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Nobel Laureate

DELVING INTO DEATH: Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan talks about his new book and the accessibility of science

Over the past few years, Ramakrishnan, who has received half a dozen awards including a knighthood in 2012, has been making science more accessible with his books

Farah Khatoon | Published 05.05.24, 09:30 AM
Venki Ramakrishnan

Venki Ramakrishnan

Picture: Kate Joyce for the Santa Fe Institute

Venki Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009 and shared it with American biochemist Thomas A Steitz and Israeli protein crystallographer Ada Yonath. That was a decade-and-a-half ago. Still, the Tamil Nadu-born and UK-based biologist says, “It seems a bit surreal as if it happened to someone else.”

For the Padma Vibhushan recipient (2010), life remains the same in some ways even after the Nobel for his work on ribosomal structure. Over the past few years, Ramakrishnan, who has received half a dozen awards including a knighthood in 2012, has been making science more accessible with his books. His first book, Gene Machine, tried to simplify how three scientists, including himself, succeeded in decoding ribosomes.


In his latest book, Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality (Hachette India/ Hodder & Soughton), Ramakrishnan focuses on the existential question of death and ageing. The author, who is a past president of The Royal Society, opens up about enjoying the process of making science more accessible with his books, how the Nobel changed his life and his read list. Excerpts from a t2oS exclusive chat.

Your first book was Gene Machine and it gave readers an insight into the ribosome, the gene-reading molecule that brought you the Nobel prize along with Thomas A Steitz and Ada Yonath. What prompted you to pen down a new book? Was it the success of the first book or that you wanted to make science more accessible to the common man or something else?

In writing the first book, I found I enjoyed the process of trying to make science accessible to the general reader. However, I was also prompted to write this book [Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality] for a variety of reasons. Ageing and death are big existential questions that humanity has wondered about for a long time but it is only recently that we are beginning to understand the biological basis for it and trying to see how we can combat it. At the same time, anxiety about old age and death, along with a large influx of money means there is also a huge amount of hype in the field. This is an attempt to try and provide a dispassionate look at the science and where it is taking us.

Can you throw some light on the developments in the study of ageing and immortality that your new book talks about?

The book mainly talks about the underlying biology of ageing, going all the way from molecules in our cells, to the collection of molecules that have to work together, to components and organelles of the cell and to how cells interact with other cells, eventually resulting in the outward manifestations of ageing. It also deals with some of the ethical and social issues involved in longevity research.

For the book to be read by non-science bibliophiles, it has to follow a narrative. Tell us about the challenges of making Why We Die more reader-friendly and less of an article for a science journal. How did you draw a line between the two types of writing?

By starting with the simplest elements — molecules such as DNA and protein — to more and more complex entities, the book has a natural progression. I’ve also tried to provide some of the history, including scientists and some of their personalities, to show the reader not just the facts but how we came to know them. I hope this gives some idea of the field but also for science as a human enterprise. In particular, it may interest the reader to know how many of the big discoveries were made by following curiosity about some fundamental biology that at the time seemed to have nothing to do with ageing.

How hard was it to talk about ageing from the perspective of science in 250-odd pages?

The field of ageing has produced almost 300,000 papers in the last 10 years alone. There are now more than 700 start-up companies in the longevity area with many tens of billions of dollars invested. So I had to pick and choose what to describe in this book. I’ve tried to focus on fundamental biology, which will hopefully stand the test of time, rather than on the latest splashy findings that may not hold up to scrutiny. This will also give the reader the tools with which to understand and assess a scientific report when it is described in newspapers and magazines as the next big breakthrough.

With the backing of science and the findings of several researchers, the book approaches the topic of ageing and mortality. Is there any particular researcher who you would like to draw attention to?

Ageing is a large field with many past and current contributors. However, there are many quite colourful characters described in the book.

Beyond work, what keeps you occupied? Are you reading any novel at the moment?

I like to read and when I retire I hope to have more time to do it. In the last year, some fiction I’ve read are Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Strout; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel about a boy whose father dies in 9/11 by Jonathan Foe; The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. In non-fiction, I’ve read Natural Obsessions, a frank look at two top cancer biology labs by Natalie Angier; The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, a huge epic covering 20th-century physics all the way to the first nuclear weapons; and am currently reading A Walk in the Woods, a highly entertaining account of hiking the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. Apart from reading, I like movies including long serialised dramas on TV, music, hiking and bicycling, and travel.

Now that you are in your 70s, has your perspective of ageing and mortality changed from what it was earlier?

I do feel more of the aches and pains of old age. My shoulder and knee have chronic problems and I cannot do things I could when I was 50. However, I am still enjoying my life, and I am not sure I think much more on a daily basis about mortality than I used to, except I had to think about it all when writing the book.

It’s been one-and-a-half decades since you won the Nobel. How memorable was the day if you were to look back and recall it? And did life change after that in any way?

In some ways my life has remained the same: the same job, same house, same bicycle, etc. But there are things I have experienced that would not have happened without the prize, for example, being elected president of the Royal Society. It has probably also helped with other things, for example, getting publishers to commission books I want to write. So, it was very good fortune. However, it has not made science easier or getting my papers published any easier.

Last updated on 05.05.24, 09:32 AM

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