More than fifty years ago, towards the end of Spring term in May 1971, university campuses across the U.S. were rife with protests over the Vietnam war. Students skipped classes and left labs to participate in marches and sit-ins. In addition, the memory of Woodstock (August 1969) was still fresh in everyone's mind. With that as backdrop, a charismatic first-year medical student at Stanford, Michael "Gabe" Weiss, dreamt up a special project when he listened to Paul Berg lecture on protein synthesis. He resolved to turn the static image of translation projected by the lectures into a dynamic movie to better represent the process. As an undergraduate at UCSD Gabe had been part of the Senses Bureau, a film-production unit within Kent Wilson's chemistry lab. Thus, Gabe had the determination, enthusiasm, and know-how to complete his project.
Copies of a hand-drawn flyer posted around the campus announcing a "Molecular Happening" helped recruit a large cast of characters that on Sunday May 23rd partook in the making of the cult film "A Protein Primer." Using the medium of dance (and what wild dancing and sound track – Protein Jive Sutra – it has!), the film enchantingly depicts translation's dynamic nature and the feeling of the times. Gabe convinced Paul Berg to provide introductory comments. Paul, clad with a narrow tie and two pens in his shirt pocket that appear retro even for the times, lends an air of seriousness that wittily contrasts with the dance. The fact that over the next decade Paul would rise to great notoriety for his roles in early recombinant DNA experiments and as the leader of the Asilomar Conference,eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980, no doubt contributed to the film's great success. Since Paul died in February of this year (at age 96), I want this short post to also serve as STC's way of honoring his memory.
In January of this year, Jane Gitschier – in her characteristically engaging style – published an in-depth look at the making of this iconic and artistic piece of science communication; I highly recommend reading it. In preparing her article, Jane found a good quality digitized version of the film in UCSD's Digital Collections Library. I warn you, it's a large file to download (almost 2 gigabytes for a 13-minute video). But believe me, it is very much worth watching this version over the low-quality versions available on YouTube. Whether you're already familiar with the film – perhaps you have even used it in your teaching – or this is your first viewing, it makes for a fascinating watch. This is a must-see molecular biology classic!
Our longtime reader and fellow blogger Hollis Marriott (hi Hollis!) once told us that she attended the happening as a young student, and that the film still comes to her mind whenever she hears the word "translation."