I noticed that the first interview thing with Kala from CMET.link got deleted. I managed to recover the text for anybody that wants to give it a read. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, it is a glimpse at what Kala was doing prior to the story read in the original post.
Celestial is proud to count Dr. Kala Kapur among our recently hired staff. Dr. Kapur will be leading the new AQMB department here at Mercury Isolate. She brings with her several years of field-defining research and we’re incredibly happy she chose us as a partner in her continued work.
The work we do here on Mercury will define the future of biology for the next century at least. It’s the kind of work only a well-funded multi-system gigacorp can do, and it’s work we can all be proud of. The advances we’ve seen are only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s because of pioneering work by people like Dr. Kapur.
Those in her department already know Dr. Kapur, even if only by reputation. For those of you outside Applied Quantum Molecular Biology, we’re featuring today an interview with her originally published in The System.
Excerpts from this interview were printed in the popular magazine. We reprint that interview here, for the first time in its entirety, on our internal line.
-Dr. Andre Novoselov
Director of Staffing
Interview by Steven Gutiérrez exclusively for The System
Truth and Beauty
Dr. Kala Kapur
Dr. Kala Kapur
I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Kala Kapur on the occasion of her acceptance of the Zelinsky Prize last month. We met for coffee in the morning. That night she accepted the prize in front of several hundred of her peers at a prestigious dinner. The woman who accepted the prize was confident, outgoing, and passionate. She spoke at length about the challenges in her field and her hopes for the future and while I only understood about every third word, based on the reaction of the room, she is well-respected.
The woman I met at coffee that morning on the other hand was shy and self-effacing. She clearly does not like the spotlight, which is not unusual in these kinds of interviews. So I go with what usually works, I get them talking about their research, and on cue she got excited. Once excited, she was happy to talk about politics in her field, the difference between science and technology, and a surprisingly easy-to-follow summation of her work and her field. And some philosophy about the relationship between science and art.
Steven Gutiérrez, for The System: Are you nervous?
Dr. Kala Kapur: About this? Yeah. About accepting the prize? No.
System: Nervous about being interviewed?
KK: A little! I don’t. . .um. . .mostly I’m featured in science journals and there’s not a lot of um…this kind of thing.
System: Well let’s talk about your field. . .
KK: Oh good!
System: You were afraid I’d ask about your personal life?
KK: Yes, because I don’t have one!
System: They wanted to send the gossip writer but I talked them out of it. Let’s talk about your background. You won the Wolf Prize, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, the Royal Academy of…
KK: Oh do we have to do this?
System: This is quite a list, it goes on!
KK: I want to point out, all that work was done by a team, of which I was just one member.
System: But your name’s at the top of the paper.
KK: That’s not as significant as people make it out to be.
System: Means you get the prize.
KK: I think the idea of prizes in general is. . .I try to use it as an opportunity to educate people on what’s going on in the field? I don’t know. I feel like the work is what’s important. It’s what got everyone talking. Everyone in the room read the paper. That’s the science. Why do we need a prize?
System: I imagine that’s a pretty common attitude among scientists.
KK: I don’t know. I wish it was.
System: You think most scientists are in it for the glory?
KK: It gets competitive. People are competitive.
System: Science as sport.
KK: That exists. People want to win.
System: Not you?
KK: I don’t even want to put that forward as being necessarily pejorative. I think there’s some. . .common element in human nature? People want to be remembered. They want to know the work is important and. . .I think the prize. . .it sort of validates that. It’s not glory it’s. . .
System: People want to know they matter.
KK: That’s it. I mean I’m sure some of them want to go down in history. Those people exist.
System: And that’s not you?
KK: No. At least, I don’t think so! Maybe I’m not the right person to ask? Ask my colleagues.
System: We will.
KK: Oh that sound ominous.
System: What do you think they’ll say about you? How will your coworkers describe you?
KK: Um, that’s an interesting question, actually. I’d like to think. . .actually I know what they’ll say.
KK: They’ll say “she doesn’t care.”
System: Doesn’t care? A lifetime of work?
KK: I don’t care about the politics. I don’t care about the credit. Everyone’s always surprised to find out I don’t have my own office, I’m in there with everyone else. Whose name is on the thing. . .come on. What matters is knowing. When you get it right, when you see the truth. . .you know. . .and that’s what matters. ‘The rest is commentary.’
System: Do you always know when you’ve got it? Whatever breakthrough you’re looking for?
System: Wow. Always?
KK: Absolutely. When our lab on Ganymede Abstract broke hemopyll…I knew it. I knew it as soon as I saw the pictures.
KK: Because it was beautiful. I knew the halobacteria work was wrong. As soon as I saw it.
System: I don’t know what that is, but how did you know?
KK: It was ugly! It. . .it didn’t deserve to be true.
System: Truth is beauty?
KK: Yes, I think so. Oh, is that a quote?
System: It is.
KK: Well it’s a good one. You see it everywhere in science. You never feel like you’re discovering something, you always feel like you’re recognizing. You see it and you think “Ahh, that’s it. I knew it all along, but I didn’t know it.” Does that make sense?
System: It sounds artistic.
KK: There is absolutely an artist’s sense of recognizing beauty in what we do. I believe that.
System: Is that what stops you being political? You don’t compete, you look for beauty?
KK: Wow, I never thought about it that way, but yeah I think you’re right. I think that’s why they keep giving me prizes, actually, because the people awarding the prize know all the top researchers, they all seem to be jockeying for position, one publishes early, threatens to remove their name from this paper, threatens to publish alone, steal someone else’s thunder, and meanwhile I’m happily beavering away and they give the damned thing to me just to spite all the glory hounds.
System: We’re back to ‘glory.’
KK: Human nature.
System: You occupy an interesting space in science. Is it accurate to say you’re half physicist, half biologist?
System: Are you humoring me?
KK: A little! I think it’s probably more accurate to say I’m a 45% physicist, a 45% chemist, and a 10% biologist. But. . .I don’t think those distinctions are meaningful. I can tell you, the physics is by far the hardest for me.
System: Nice to know something’s hard for you.
KK: Oh none of it’s easy. And the quantum mechanics is. . .
System: The least easy?
KK: Baffling. You can’t think too hard about it, you have to take the subatomic world on its terms, not yours.
System: And what. . .give us an example of a problem in Quantum Molecular Biology.
KK: Ok, that’s easy. There’s this chemical called cryptochrome, it’s a flavoprotein and you find it in the retina of certain birds. . .a robin, on Earth. And it turns out that deep within this flavoprotein which is well below the cellular level, down at the very edge of the molecular level, you get these electrons that are entangled which means they’re sort of. . .two electrons in this molecule behave like they’re the same electron except under certain specific conditions like say the presence of a weak magnetic field.
System: How weak a field?
KK: Well in this instance it’s the Earth’s magnetic field. Which is very weak!
System: Ahhh, this is the migration problem!
KK: Exactly. That was 2036 and it was basically when my field went from theoretical, everyone guessing, to applied because they had definitely proven a quantum mechanical effect in an organism. Birds, some birds they used to think, and we now know all migratory birds, and some insects and arthropods, use these sensitive electrons to detect the Earth’s magnetic field which lets them know which direction to go.
System: That’s fascinating, it’s amazing nature came up with that.
KK: Nature’s always way ahead. Pretty much every breakthrough we’ve had in the last 400 years has been us finding ways to trick this cell into doing something that cell always does. Everywhere we go, nature got there first.
System: Why did quantum biology seem to explode in the last few decades?
KK: That’s a good question. So, there are some mysterious things happening at the subatomic level in the in the cell, specifically the cytoplasm, and some of these things have been mysterious for quite some time, people were asking these questions back in the 1950s. But they couldn’t get good answers, because it turns out, we didn’t have good samples.
System: What would be a good sample?
KK: A living creature from another world.
System: Everything on Earth is related.
KK: Exactly, so we basically only have one sample. I mean a person and a nudibranch. . .those aren’t even the most extreme examples, but the two MOST different creatures on Earth are, in some sense, maybe only an abstract sense, related.
System: One common ancestor.
KK: As far as we can tell, yes. If there was a second Genesis or whatever you want to call it, on the early Earth, none of it survived to tell us. So if the problem is “life” we only have one solution to that problem here, and we needed to see other solutions.
System: Did that happened once we started to get samples from Lighthouse, for instance?
KK: Yes! Wow, great question. When we first started to get samples from Lighthouse and Homestead, everyone went crazy and all of a sudden everyone wanted to get into biology and why not? But behind the scenes there was this underlying sense of disappointment. No one was saying it, but it was a huge letdown for everyone else.
System: Things weren’t that weird.
KK: Exactly! That’s exactly it, it turns out the universe isn’t as weird as maybe we would have liked. Most creatures. . .I mean most things on one world could be transplanted to another and they’d be OK. You get differences in basic chemistry that aren’t obvious until you get. . .I dunno, mice that can live on Mesa, but cats can’t because of the specific pH of all the plants there. But generally the reasons Humans can live all over is because life has a basic set of rules.
System: You said “a huge letdown for everyone else.”
KK: Yes! Because actually in my field things WERE that weird! You get these worlds like ah…Shear is a good recent example.
KK: World out at the edge of the arm with a huge abundance of bioelectrics. And that stuff just isn’t possible on Earth, we get too much solar radiation for those structures to ever evolve, you need a really strong magnetic field, stronger than Earth’s which is pretty rare.
So yeah we started to get all sorts of interesting samples, there are creatures on Bode’s World that levitate, and it appears to be purely gravitic, we have eels on Homestead that produce magnetic monopoles. Huge explosion in quantum biology. I mean I don’t think my field could exist as it does before human settlement of the galaxy.
System: Still, we’ve been settling worlds for hundreds of years.
KK: Yeah, but getting samples back to Hub is. . .it’s hard, and it’s not that important. For a long time people had better things to do with spaceships. And we need live samples!
System: Ok so now I have to ask the question everyone hates.
KK: Hahah. I get it. Go ahead.
System: How would you explain. . .
KK: To the layman.
System: Yeah, ‘to the layman’ how would explain your work?
KK: Ok, so what do I do? Or really, what did I do to deserve this prize? And then after that the dreaded “what is the practical application of the work?”
System: I have to ask. We have a readership of over three billion people throughout Sol and the Outer Systems and they’re going to be curious.
KK: As well they should be. OK, so I won this prize for introducing a loophole into something called the Electron Transport System, in specially-engineered versions of e. coli.
System: Regular e. coli.
KK: The workhorse of biology!
System: And what does that loophole do?
KK: Well, that’s complicated. If I could explain it to a layman it probably wouldn’t be worth the prize. But in a sense I fool this system down in the enzymes into acting like it’s getting free energy and the thing about the quantum structure down there is that there’s actually no difference between fooling or tricking the system into thinking it’s getting free energy, and actually getting free energy.
System: Like a perpetual motion machine?
KK: Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch down there, summed over all entities, the energy has to be paid for, but on a moment-to-moment basis. . .yyyes.
System: That was a very tentative yes.
KK: Hahahah. Yeah. Well, there’s no good answer here. I don’t think this will make sense to anyone reading this, except my fellows who’ll be howling with either laughter or derision.
System: Damned if you do. . .
KK: Exactly. I’m doing my best here! I’m sorry!
System: So why did you need samples from other worlds to do this?
KK: Well, we needed to find an example. . .ok, let me take a step back. First, we needed someone to guess that this was possible in the first place.
System: And was that you?
KK: No that was actually my doctoral advisor, Dr. Yukawa
System: I interviewed him.
KK: You did! Wow! For this?
System: No, it was when he retired.
KK: Oh right, how was he?
System: Ah. . .
System: That’s a good word.
KK: A diplomatic word.
System: It was an honor to speak with him.
KK: And you were glad when it was over, he’s like that. He’s great in the lab, totally different person.
System: It’s hard to imagine him as your advisor.
KK: Oh everyone’s different when they’re working. None of us are very good out in the open like this.
KK: Now, hang on, I don’t accept that! We’re very social animals, within our little cliques. It’s when we end up sitting across from. . .I mean is anyone you interview ever at ease?
System: Actors. But point taken.
KK: Well, actors, sure.
System: So first someone had to imagine it.
KK: Yeah, Dr. Yukawa imagined it, wrote about how it might work hypothetically, then we had a team of researchers looking for an example. There’s a lot of data out there, it was a team of thirty people working for three years. 80 hours weeks were not uncommon.
System: That sounds grueling! Is that normal?
KK: When you’re working on something revolutionary, yeah I think so. This is that.
System: And once you had your example.
KK: Right! All that and we haven’t gotten to my part! Then it was up to someone, my team, to try and find a way to transplant that mechanism from the xenosample into a terrestrial sample and that was e. coli.
System: And it worked?
KK: Not. . .not for a long time. That’s pretty common too. It doesn’t work for a long time, and then it does. So, in brief, I transplanted a molecular process from an alien life form into a terrestrial life form and produced an effect that had previously been considered impossible into a mundane Earth animal. A lot of people in that chain should be here sharing in the prize.
System: So, again, have to ask, is there a practical application for this?
KK: I have no idea.
System: Hah! Not going to play along!?
KK: Not even a little. I have no idea what people will do with this, if anything, don’t care.
System: I was looking forward to watching you squirm trying to find some bizarre hypothetical application.
KK: Yeah I’ve read those interviews, I always feel sorry for these brilliant people trying to justify the work. The work is the justification.
System: Science for science’s sake.
KK: That’s it. I think our culture as a whole. . .we like technology, but science is often still a dirty word. We like things that have down-to-earth, pragmatic usefulness. That’s it, usefulness. Well, let someone else worry about that. I’m not worried about that.
System: You’re worried about beauty.
KK: Truth! Say truth! I’m happier with that. I don’t want to sound poetic.
System: I think it’s too late for that Dr. Kapur.
System: What’s next for you?
KK: I don’t know. I get a lot of offers.
System: I bet you do.
KK: Was that innuendo?
System: I have no idea. Take it however you like. What kind of offers? All universities?
KK: Well, I was offered a position working on Celestial’s biodynamics program at Luna Actual.
System: You going to accept?
KK: I don’t know, maybe. It seems like everyone eventually ends up workingfor one of the big five. I will say this. . .more and more over the last two years I’ve been reading work. . .this isn’t my work, understand, my peers. I read the journals and I often find myself thinking “You’d have gotten there faster with better funding.”
System: Ahh funding.
KK: Makes the world go round. Several worlds now. And if you’re in my field. . .I think there is such a thing as “science only the gigacorps can do.” They’re willing to invest decades and billions in stuff that may be a dead end. And they have access to everything in the Arm. That’s valuable.
KK: That’s maybe a good word for it. When you start off in this business. . .and I use the word ‘business’ there quite wrongly. . .you think all it takes is a brain and a good microscope but pretty soon you run into all sorts of managerial problems, staffing, funding, scale. And these are all things the gigacorps can just. . .poof! Magic away. It is very. . .yeah, seductive is a good word.
System: Thank you for talking to me, Dr. Kapur.
KK: Is it over? Wow, pretty painless.
Steven Gutiérrez is a managing editor for The System and also its science writer.