AI is not the solution for everything: Nobel laureate Morten P Meldal

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Morten P Meldal is a Danish biochemist with a Croatian basketballer’s height and an American rock guitarist’s nonchalance.

The obscure geometric figures in organic chemistry, bewilderingly obscure for a layman, has been a visual delight for this Chemistry Nobel laureate right from childhood. “Every individual has a different way of thinking and storing memory, and mine, fortunately, was by seeing images,” Meldal said during an interactive session mostly with students at the Global Science Festival Kerala (GSFK) on Wednesday, February 7.

Meldal was not the typical bookworm. “Learning Physical Chemistry was boring. I didn’t go to the classes and flipped through the books and photographs before the exam. I passed the exams with a low grade, but I had the book. The memory of pictures is very important in Chemistry. It is about visual memory, not word memory. You can’t learn Chemistry with word memory. I am strong at Chemistry because I have a visual memory,” he said. For Meldal, chemistry is full of images, abstractions and possibilities.

Meldal’s rock guitarist vibe is not accidental. He is an accomplished rock guitarist. “Art and science are two sides of the same coin,” he had said at the time of receiving the Nobel. “You can learn a lot of creativity by doing art, and this is useful in your scientific research,” he said.

Reason why he insisted at the GSFK that children should be trained in chemistry. He nearly likened chemistry to visual art. “Children have the amazing ability to store images, the things they see they remember for the rest of their lives and hence I think childhood training in Chemistry is extremely important,” Meldal said.

The Nobel laureate uses music as a stimulating counterpoint to his scientific pursuits. “In music you have let go of logic, which is in contrast to science. I use music as a relaxation for my brain,” he said.

Meldal was all praise for science education in India saying that there is a lot of potential in the country and there is a lot of research happening. “Science, however, should not be driven by profit optimization, I know scientists in the West who have been driven by profit optimization and that is one of the big mistakes and one of the reasons for the conflicts in the world today,” he said.

Like all scientists worth their salt, Meldal also warned of the growing dependence on Artificial Intelligence (AI) though he acknowledges its value for humanity.

“Lot of caution is called for in the learning of AI. There is no way we can give AI empathy or irregular thoughts. And AI is not the solution to everything, but it can ease life in many households and industries,” he said.

Serendipity is the biggest gift of science, he seemed to say. “Discoveries are not planned, but they happen because we keep our eyes open,” he said. Many of Meldal’s discoveries happened by chance. “You cannot hope for the expected to happen. If it was expected then it would have already happened,” he said. “You should contest your knowledge constantly, you can’t do research thinking of the Nobel prize and if that is your plan you are not going to get it,” he said.

A Danish chemist, Morten P Meldal won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the year 2022. In 2002, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless, independently of each other, developed an elegant and efficient chemical reaction: the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition. This is now in widespread use and is utilised in the development of pharmaceuticals, for mapping DNA and creating new materials.



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