14 March, 2018 - 14:05 By Tony Quested

Cambridge loses two great minds but inherits rich legacy

Cambridge has lost two great minds in a matter of days with the deaths of Nobel Prizewinner and genomics doyen Sir John Sulston and celebrated physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

Sir John Sulston died aged 75 while Professor Hawking was 76 – ironic given that at the age of 22 he was given only a few years to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease.

Tributes have flowed from celebrated scientists, academics, political figures and celebrities from all walks of life hailing both men, their ‘colossal’ brain power and their contributions to our understanding of disease and the cosmos.

Prof Hawking wrote about science in a way that lay people could understand and was a great proponent of the need for man and womankind to understand and learn to how live with one another. ‘One Universe’ could have been his mantra and he eloquently expressed that it would not be much of a universe were it not one which we could share with those who we loved and who loved us.

He also spoke a great deal of sense about the need to embrace technological change such as machine learning and Artificial Intelligence but not at the expense of humanity.

He acknowledged that AI as it had developed today had proved useful but if it continued its march unchecked could change humanity for the worse and eventually machines might even replace humans.

Sir John Sulston was founding director of genomics hothouse the Sanger Centre which evolved into the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

From 1992 to 2000, he piloted a historic period of genetic discovery. He led the UK’s contribution to the draft Human Genome – a monumental effort that laid the foundations for the research that is transforming healthcare and understanding of disease today.

Throughout his career, Sir John pushed scientific boundaries and was a strong believer that science is a public good. His far-sighted vision for genomics means he leaves behind a global field firmly founded on the principles of open access and a generation of scientists influenced by his actions and values.

In 2002, Sir John was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contribution to the understanding of how genes control cell division and cell death in an organism.

The consensus expressed by experts in their respective fields since the deaths of both men is that their work will still be regarded as groundbreaking by geneticists and physicists looking back in a thousand years’ time. That is some legacy.

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