Hodgkin continued working on the mechanism of this action, particularly on the sodium pump, during the 1950’s. But Huxley moved on to other subjects in physiology and biophysics. In 1963 Hodgkin and Huxley shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with another contemporary and sometimes collaborator of theirs, John Carew Eccles, “for their discoveries concerning the ionic mechanism involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane”.
We should take a moment to remember exactly what was being discovered here. Cells communicate with each other. Nerve cells control all the movements of our bodies, and all the thoughts of our minds. From the 1930s through the 1960s scientists held out hope that if we understood the biophysics of neurons, we could crack the code the brain uses to accomplish all the incredible behaviors of the animal kingdom. Imagine, however, that you’re looking into a computer to figure out how it works. You might discover, with the help of some fancy electrical equipment, that some parts of the computer send electrical signals to other parts of the computer. You might even discover that these electrical charges only come in one of two states, on or off. But discovering that they use electrical charges that are binary doesn’t immediately give insight into how your computer renders visual images on a screen, or how your word processing software accomplishes spellcheck.
What these scientists did was discover and describe the chemical and electrical activity in nerve fibers. They described the chemical and electrical basis for the alphabet of neuronal communication. But scientists are still unsure of how to connect descriptions of neuronal activity with animal behaviors. In many ways we haven’t broken the code that those chemical electrical signals are written in. It is something like seeing letters on a page, but not quite knowing how the letters combine to make words and sentences. The Hodgkin-Huxley equation doesn’t tell us how memories are stored or how choices are made. It isn’t intended to. What it does do is characterize the electrical and chemical interactions that produce the action potential of a neuron. It characterizes the alphabet the language of neurons is written in, but not the language of neurons itself. That is something still yet to be discovered.
Hodgkin and Huxley’s road to the 1963 Nobel Prize was paved by researchers working in marine biology laboratories from Naples to Cape Cod. Their efforts are the culmination of more than 40 years of careful research on the squid giant axon. Their success depended on the slow accretion of knowledge within a specialized community, supported by specialized institutions. To their credit Hodgkin and Huxley were often the first to acknowledge this simple fact.
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