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Sunday, December 02, 2012


If one were to study the origens of story telling, they might begin with cavemen and their paintings on cave walls. We are probably missing millions of years worth of information. No matter what we try and wrap our brains around we seem to only see the tip of the iceberg. I recently purchased a set of videos on the history of Hollywood. If you think it all began around the time of Edison you would be wrong. For a long time people had been gathering in darkened theaters to watch images of light flash by on a screen while music or some narrative played. When Edison et. al. came along they began with the simple fascinating images of people in movement. Not long after this novelty wore off they began telling stories. Science has turned out to be very much like Hollywood. Fictional stories are far more lucrative than documentaries that make you think. Peole prefer Batman.

Our history is like this history of Hollywood. Both began long before the era on which people choose to focus. All of the real science that went into creating both industries was exciting. The book "Silent Lives" describes the times of people in the early days of the motion picture industry. The book "Double Helix" describes the lives of two men in the early days of biotechnology. The early days were full of desperation and hope. We now know that success was obtained so we feel comfortable. The movies at first were short examples of pictures creating the illusion of motion. Nickelodeons offered very brief scences of a person jumping up and down or someone taking a walk. The Watson and Crick DNA structure paper was also short, one page long. The early days of both industries started with just the basics. We can show people in motion. We know the structure of DNA. Where do we go from here. We've come a long way.

An interesting side of the movie business is the throngs of young people who flock to Hollywood eager to make a living in the business. You hear about the success of Brad Pitt. He dropped out of college in his last semester. He worked as the El Pollo Loco chicken for a brief while and got a big break on Thelma and Luise. Who you don't hear about is Kathryn Carner. She is a lovely young lady with lots of talent. She never made it however. She is still out there being a creative person but she didn't make it like Pitt. When we think of Hollywood we think Pitt, not Carner. The truth is that Hollywood is both of them.

Now, likewise, when we think of biotech we think of Amgen. We think of Leroy Hood. Some people make it. Most people flounder. Just like Hollywood we have more talent than we can support. There must be some way of sorting out the ones who will make it. Who makes it and who doesn't? What science makes it? What does it take?

As we've often talked about here on the CCS, the narrative is something that all serious scientists take into consideration. The lesser men and women get their PhDs and go desperately searching for a job, any job. They may end up in Seattle or San Francisco. They may have a PhD in Microbiology and end up running a protein purification group at a small start-up. It is the serious scientist that forges his/her own path. David Sinclair, for example, knew that a Resveratrol career would get him tenure and a $720 million dollar biotech deal. Not many protein purification supervisors think big like that. It is that kind of dreaming that made Hollywood and biotechnology. Unfortunately for us, science is not all narrative. Where we part ways in comparisons is in the origens of our stories. In biotech it must be real. In Hollywood it just has to be interesting. In the Cargo Cults we prefer the Hollywood system.

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