I have an unrelenting and dreaded fear for the future every time I read about the death of a pre-eminent scientist. The reason is the likelihood that no one will ever contribute as much as that individual did to science.  More so today, with our loss in academic freedom the result of lockdowns, diminished school time, cancel culture, social changes and COVID-19’s overall effect on our entire educational system.

In my opinion, we are dumbing down the need to educate students replacing true knowledge with the need to concentrate on less important societal issues.  Pass/fail grading adopted in Oregon is another example, where the lowest common denominator is used as a criterion.  What incentive is there to strive for better grades? Moreover, none of the recent activities are designed to advance scholarship but they do limit the time necessary for critical learning.

This week we lost not one, but two such persons I deem irreplaceable.  

Edmond Fisher (1920-2021) was a biochemist who helped discover a fundamental regulatory mechanism in cells that paved the way for the development of drugs for cancer, diabetes and other diseases.  

Steven Weinberg (1933-2021), the other giant, was widely regarded as the greatest theoretical particle physicist of this or any other era.

Edmond Fisher

Fisher, together with fellow university scientist, Edwin F. Krebs worked together to solve where muscles find the energy they need to contract. The study focused on an enzyme in muscle tissue.  They discovered that the muscle enzyme was regulated by the addition and removal of phosphate groups, a process called reversible phosphorylation.

He was born in Shanghai, China, in 1920 to a French mother and an Austrian father. According to his autobiography , he began primary school at a local French-language institution but joined his older brothers at a Swiss boarding school at age seven. Throughout high school, he studied piano, and even thought about becoming a musician. But he began studying chemistry in college at the University of Geneva, earning his National License Diploma (a step between a bachelor’s and a master’s) in biology and chemistry during World War II.

He stayed on at the university, and in 1947, completed his doctoral thesis on the structure of polysaccharides and of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that breaks them down. He remained at the university  as a researcher for a few years before coming to the United States as a postdoc at the University of Washington in 1953. He became a full professor in 1961.

Soon after arriving in Seattle, Fischer began collaborating with Edwin Krebs studying glycogen phosphorylase, a liver enzyme. In the 1960s, they learned that the enzyme converts stored glycogen into glucose, which the body can then use for quickly-accessible energy in sudden “fight or flight” situations. They also found that glycogen phosphorylase’s activity could be controlled by other enzymes that attached or clipped off a phosphate group, a phenomenon that would turn out to be common in biology.  

In 1992, Fischer and Krebs jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for what the Nobel assembly called “their discoveries concerning reversible protein phosphorylation as a biological regulatory mechanism.”

Steven Weinberg

Weinberg established what came to be known as the standard model of the fundamental particles and their interactions for which he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics. He also authored a series of highly influential physics textbooks, as well as eloquent books and essays for the general public on societal and scientific issues.  Weinberg wrote hundreds of scientific articles about general relativity, quantum field theory, cosmology and quantum mechanics, as well as numerous popular articles, reviews and books.

His books include “To Explain the World,” “Dreams of a Final Theory,” “Facing Up” and “The First Three Minutes.” His extensive writings for the lay public often staked out controversial positions on subjects such as nuclear proliferation, religion, the history of science and funding for big science projects.

One of the most celebrated scientists of his generation, Weinberg was best known for helping to develop a critical part of the Standard Model of particle physics, which significantly advanced humanity’s understanding of how everything in the universe — its various particles and the forces that govern them — relate.

A faculty member for nearly four decades at UT Austin, he was a beloved teacher and researcher, revered not only by the scientists who marveled at his concise and elegant theories but also by science enthusiasts everywhere who read his books and sought him out at public appearances and lectures. He was famous for his quotes, one was: “It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Weinberg graduated from Cornell University in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts and received his PhD in physics from Princeton in 1957. He researched at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, before serving on the faculty of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, since 1982, UT Austin.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.