Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Thursday: 8 October 2009

Nobel Weather  -  @ 07:22:15
It's that time of the year again!

For a week or so, there's an announcement each day on a Nobel award. This year it was physiology or medicine on Monday, physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, and literature today. We still have economics and peace to go!

I would guess that with the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the awards go largely unnoticed. The simple fact that the Nobels are as yet mostly uncommercialized should be sufficient proof of that.

I think they're a pretty cool way to celebrate intellectual achievement, and goodness knows there's not much that comes in a public way of attaboys and you go girls for that. Yes, I suppose that they're subjective, occasionally politicized, some bad choices have been made, and that there's a legitimate element of disgruntlement, but that goes with the territory of awards. By and large this is an uplifting week that should elevate everyone.

It's also a great way to shoehorn into learning, not just about a world changing achievement, but the sometimes colorful personalities that would otherwise go unnoticed. I was aware of the great story of telomeres and telomerase, but I suspect many weren't until Monday. And I didn't know the interesting story of Elizabeth Blackburn, who jointly received the prize in physiology or medicine for her work in that area.

In 1993, Kary Mullis received the prize in chemistry for development of the polymerase chain reaction. I may have my differences with Mullis, but there's no doubt that he's a colorful character. And there's no doubt that PCR has impacted our civilization in innumerable ways.

Two years later Sherwood Rowland shared the prize in the same field for elucidating the reactions with CFCs that were destroying the ozone layer. Something of a success story came out of that!

My own personal favorite has to be the story of Barbara McClintock, who won the prize for physiology or medicine in 1983. Besides being quite the maize geneticist, she showed the existence of transposition, by which genes move about in the genome. It took three decades for her work to be recognized.

There are a lot of stories, and you could spend a lot of time browsing through them. Wikipedia is a great place to start. I also enjoyed Randy Cohen's New York Times piece on "Taking Back Nobel Prizes". The extensive comments are worth reading, too.

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