A Moore's Law for medical breakthroughs

In the world of medical research the chief contribution of this decade has been breaching the wall between organic and inorganic chemistry.

Norman Hackerman, 1912-2007In the world of medical research the chief contribution of this decade has been breaching the wall between organic and inorganic chemistry.

Computing has made this possible. It can take a vast amount of computing power to create an enzyme from scratch. Thanks to distributed computing and the Internet, we have it.

Some of the most important work here has taken place at my alma mater, Rice University in Houston. Rice scientists have recently found new ways to grow drugs inside living cells and grow gold molecules as you would cell membranes.

I was privileged to be present at the creation of this, although I didn't know it at the time.

It was Norman Hackerman (above), Rice President during my time there, who hired Richard Smalley in chemistry, and Ken Kennedy in computing. The Hack (as we undergrads called him) really got this party started,  recognizing that in a small school, the walls between disciplines were paper-thin, and needed to be breached.

Thus we've seen how carbon nanotubes heal themselves, built mathematical models for evolution (and shown it has Moore's Law effects). Rice people have modeled flu viruses inside computers, found new ways to rid water of arsenic using iron, and learned (rather spooky this) that amoeba can recognize their relatives.

This blending of disciplines has led directly to medical breakthroughs, like an enzyme that prevents growth of fibrous tissue. And a way to encase alpha particles so they can be used in chemotherapy.

Now remember that Rice is a small school, and what works in one place is readily imitated elsewhere. The impact of what Dr. Hackerman started has been exponential, and continues to be today.

The point is that this blending of disciplines, along with the introduction of unlimited computing power, has created a Moore's Law effect in science generally. It is most obvious today in basic science, but science in time becomes engineering, engineering becomes drugs and devices, and these become cures.

I call this Moore's Law of science Hackerman's Law. But you may call it progress.