35 Who Made a Difference: Robert Langridge | People & Places | Smithsonian
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35 Who Made a Difference: Robert Langridge

His quest to peer into the essence of life no longer seems so strange


Last time we checked in with Robert Langridge, 20 years ago, he was enjoying a measure of fame for pioneering a way to visualize the invisible—the structure and behavior of key biological molecules, such as DNA. The work dazzled scientists, who for the first time could sit at a computer terminal and manipulate a precise model of a complex molecule, delving into its nooks, twists and strands with the aplomb of a stunt pilot practicing loops in a flight simulator. This was revelatory, because the hormones, enzymes and genetic materials that carry on the work of living cells derive their properties from their structures, and the stick-figure drawings and knobby plastic models that were previously the state of the art take the mind only so far. Langridge's model-making combined scientific data with software painstakingly composed by him and his co-workers, but the colored displays so delighted the eye they were called "painting by numbers."

Fans of the 1982 movie Star Trek II might assume that the swirling DNA model in one segment was, like villain Riccardo Montalban's leonine hairdo, pure Hollywood. In fact, it was the product of the computer graphics laboratory that Langridge opened in 1976 at the University of California at San Francisco. "My colleagues continue to give me a hard time for my 15 seconds of DNA graphics in Star Trek II," Langridge says. He's 72 now and lives in Berkeley with his wife of 46 years, Ruth Langridge, who teaches environmental law and policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz and with whom he has three daughters. Bob's career was always about trying to achieve insight into vital phenomena, and in a fashion he's still at it, despite his 11-year retirement. He goes to school. "I took a class on the archaeology of ancient Greece so I could speak with my daughter who's an archaeologist in Greece," he says of his samplings of the Berkeley curriculum.

Langridge, who was born in England, earned his doctorate in 1957 at the University of London under Maurice Wilkins after Wilkins had participated in the discovery of DNA's structure (see page 78). Langridge then plunged into computer modeling at MIT, using IBM machines that filled an entire room, had tiny black-and-white screens, cost $2 million and contained less active memory than last year's Blackberry. "The power you have in your PC today is far beyond what we dreamed of," he says.

To say the least, an awful lot has happened in molecular biology and computers since Langridge's work made a splash. As hoped, computer modeling has generated potential new medications, including one to fight the parasite that causes Chagas' disease, which afflicts some 16 million people in tropical countries. And researchers worldwide have downloaded the San Francisco lab's software some 34,000 times, says director Thomas Ferrin; what was once a precious technology available to a mere handful of well-funded visionaries is now a commonplace. It's fitting, given that a playful mind is said to be at the heart of scientific imagination, that the growth of cheap software and hardware to handle complex imagery can be traced to the demand for ever-better video games. "Access to inexpensive interactive molecular visualization, and scientific visualization in general," Ferrin says, "owes its success to our kids. Go figure."

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