the Collegium might significantly go down in the future, while the importance of international research projects will increase, with the cut in sponsors' donations being compensated by applications to scientific tenders. This, of course, brings along tension, because the original idea behind the institute was to save researchers from the ordeals of writing tender applications.
Facts indicate, however, that tender applications work, because the Collegium has won more than 900 000 euro - for four years - for three applications submitted to the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (preliminary figures show that Hungarian applicants won slightly more than euro 20 million from this source in 2003.) According to Imre Kondor, this success is connected to the compulsion of survival, because the Collegium is in the middle of a transformation process.
The institute will use the EU funds for mobility purposes and two large-scale projects. One focuses on the structure and dynamics of spontaneously growing communication networks (such as the Internet). Funds necessary for writing this application were provided by Ericsson, because it sponsors research of this kind.) The other project analyses communication evolving between robots that cooperate with one another and that are able to process information. In the future, this might have a practical impact on the automatisation of highly complex systems (such as air traffic control). This work will require a super computer that will arrive at the glorious building of the Collegium, located in the castle, the rector said with pride. The past and the present will meet at Szentháromság square.Imre Kondor