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.