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Lord Robert Winston

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Having fun in the hills!

« on: December 13, 2009, 09:47:11 pm »

A restless mind

Lord Robert Winston is the face of modern popular science. On the
eve of his visit to New Zealand this week, he talks to David Gadd
about what music does to our brains and what makes him tick.

By DAVID GADD - Sunday Star Times | 5:00AM - Sunday, 13 December 2009

MAESTRO: Demystifying biology and psychology; Professor Robert Winston.  Photo: The Press.

MAESTRO: Demystifying biology and psychology;
Professor Robert Winston. Photo: The Press.

HE'S A man who looks into the very building blocks of life, teasing apart the secrets of DNA, and is behind one of the great experiments of science and television, tracking the lives of a group of children as they grow to gauge the secrets of what makes us all humans.

But try to pin him down on what makes him tick, to get behind the television persona, to the restless mind and spirit that drives him, and you find it unusually hard.

Professor Lord Robert Winston is one of the most high profile scientists of our time a David Attenborough of the human species. He is the moustached, avuncular face of biology, psychology, evolution and how they blend to create each of us.

He must also be one of the hardest working, as an attempt at a quick summary of his achievements makes apparent. As professor of science and society and emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College, he has written about 300 papers in peer-review journals on reproduction. He is also chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, chairman of the Royal College of Music, holds many other posts, has multiple fellowships with prestigious academies and colleges, chairs various charity groups, and even sits in the House of Lords for Labour where he helps refine policies ranging from antibiotic resistance to nuclear waste.

As if that were not enough, his extracurricular interests include dabbling in theatre, classical music and skiing. He is a member of The Athenaeum and The Garrick clubs, the home of cricket, the MCC, and is an amateur expert in the wines of Bordeaux, especially Paulliac. And a dad of three children.

This week brings him to New Zealand to promote another aspect of emerging scientific development. He will deliver the opening address, a free, public lecture at this week's Second International Symposium of Performance Science hosted at Auckland University. His topic: performance, science and society.

Musical performance is close to Winston's own heart. He says art gets closest to the "basis of our humanity". Be it the scurl of bagpipes or the soaring of a symphony, music is a primal thing that reaches inside us and wrenches directly at our emotions.

"If you listen to a Beethoven fugue in the middle of a symphony, the seventh symphony or the third symphony, the moments when Beethoven starts to develop the fugal element of those movements and starts to ascend, you get lost in a kind of extraordinary heavenly perception where your mind, if you like, breaks into sort of component parts. It is utterly moving. Now the response to that type of music can be quite tear jerking and it's not often that a painting can do that to you. I mean it may do occasionally but, in general, when you go to a gallery and you stand in front of a Renoir you are not likely to break out into tears or laughter or feel pure joy, all of which may happen during music."

But this appreciation of music is more than just admiration of its aesthetic qualities. As with all Winstonian passions, there's science deep down in the DNA of music which attracts him. He talks of the development of new, better techniques at scanning the brain to map it as it listens to music, measuring brain activity and correlating it with musical perception. Why?

"It's a very good way of looking at human emotion so I think there is lots of value to neural science. And I don't think it's just medical, I think it's much more about human consciousness, about what makes us who we are. I use the word humanity in the abstract and that's what I mean. It is about what makes us human."

Winston thinks understanding performance and improving it is valuable, as it affects not just musicians or actors, but a wide variety of people throughout life.

"For example, the performance of a politician in public can be critical to his success or the success of the policy he is trying to promulgate, and one of the problems that we have with our prime minister [Gordon Brown] is that he doesn't perform very well in public, in my view."

That contrast is all the more marked coming hard on the heels of Tony Blair who, says Winston, was "an amazing performer". So is performance genetic, something you are born with, or can any of us learn it?

"I think there are some who are natural performers. Performance requires for you to take risks and risk taking can, to some extent, be genetically determined."

Scientists have identified the DRD4 (Dopamine Receptor D4) gene as a potential indicator of a propensity to take risks, depending on how many "repeats" one has of the gene. "But, of course, you can acquire good performance. Performance also comes down to a more mundane thing how you control your vital parameters, your blood pressure, your pulse rate, your sweating, how you manage to sit comfortably and how you manage to control nervousness in front of an audience."

WINSTON IS perhaps best known as the genial face of the BBC series Child of Our Time, which has followed the lives of 25 children from 22 families since birth in 2000 and intends to stay with them until they are 20. The aim is to build one of the most comprehensive views of how genetics and the environment interact to make the people we become. It has drawn on average around 400,000 viewers each of its eight series screened here and even topped one million in total viewers at one point.

New Zealand now has its own version of this experiment, launched this year. Growing Up in New Zealand will track 7800 children from birth to 20. Director Dr Susan Morton says Winston has been "hugely influential in developing our understanding of how a child's early life influences a multitude of outcomes throughout its life: in health, behaviours and educational achievement to name just a few".

There have also been a multitude of other documentaries such as The Human Body and a growing collection of books.

But his response to all this: "I don't believe I have achieved so much. I don't see them as outstanding achievements. I think they're quite modest ones really."

At first this could be mistaken for being disingenuously coy, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is a real aversion, almost a prickliness, when it comes to being lauded by the media. Winston is a scientist to the core, with an unwavering commitment for cold, uncompromising fact. What he doesn't like about attempting to wrestle his essence into a few litres of black ink on paper is that it is not precise enough, it cannot possibly accurately capture the complexity of human nature and describe who he really is.

"I don't particularly like profiles... a journalist interviewing you for an hour-and-a-half cannot possibly sum up the sort of person you are. You have the slant which the journalist wants to put on the interview and actually the mood of the person who's speaking to the journalist at the time. So I think that profiles are a pretty poor way of assessing somebody, as indeed are things in Who's Who or compendia or Wikipedia or anything else they don't reflect what a person is like at all, really. They reflect what a few people might imagine that he or she is like."

But Winston is in the end defeated by his own desire for discovery. For the latest instalment of the Child of Our Time franchise is a personality test, being rolled out in the UK right now and a test which he has, of course, subjected himself to.

Dubbed The Big Personality Test, this combined TV and online experiment is designed to answer the question: do personalities shape our lives or do our lives shape our personalities in short, could your personality also be your destiny? The test works out five key traits Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

So, drum roll please, Lord Winston: what does your personality test reveal?

"Well it turns out, according to this test, that I am high on openness and about the middle of the range for the other four attributes."

Is it accurate? "It would possibly fit in with how I am. That kind of score would be likely to coincide with someone who is reasonably inventive, open to new ideas, not very well organised."

Given all that he has on the go at any given time, did he say disorganised? "Yes, I'm very badly organised."

That may sound a bit too much like a caricature of the absent-minded professor. But then again, a little known fact is that despite the success he's had, despite the personality which fits so well with being a scientist, he never intended to be one.

First, to dispel a bit of an urban myth about Winston, that when he was nine his father's death after medical misadventure propelled him into medicine to redress the wrongs. Not so, he says.

He is very matter of fact about the death of his father. "He didn't look after himself very well, he was 42 and went out on a cold night not dressed properly, got pneumonia, the pneumonia wasn't properly treated, he got an abscess on the lung, that went to the brain, and he had a rather experimental operation that didn't work and died some months later.

"I don't know whether my father died of medical negligence or not. My father died probably because of medical ignorance, but that is not why I went into medicine. I didn't intend to go into medicine originally. I was going to read science in Cambridge and I had a place to do that. I really wanted to read English at Cambridge actually but I didn't have the right A levels so science was a very big love. I started science but then decided after a bit I would rather be doing something which involved people, so I did medicine."

"It certainly wasn't anything to do with my father's death... I did medicine because it was interesting and I like dealing with people. No need to look for complicated reasons."

If there was no filial obligation behind his career choice, the same cannot be said for that other great side of his life which stands alongside his scientific principles his faith. He is an Orthodox Jew, at first glance a potential contradiction that he is both a man of science and tremendous faith.

"I don't think being Jewish is a conflict at all [with science]. In fact, actually, it tends to look at these problems in a pragmatic and I think very sensible way and always has done.

"Judaism is a pretty scientifically literate religion in many ways, it's not very surprising that science tends to be an attractive area for Jews.

"I mean, Jews make up, what, 0.1% of the world's population but about 15% of the Nobel prize winners in science have been Jewish. And I think that that kind of reflects a disproportionate ratio which is largely due not because Jews are particularly clever, but because they are attracted to scientific issues."

It goes to the heart of the man the drive to share knowledge, of demystifying science. Morton, who knows Winston, describes him as "warm, charismatic and passionate about sharing his knowledge and wisdom beyond a scientific audience".

A doyen of the BBC who has extended his fame into books, appearances and political activism, he is, like it or not, a media-created celebrity. But unlike so many of the shallow celebrities who inhabit the telly, his fame is grounded very firmly in real achievement.

Before he rose to mass media awareness, Winston's research in the 1970s led to microsurgery and IVF techniques that helped families to avoid such terrible conditions as cystic fibrosis and other chromosomal abnormalities he holds 26 patents around such work and as a fertility doctor is estimated to have helped bring more than 10,000 babies into the world.

His current research is on micro RNA, "which are, if you like, molecules which are a bit like DNA but not DNA which are responsible for certain inherited characteristics in a cell. We are trying to tease out what these micro RNA do. It has a practical point because this is one of the ways we might alter the genetics of animals for various purposes. Human transplantation is one aspect of the work we are interested in using organs which aren't human."

Cutting edge. And cutting close to the bone for many who worry about where modern medical advances are leading us. Winston is very conscious of this and knows his own research is an example of both promise and threat. Misuse of genetic modification in human reproduction could lead to modified or enhanced human characteristics changing the whole nature of our society.

"I think that every medical development or scientific development has, of course, ethical issues. Ethical issues come down to the nature of the value of human life, and they come down to respect for the autonomy of individuals, and they come down to the basic freedoms and justice for individuals.

"I think there is the issue about how you treat individual patients who come to you. Do you do the medicine on behalf of society or do you do it on behalf of the individual. In my view, your medicine should be geared primarily so it meets the needs of the individual in front of you."

One of the thorny issues which has gone from purely theoretical to increasingly likely to be a practical option for parents is choosing the sex of their baby.

"On the whole, I don't think it's a very earth shattering problem, frankly. There isn't much evidence in civilised society that choosing the sex of your child is going to make a massive difference in population distributions. You know you might favour males briefly, but that would make females more valuable if they became rarer and the pendulum would swing back again. And the sort of work which we've done to chose the sex of your child which you can do medically is only used for very, very rigorous reasons which include where a child of a particular sex would die of a disease which is inherited only by that sex. That seems to me to be a reasonable thing to be doing."

  • Lord Robert Winston will deliver his keynote speech on Tuesday
    at 6.15pm at the University of Auckland Business School;
    Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland.

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