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“Atomic energy can save humanity, but it can also wipe it off the face of the earth”: Interview with Dr. Ábel Lajtha

Fanni Kaszás 2018.08.08.

Dr. Ábel Lajtha neurochemist, brain researcher and the last remaining student of Albert Szent-Györgyi, not only regularly participates in professional and research events, but also still practices tennis at the age of 96. Dr. Lajtha visited Budapest this past May and sat down with Hungary Today to discuss his mentor, the development of his field, and whether it is worth it or not to continue research into fields of science which could potentially bring about the end of humanity. 

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity and translated from the original Hungarian.

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Dr. Ábel Lajtha, the last remaining student of Albert Szent-Györgyi. (photo: semmelweis.hu)

Your father is a famous composer and folklore researcher (László Lajtha), even winning a prestigious Kossuth award – you and your brother however became world-famous researchers, not musicians. Have you ever considered becoming a musician?

I come from an extremely loving family, my mother loved us so much. My father never tried to convince us to become musicians, for two reasons: first, simply put, to be a musician one must have incredible natural talent, a quality with which you are born. If you lack this natural talent, you will not be a musician. Second, my father, a conductor, listened to music all day long, so he thought ahead and realized if we are musicians as well he would have to listen to music all day at home too. His upbringing although was an important lesson for my brother and I; from him we learned that one’s career should not depend on how much money you make, but rather what you can give back to society. This is how my older brother [László Lajtha, Jr.] and I became researchers. He was a cancer researcher living in Manchester where he was also the director of the local cancer institute. Both of us received offers that would have doubled our pay, but neither of us accepted because we were both instead focused on pursuing something that would be of value to society. If you were to ask what my life’s goal is, I would respond to help others – and, in fact, I have.

Dr. Ábel Lajtha at the inauguration of his father’s statue. (photo: mma.hu)

Aside from your father, Albert Szent-Györgyi – one of the most famous Hungarian researchers – had enormous influence on you as your mentor. How did you end up as his student?

I attended school in Hungary all throughout my academics, even until I finished my doctorate. I always knew I wanted to be a researcher and thus I sought out the best schools and best researchers. After I graduated, I went down to Szeged to meet with Albert Szent-Györgyi to ask him where I should go and what I should study so that I may one day work with him. He then spoke to me, just a student… We talked for a long time and he told me what to study. Then, once I got my doctorate, he actually did give me a job. My first position was in Szent-Györgyi’s laboratory where he then helped me get transferred to America where I continued working under him for another two years. I am perhaps now the only one who was able to work with him and is still alive. He was to me, not just a teacher, but a mentor and role model.

What was the most memorable lesson you learned from Szent-Györgyi?

He taught me how to think, how to notice things. One of my most important discoveries was in muscle research, the mechanism of muscle traction movements. Szent-Györgyi always said, if you find something, you never throw it out immediately – instead you must look to see what is behind it. I should not expect continual brand new discoveries in nature, because if nature has already worked something out it will be preserved that way and only minor changes will be made. Every moment won’t be filled with new and spectacular discoveries. Sometimes you must find the simplest solutions, because nature will always solve things in the simplest way.

So then the newest and most stunning discoveries are not necessarily the most important parts of research…

Exactly. You must always choose the most true, logical and simple answer, and this is not always the most spectacular. But things are not only important because of this. For example, Szent-Györgyi altered the course of research when his wife and daughter died of cancer. This was not a simple choice. Cancer signifies a large physical, and not chemical, change – but even today, many do not believe this to be true. Szent-Gyorgyi was ahead of his time, perhaps too innovative in his thinking and thus his contribution to cancer research is minimal. But because of what happened with his family, he felt he must do whatever he could.

Was there any rivalry between you and Szent-Györgyi, or with any other researchers?

No, never. This is another thing I learned from Szent-Györgyi and is engraved in my mind. He said that research is not about being a race, it’s about teamwork. He always held that if you have a choice to pursue some interesting research, but someone else is perhaps more adept and more personally connected to the topic, you should give it up and allow them to have it. The emphasis should not be on becoming a world-famous researcher, but rather doing something good for the world. If only more people had learned this from him…

Dr. Ábel Lajtha, founding member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation at the 4th annual conference of the Foundation. (photo: MoBa)

Ever since you left for the United States to work with Szent-Györgyi, you have stayed, living there. Do you still follow Hungarian research?

Research is actually quite international. Many researchers have visited my laboratory from every part of the world, I have worked with a wide range of people. I have never tried to compete with or cheat someone else. Hungarians do not have to fear that they are not as accomplished on an international level. At the moment there is a Hungarian researcher at my university, György Buzsáki, who many presume will win a Nobel prize for his research on the mechanism of memory. Hungarians have always had great scientists in the field of brain research – there is no shortage in their capabilities. However, many Hungarians work and research abroad because it is easier to gather financing for expensive and difficult-to-get equipment.

Did you always want to be a brain researcher?

Yes, the brain has always interested me, even when the general opinion condemned brain research. They said the brain was inaccessible and a waste of time. It was too complicated. This is true to some extent; the brain truly is quite complicated as it is made of many interconnected parts and it much more difficult to understand as compared to other body parts. While the liver and kidneys have only one task, the brain must conduct a hundred different processes at once thus it is much easier to fully understand the function of any other body part. However, my response to this is that it’s not about how easy it is to determine the function of a body part, but rather how important. They directed me, in vain, to work on bacteria, liver and kidney cells but I only wanted to work with brain cells. When I first started researching the brain in the 1940s, there were very few in my field. Now it is very popular and every university usually requires a psychiatric unit. I may even dare say it has become too popular.

photo: semmelweis.hu

But now it is obvious that it was a wise decision to pursue this field.

Yes, I think the popularity of brain research only strengthens my original choice. It shows that it is an interesting and valuable field and the results of the research show just that. When I first started, the realm was just walking in children’s shoes. We had no regular magazine or review, so I decided to form one – of which I remained the editor in chief for another 36 years. In addition, there was no association which gathered brain researchers together. I was the founding member of various neurological associations, and then became the secretary, then the president. Today this is a respected and renowned field of research. In fact, I would say it is important to be careful to only have responsible and good researchers in this field because all findings can be used for both good and bad.

So then are there such things which are better left untouched and not researched?

In my opinion, the fact that research could potentially be used for bad is not a strong enough reason to not learn and discover what could be achieved with certain discoveries. Here I always mention that while atomic energy can save humanity, it can also wipe it off the face of the earth. Depression and psychological afflictions are diseases which last the longest and affect the most people. While these diseases are causing immense suffering, enormous scientific questions remain surrounding them. This is another field where solutions can help a great many people, but could also be possibly used for bad. We just have to be careful and use our knowledge responsibly. There are attempts to control aggression. I would not want this in the hands of a soldier. Another experiment trying to affect people’s choices, thoughts, and emotions. But there are also materials which influence confidence. I would never want a politician to learn how to use these. I hope that there will be at least enough wisdom left in humanity to use our acquired knowledge for good, rather than bad.

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Reporting by Fanni Kaszás

Translated by Katrina Hier


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