Well, Nobel season has come to an end with the U.S. receiving its usual slew of Nobel laureates. Eight American scientists (Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, Jack W. Szostak, Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz were honored with Nobels in four areas of science. Throw in the dismal science of economics and you’ve got two more members of Team Nobel USA (Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson). And, well, memory is foggy on this, but I think another prominent American got a Nobel for something or other besides science or literature. Altogether, of the 11 Nobels awarded for science and economics, 10 went to Americans.
So where have all the balloons and national whoo-hoos been?
Oh, that’s right. This is only the Nobel prizes we’re talking about here—certainly nothing as important as winning gold medals at an international athletic competition. I mean, somebody shot-puts a foot farther or luges .0003 seconds faster, that has a big impact on our lives. Meanwhile, three obscure U.S. scientists pick up a Nobel in physiology/medicine “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”? I mean, who cares about telomeres and enzyme telomerase? Except, of course, maybe for the fact the seminal work these scientists conducted over the last several decades is telling science why cells, after so many cell divisions, start screwing up their self-replication, leading to little minor maladies like cancer. And aging. And because of the work of these three scientists, Science (with a big capital S) is getting really, really close to curing the big C. And taking a whack at prolonging the even bigger and even more inevitable “A”—adding, in the process, perhaps decades to the human life span.
Like I say, big whoop!
And who can blame the media and talking heads for focusing instead for the last two weeks on that other American who won a Nobel for working toward Peace? Or on not winning an Olympic bid? Now those are big, human-species-shaping events. Those Nobel science geeks? Let them be happy with a presidential pat on the back and a 10-second blurb on CNN.
If you want to know why I’m banking on India to be the big, global power by the end of this century, just consider: India celebrates National Science Day every Feb. 28, in memory of an Indian physicist who won a Nobel Prize 79 YEARS AGO!!! India—INDIA!—which has won eight Nobels total, has a National Science Day, recognizing that the future of India as a great power rests upon its rising mastery of science and technology. The U.S., with more than 300 hundred Nobel winners—more than three times the total of any other nation (and more than the total of most other nations combined)—does not. Yes, we we used to have a rinky-dink National Science Week that garnered about as much attention outside of high school and college science departments as National Peach Melba Day (Jan. 13) does outside of Georgia. But a day honoring the hundreds of American Nobel prize winners who have transformed this nation and the world? Please. I mean, where could we fit one in anyway, with our national calendar already chock-a-block full of must-celebrate days like National Buffet Day (Jan. 2) and National Bicarbonate of Soda Day (Dec. 30).
If you want to understand why America is rapidly becoming a post-scientific/scientifically illiterate culture in which PM infomercial flim-flam artists and AM talk show flakes compete with Nobel prize winning scientists for the public’s attention and trust (and, alas, increasingly win), reflect on this: If you don’t celebrate, elevate and commemorate science—if you don’t even bother to meaningfully nationally praise those American scientists who have earned the respect of the world—don’t be surprised when the public disparages and disputes them instead.
Maybe that’s why fewer Americans (less than 40 percent) accept the scientific theory of evolution than in any other industrial country in the world. Yeah, evolution’s just another scientific theory, so what? I mean, just because evolution theory is the very foundation of pretty much all the earth-shattering—and life-altering—work in biology and physiology for the last century, like the research in cell development that three Americans just got a Nobel prize for, someone should believe in it? Please—that is so empirically rational. Maybe our public diminishing of science is why only 53 percent of Americans know how many days it takes for Earth to go around the sun? Or that only 59 percent of Americans know that The Flintstones is fantasy and that man and dinosaur never cohabitated.
If President Obama wants to do something for making up to the world for getting a Nobel prize many argue he didn’t deserve (but everyone should recognize he didn’t ask for), maybe he should work with Congress and proclaim a National American Nobel Prize Winner’s Day. And follow it up with a National Science Appreciation Day. Make the latter a real, day-off holiday. Maybe that would get Americans to pay attention to the endeavor that has set them apart from and above all the other nations of the world since the days scientists like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson dominated American culture and politics. Maybe a National Nobel and National Science Day would help Americans remember and reclaim their heritage as a scientific culture born of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.
Oh, and restoring public funding of applied scientific research to its 1980s level might be a good idea, too. You know, in lieu of sending flowers or e-cards on that new National Science Day.
Something’s got to be done. If we become any more post-scientific in our culture and scientifically illiterate in our national debate we’ll soon start to stop winning those Nobel prizes. And then the sun will really set on the American dream.
October 15, 2009 at 5:57 pm
Wow, should we be listening to this lunacy? Last I checked we were just getting into that ultimate version of science called Intelligent Design and now we are being told to celebrate intelligent humans….what a crazy concept? Our politicians don’t seem to care much, most of the time anyway. Our government and judiciary is based on every lunacy imaginable but rational thought. Combine all of that with the constant ‘under-‘ or maybe better said ‘over-mining’ of silly issues like education, social justice, equality, and all the rest; you do have the foundation of a great civilization empire….one which is cracking rapidly. As a learned student of history, perhaps Carl Luna would agree this is pretty much what has happened to every great civilization throughout history and why should we be the first to actually learn anything from history. Oh, I forgot this is about science and Nobel prizes including the silly peace prize. As a science guy, I am so ashamed for having digressed.
October 16, 2009 at 11:07 am
I must object. Prof. Jack Szostak is hardly obscure. Nicholas Wade did an impressive piece on his work this summer http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/science/16orig.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=wade%2C+szostak&st=nyt
He and his work have been profiled on the BBC, in Discover the Boston Museum of Science includes films on his discoveries. (made by a Janet Iwasa, they are brilliant pieces.)
True, he has never been offered, nor would he accept, probably, a guest role on CSI. The Red Sox, on hearing a home town scientist won the Nobel did not ask him to throw out a first pitch. These celebrity centered areas of our culture have indeed ignored the work and now the Prize. (Even his neighborhood paper failed to note the accolade.)
What we need to improve interest in science, along with more lab benches in homes and better schools, is the same propaganda lawyers and doctors get on TV. I’ve never understood why no TV show took place in a lab. The drama of working to be the first in the world to ever prove something, to ever know it, is compelling. More lobbying of the media gate keepers and less time out of school for kids is more likely to get us excited about science again. In the meantime, everyone should read The Mad Scientists Club to their children and rent October Sky and Apollo 13. Maybe we should lobby for a microscope in every house?
October 16, 2009 at 2:10 pm
“And then the sun will really set on the American dream.”
How long does that take again? 365 days? Let’s keep bombing the moon!
Kidding. Great post!
October 22, 2009 at 8:32 am
[…] Failure to celebrate our national achievements in science as much as we do former stars dancing even as the rest of the world treats their scientists like rock stars? Check. […]