Field of Science

Roger Tsien (1952-2016): Tool builder extraordinaire

The scientific world is noting with sadness the unexpected passing of Roger Tsien at the untimely age of 64. It's not clear what led to his demise but it seems to have happened on a bike trail in Oregon.

Tsien is of course one of the fathers of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), and the one who probably did more to bring it to the masses than anyone else. It's amazing to see the diversity of applications that has mushroomed from the use of this protein. In one fell swoop a new world of color exploded on the stage of chemistry and biology. Everything from reporter gene assays for drugs and biological events to potential precision targeting of tumors can be enabled by the use of this stunningly versatile tool. The discovery of GFP is also almost a poster child for how basic curiosity-driven research can lead to great and unexpected leaps. The scientific child that Tsien fathered has now undoubtedly spread beyond his wildest expectations, into far realms of biochemistry, synthetic biology and surgery. It will undoubtedly keep conquering new domains in the years to come.

Sydney Brenner once said that "Revolutions in science are made possible by new tools, new ideas and new discoveries, in that order", and Brenner could have been talking about Roger Tsien here. Peter Galison and Freeman Dyson have emphasized how it's often new techniques and tools rather than new theories that really change the face of science, and a select few people like Tsien exemplify this tradition to a superlative degree. Chemistry especially is intrinsically an experimental science and driven by tool-driven revolutions. Most chemical systems are too complex to yield to first-order theorizing, so often it's only tools like Tsien's GFP that can enable us to unravel their complexities. 

Tsien is also an exemplar of another paradigm, that of the hedgehog and the fox. Hedgehogs do one thing exceedingly well, while foxes do many things well. Tsien the hedgehog did one thing so well that his work led to countless other hedgehogs and foxes adopting his work. He showed us how hedgehogs and foxes can build on each other's work.

The UC San Diego obituary noted that Tsien was "exuberant and resourceful", and I can attest to witnessing these qualities. I saw Tsien speaking and interacting with students at the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting a few years ago. One memory especially stands out, and I think it's a testament to his prowess as a master of practical tool-building. There was a session on climate change which included a panel of Nobel Laureates and IPCC officials; Tsien was in the audience. The panel spent about an hour talking about all the problems with climate change and how humanity was responsible for them. When time came for questions, while everyone else was more interested in asking about the controversy and the politics, Tsien got up and impatiently noted that nobody on the panel had talked about specific, cutting-edge technologies or tools that could help us actually deal with climate change. In a discussion that seemed to be bogged down in assigning blame and laying out problems, he was talking about solutions.

That was Roger Tsien, a man driven by an obsessive and laser-like focus to discover new tools that could better the world of science and humanity. He lived and ended his life breathing a Churchillian mandate: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." RIP.

Image: HHMI

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