Ralph S Wolfe

"—a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Max Planck

The year 2002 marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the Archaea. Data to support this discovery were presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of October 1977 (Fox et al., 1977). However, most people learned about methanogens, "a third form of life," from the front pages of their newspapers on Thursday, November 3, 1977, the day the PNAS issue was available. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supported the research of Carl Woese and were pleased to sponsor and receive publicity for the press release he presented. When discussing the importance of the discovery with reporters prior to the press release, Woese had difficulty communicating in scientific terms that they could understand, until he hit upon the phrase, "a third form of life." They could relate to this phrase, and it became prominent in their articles. Methano-gens, though prokaryotes, were only distantly related to other prokaryotes.

The immediate response of the scientific community to the press release was negative with disbelief and much hostility, especially among microbiologists. Scientists were suspicious of scientific publication in newspapers, and only a very few were familiar with the use of 16S rRNA oligonucleotides to define relationships among organisms. Among the phone calls that I received the morning of November 3, the one by S. E. Luria was the most civil and free of four-letter words. Luria was a Professor of Microbiology, when I joined the Department at Illinois in 1953 and had later moved to MIT. Luria: "Ralph, you must dissociate yourself from this nonsense, or you're going to ruin your career!" "But, Lu, the data are solid and support the conclusions: they are in the current issue of PNAS." Luria: "Oh yes, my issue just arrived." "If you would like to discuss the paper after you have had a chance to look at it, give me a ring." He did not call again.

I wanted to crawl under something and hide. Fortunately I was able to escape the hostility and left graduate students to cope, because my wife and I were leaving for Philadelphia to help celebrate her father's 90th birthday. We collected a few newspapers in airports. Carl was on the front page of the New York Times with his Adidas-clad feet prominently displayed on his desk. Much later he would say, "You know, Adidas never offered me a contract." In Philadelphia, I explained in dismay to my father-in-law what my colleague had done, and his response was: "You know, in my long life I have observed something, if you don't overstate your case, no one will listen." I felt better. However, in hindsight, the press release polarized the scientific community, and the majority refused to read the literature, delaying acceptance of the Archaebacteria for perhaps a decade. The discovery of the Archaea resulted from the intersection of two independent lines of research; the culmination of the informational-macromolecule line was the research of Carl Woese, whereas the biochemistry of methanogenesis was pursued by my research group.

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