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University of Basel

The Magic Mountain, 4 3 2 1, and Game Changer.

Text: Jan Pieter Abrahams

My books: Jan Pieter Abrahams, the professor for bioimaging at the Biozentrum, suggests Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 and Game Changer by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan

Abrahams in the woods holding books
Jan Pieter Abrahams (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

As an avid reader, I’ve chosen three books: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 and Game Changer by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan. Together, these reflect my scientific understanding of life. I take the view that the functions of life, although they appear to follow a linear path, can only be understood as probability-weighted interference between all of the possible forks in the road. “Why am I here?” – “Because it was likely that I’d be here.”

In The Magic Mountain, a young Hans Castorp ends up in a sanatorium after paying someone a visit, and appears to be suffering from tuberculosis. He stays until he decides he is cured – having matured into a thinking man after years of discussions with fellow patients. These often revolve around science: “What was life? It was ... a fever of matter, which accompanied the process of ceaseless decay and repair of protein molecules that were too impossibly ingenious in structure.” These were incredibly astute observations given it would be some 35 years before the first protein structures were identified.

4 3 2 1 tells the story of four parallel lives that Archie Ferguson could have lived and whose individual courses are shaped by random events. In three of them, he dies prematurely in unusual circumstances. For me, this book is a reflection of quantum mechanics, which describes observed reality as the random breakdown of an evolving superposition of many branched states into one individual state – in contrast to Mann’s linear plot line.

Game Changer is not a novel but rather a description of the computer program AlphaZero, which taught itself to play chess in the space of a few hours. The software would win every game against world champion Magnus Carlsen. Whereas other chess software calculates as many variations as possible in order to select the one with the best possible result, AlphaZero views a chess position as a huge collection of branched states. It selects the position that gives it the greatest potential to search for as many good follow-up moves as possible. Based on this strategy, AlphaFold recently outperformed other tools at predicting protein structures. This could probably also be used to explain the evolution of stable protein structures – such as Mann’s “impossibly ingenious” protein molecules.

Jan Pieter Abrahams has been a professor at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel since 2015, leading a research group that develops new approaches to high-resolution bioimaging. The group investigates the three-dimensional structure of proteins in order to gain a better understanding of their role and significance in biological processes.

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