The early decades of the 20th century ushered in what can be called a century of physics. Max Planck’s pioneering work in 1901 to the Nobel Prizes for quantum mechanics to Werner Heisenberg, P.A.M. Dirac and Erwin Schrödinger in the early 1930s marked a burst of scientific creativity unheralded since Isaac Newton. The rest was philately. Radios, television, DVDs, cellphones—and what not—all made use of those early discoveries.

Will the 21st century see a scientific repeat? There is, of course, no cause and effect between a particular time and the pace of scientific discovery. There are, at best, some patterns. But if there are any indications, biology may be the new domain of discovery. The human genome was sequenced by 2003. Its full analysis and elaboration will require many more years, if not a decade.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

That holds great promise. Conditions such as cancer and genetic disorders, which have oft been the target of magic bullet cures, have defied solution. Part of the problem has been the way solutions have been designed and carried out. New drugs and pharmaceuticals have formed the core of such efforts. What they did was to attack the problem at the surface, at the level of cells and proteins. Today, deeper, genetic interventionist strategies are not only feasible, but may soon become economical as well.

There are, as always, doubtful aspects of the situation. Genomics has progressed while its social and economic consequences have often been left behind. One example should suffice to illustrate potential problems. In many cases, certain individuals and ethnic groups are more susceptible to diseases. Genetic profiling will, no doubt, alert potential victims to take pre-emptive steps. But the bigger danger is that insurance and labour markets could react in unforeseen ways to these discoveries. Merely on the basis of such profiling, individuals could lose out in these markets, even if they ultimately do not suffer from such diseases.

In this sense, the effects of this unfolding scientific story are more direct in human terms compared with the last one. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s awestruck recitation of a hymn from the Bhagavad Gita as an atomic device exploded marked its first realization. There was a gap of at least 13-20 years between theoretical developments and the awareness of their consequences. In the case of genomics, there has been hardly any catch-up time. It is time economists and sociologists were brought into the loop, quickly.

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