Unravelling life’s mysteries through science

Rajaram Nityananda

Fifty years ago, we were taught that biology was a completely different subject from mathematics, physics, and chemistry. It involved long descriptions with many Latin names and complicated diagrams, and a lot of things to memorize. A further subdivision into zoology and botany was made. Would-be doctors learnt anatomy and physiology, mainly relating to the human body in their second year, which was dreaded because of the volume and complexity of these areas and the sheer bulk of the textbooks.

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The situation is very different today, world-wide and even in our own country. We now speak of ‘life sciences’, recognizing the close interconnections of all the branches. The equipment in a biology lab, or in a hospital, has gleaming machines and dazzling computer screens, which would be the envy of chemists and physicists. Life sciences are now better funded, and many colleges and universities have young and enthusiastic teachers. The language of biology and medicine has words like DNA, PCR, RIA, PET, all of which have roots in chemistry and physics. Separate areas called ‘biotechnology’ and ‘bioinformatics’ are being offered and can be very prestigious because they involve engineering and computer science, and can lead to well paying jobs in multinational firms. Biology has indeed broken all the old barriers.

In this piece the approach to biology will be from the physical sciences, because of my own training and experience in the subject I use here a story format; I would like to plead for more stories in the science classroom, because stories will linger in the mind and anchor some of the facts and ideas, long after the examination is over and forgotten!

Dr. Rajaram Nityananda works at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune, a part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He can be reached at [email protected].

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