”Printing has allowed knowledge to spread”
Stephan Karkowsky (Deutschlandradio Kultur) talks to molecular biologist Emmanuelle Charpentier about the most important European invention.
In a Goethe-Institut online survey, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz's printing press was voted most significant European invention. A sound choice, agrees molecular biologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, because even computers would never have been conceived without book printing.
Stephan Karkowsky: Today, we ask ourselves once more: what does Europe think about Europe? We've invited a prominent European to ponder this question. Born in France, she now conducts research at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and teaches Immunology at Hannover Medical School. But most important of all, she was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, Germany's most prestigious research prize. Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, Nice to meet you!
Emmanuelle Charpentier: Hello!
Karkowsky: And congratulations on receiving the award!
Charpentier: Thank you very much!
Karkowsky: The Goethe-Institut has assembled a European canon, the Europe List, the result of an online survey among more than 20,000 participants from 30 countries. We would like to discuss the following question with you, Ms Charpentier: what is the most significant European invention? Johannes Gutenberg's 1450 conception of the printing press took first place by a mile. Would you have anticipated this outcome?
Charpentier: Indeed! Of course there are plenty of other ingenious contraptions in the domains of art, culture and science, no doubt about it. But I think it was the printing press that made all these other inventions possible.
Karkowsky: I would have thought people might have chosen Konrad Zuse's brainchild, the computer. Do you think the development of the computer would have been at all possible without the printing press?
Charpentier: I don't think so. The printing of books enabled knowledge to spread and science to travel. And the development of those aspects that made computers possible is inconceivable without printing. In the scope of the last thirty years, though, computers are definitely a game-changing innovation.
Karkowsky: What do you think is the greatest invention in your field, immunology – and why is it so important?
Charpentier: As a microbiologist, I would have to say penicillin. It has saved so many lives and helped to fight so many diseases.
Karkowsky: Well, penicillin, the effect of which was first witnessed by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928, did make fourth place on the Goethe-Institut's Europe list. Nowadays, considering all these newly emerging resistances, are antibiotics still as relevant?
Charpentier:Yes, indeed, antibiotics still play an important role in the battle against infections. You just mentioned resistances – there is a great demand today for new antibiotics or ones appropriate for diseases where the conventional ones have been met with resistances.
Karkowsky: A possible research focus for the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship you will be holding in 2014?
Charpentier: Well, quite. In my laboratory, we have been doing a lot of work on the regulation of bacteria, which is very important for finding new targets for antibiotics, new ways in which antibiotics can prove effective – this will be the focus of our studies.
Karkowsky: Let's go back to the Goethe-Institut's list of significant European inventions. Second place goes to the steam engine, third to the automobile, developed in 1886 by Karl Benz from Karlsruhe. Do you think the car will still be counted among the greatest inventions in 50 years?
Charpentier: Yes, I could imagine so.
Karkowsky: You are listening to "Radiofeuilleton" French immunologist Emmanuelle Charpentier on the Goethe List of most significant European inventions.
Now, at this point, national sympathies begin casting a doubt upon the credibility of the survey: Swedes, for example, tend to favour Swedish inventions, such as Alfred Nobel's dynamite and the zipper. Estonians voted for Skype, which was programmed in the Baltic country, and the French raised cinema into the Top Ten, invented by the French brothers Lumière. What do you, as a French native yourself, have to say?
Charpentier: Yes, I think cinematography is an important part of French culture and I can understand why the French would have chosen it. And I'm also not surprised by the fact that people tend to go for inventions from their home countries. At least in the case of modern European inventions, I guess, this is quite evident.
Karkowsky: If I've read your CV correctly, you actually did no more than attain your doctorate in France, before going to New York, Memphis, Vienna, Sweden and now Germany. Is it a matter of chance that you never spent much time in France, or is it to do with research conditions?
Charpentier: It certainly wasn't planned that way from the start. I think many scientists get their doctorate in their home country and then go abroad to continue their research. For me, this was my path into the States. And by travelling to the States, I came to realise that science itself is basically my life's sustenance and that travelling a lot is simply necessary. All this travelling has helped me develop a good deal of creativity. I'm not trying to say that it is impossible for a scientist to stay rooted. But being on the move has certainly helped me become more creative and has enabled me to experience different cultures and different ways of approaching science; this was very important to me, personally.
Karkowsky: In which country or countries have you so far found the best conditions for quality research in your area? Don't bother about being polite, now.
Charpentier: I think the US offers the best conditions worldwide. In a European context, Germany is probably leading – I'm not trying to be polite, that's a fact. I could have gone to other countries from Sweden – to France or basically anywhere – but Germany offered the best circumstances for my research. And I think Germany, Switzerland and perhaps the UK as well are making an effort to attract internationally renowned researchers.
Karkowsky: You really do live for science; you also emphasised seeing science as an adventure, what with all the travelling involved. But is there a place in Europe you can return to and say: I'm home?
Charpentier: Not really – I feel at ease pretty much anywhere. I think the more time you spend travelling, the more you learn to be flexible and able to be comfortable wherever you happen to be. At the moment, I'm doing very well in Germany. There's not really much more I can say. But I don't think the general German mentality is all that different from back where I'm from, near Paris. All I can say is: I'm very happy here.
Karkowsky: The Europe List – today we talked about the most significant European inventions, a ranking topped by the printing press. We talked to immunologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship this year. Thank you for speaking to us.