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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 13, 2008
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Cultivating Scientific Curiosity
August 13, 2008   
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A good scientist should never try to suppress their childlike curiosity about the surrounding world; curiosity is the most important thing for a researcher, says Andrzej Sobolewski,
a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Warsaw who specializes in molecular photophysics.

In May, Sobolewski, together with German chemist Prof. Wolfgang Domcke, received the Copernicus Award from the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) for their special contribution to Polish-German scientific cooperation.

The two scientists have worked together for more than 20 years. They have discovered a mechanism whereby basic biological structures, such as protein and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), become resistant to ultraviolet radiation. The mechanism is called the Sobolewski-Domcke scenario. The judges for the Copernicus Award said the discovery might prove to be crucial for further research on the origin of life on earth.

For his research achievements, Sobolewski also won a prestigious award from the Foundation for Polish Science last year. The award is dubbed the "Polish Nobel Prize."

Sobolewski was born in Augustów, northeastern Poland, in 1951. In 1977, he graduated from the Physics Department at the University of Warsaw. As a student, he took an interest in biophysics, but also thought of specializing in solid-state physics. He obtained his doctoral and postdoctoral degrees at the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Warsaw, and has been a professor at the institute since 1991. In the 1980s, he was an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, where he met Prof. Domcke. One of the outcomes of their joint work for many years is that they have explained why biological structures are resistant to ultraviolet radiation.

"The mechanism of this process is associated with the properties of hydrogen bonding, which is responsible for the specific structure of proteins and DNA," Sobolewski says. "The properties of biological matter determined by hydrogen bonding are well understood. But until recently we knew little about how hydrogen bonds behave under the influence of light. We have discovered that biological matter is resistant to ultraviolet light due to the very quick (less than 10-12 s) conversion of photon energy into heat, or the oscillation energy of hydrogen atoms which form hydrogen bonds. Heat is nothing more than oscillations of atoms in a molecule. Since quanta of heat have a much lower energy than quanta of ultraviolet light, they are unable to destroy the molecule. When a system of molecules absorbs a quantum of light the hydrogen atoms within them start their 'ping pong dance' between the molecules and convert this potentially dangerous energy into oscillation heat, which is transferred to the environment. As a result, when sunbathing, we feel warmth rather than the smell of burning skin."

Sobolewski says the research he conducts with Domcke is mostly of cognitive value because the two scientists deal with fundamental research. "But, by publishing our research findings, we try to transfer this knowledge to the scientists who could translate it into specific applications," Sobolewski says.

The understanding of the mechanism responsible for the photostability of biological matter will enable better protection from light. Human tissues are resistant to ultraviolet radiation, but only to some extent. This is why people have to use creams with sun protection factors. Such creams have been known and used for a long time, but mainly through a trial and error approach. Now, it is possible to foresee their properties in a more controllable manner and design sun protection factors that are safer to the human body, Sobolewski says.

According to Sobolewski, the photophysics of a hydrogen bond does not always mean that this bond is resistant to ultraviolet radiation. In some cases, it may lead to the disintegration of the molecules. This phenomenon may be used in a controlled way in a process of breaking apart water molecules by means of solar light to produce hydrogen, a valuable clean fuel.

Sobolewski and Domcke's research findings will also help scientists acquire more knowledge about the origins of life on earth. It is believed that the selection of the molecular bricks that created the first forms of life was primarily based on their functionality, which means their ability to replicate and use solar energy. Sobolewski and Domcke have found that photostability, or resistance to light, was also an important selection factor. There are many organic molecules that perform important functions in living matter. But there are relatively few molecules selected by nature to form basic structures of living matter and these are exceptionally resistant to light, Sobolewski says.

In addition to the Copernicus Award and the "Polish Nobel Prize," Sobolewski has received many other awards and distinctions during his career as a researcher. He won the Polish Academy of Sciences Award in Physics in 1990, and was nominated for the 2004 Smoluchowski-Warburd Award, which is granted by the Polish and German Physical Societies. Moreover, in 2005 and 2007 he was in the running for the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Award in Physics.

Sobolewski has lectured at the Technical University of Munich and the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, and the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, in the United States. He has published around 120 original articles in international journals. His articles have been cited by scientists across the world more than 2,600 times.

When he was younger, Sobolewski was a competitive sailor. Now, his main hobby is gardening. He cultivates bushes and flowers, and makes wine from cherries and grapes growing in his garden.

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