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Introducing a Lecture by the Nobelist Kurt Wüthrich

12.09.2017

Honourable Professor Wüthrich!

My sincerest congratulations on receiving the first Endel Lippmaa Medal. Lippmaa was a brilliant scientist and a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. However, he was something much more as well. He was a masterful, sharp, and astonishingly persuasive when moving through the corridors of the enemy. He managed to convince the Soviet regime to finance his ambitious scientific projects, then delivered this knowledge to the service of Estonia when it really mattered. He was among those who managed to extract from the Communist Party an acknowledgement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s existence. It was an important step, as by this acknowledgement, the communists’ common claim that Estonians had voluntarily joined the USSR was overturned.

Professor Lippmaa possessed ironclad logic and an ample supply of facts, all neatly arranged in his brain and also physically on his bookshelves or in his big briefcase, which he never hesitated to pull out at just the right moment to slay the less-informed arguments of his opponents. He clearly had an immense impact on the quality of the political debate in Estonia immediately after the country shook off its occupation.

I am so glad and proud that we are finally honouring Lippmaa’s memory by establishing this tradition of a medal ceremony accompanied by a lecture. I am sure he would have loved this more than a monument standing somewhere, silent and alone. He was fond of people, discussions, arguments, and counterarguments.

Professor Wüthrich, I am glad that the selection committee chose you to be the first laureate of the Lippmaa medal. You, just like Professor Lippmaa, have been fascinated by nuclear magnetic resonance. You have both contributed to our ability to understand the mechanics of life itself. Your work, in particular, has allowed humankind to peek into the structure and dynamics of proteins without removing them from their natural environment. I have to confess that as an interested but not incredibly knowledgeable follower of the developments in biochemistry, I have seldom thought about how we get to know what we know, or, for instance, about the role of various proteins in the functioning of a cell.

Reading your lecture from when you received the Nobel Prize, I started to think about how much we trust the scientists in our community. When I read, say, about a membrane protein communicating on both sides of the membrane alone or with other components, then I’ve never doubted whether I should believe these facts even though I cannot understand the underlying research or I lack the time to sufficiently inform myself. I trust the study fully because if it has been published, then it has subsequently also been peer reviewed. I trust it until proven otherwise, as our understanding of the universe and the microcosmos similarly shifts as we gather new data.

Public trust is crucial, as scientists have moved so deep into the cell in their research of human, animal, and bacterial functions that their discoveries have become completely invisible to the naked eye and nearly impossible to grasp. People have a tendency to not believe and not trust what they cannot see or comprehend. They have to go by faith to keep their trust. And it is up to scientists to keep that faith in scientific methods. This faith has occasionally wavered, and we all know of specific cases where people have demonstrated their lack of understanding, which has led in turn to a lack of trust in science.

Professor Wüthrich, you may wonder why reading your lecture and observing the mesmerising pictures of proteins grouped in the centre and floating freely at the ends made me think of trust in scientific methods. The Estonians here might find it easier to understand. Our society, the world’s only truly digital society, needs a secure form of online identification to function. We are facing a risk that only scientists can describe and those who are able to understand the underlying science are able to resolve. The rest of us have to accept what they say. Policymakers have to decide on the methods, timing, and financing of the remedies. They have to prepare for the slight possibility that we will be forced to temporarily go offline in the event that scientifically-proven risks become reality before we have a chance to do anything to prevent them. They will later have to justify their decisions and the costs incurred while searching for solutions. The National Audit Office will have to investigate and issue a report.

It is much harder than, say, reacting to an aviation crisis that results from a volcanic eruption. In that case, most people are capable of understanding the risks and accepting that in order to avoid them, society must make expenses. Due to problems with the security of digital identities, we are only able to support solutions proposed by society when we can trust the scientists and the methods they use to respond to and resolve the risks. This is crucial for the future of our own digital society and people in all developed countries. Many governments are afraid of what they do not know and have therefore left their people on their own in the cyber-sphere. They refuse to guarantee security that would give people the opportunity to securely identify themselves and would also serve as a state guarantee for online-based cooperative partners. We do not yet know when a happy ending will arrive for our exciting and fascinating situation, which is also frightening for many. Yet if we do not trust science, then that ending will not come.

That is precisely why I have been so entranced by the lovely background pictures of your Nobel lecture. They show people how proteins actually behave, how life actually functions, and in doing so, they make the knowledge easier to believe.

I now give the floor to you, Professor Wüthrich, in honour of Professor Lippmaa’s memory.