DC Socialites And Nobel Brouhahas
Dec01

DC Socialites And Nobel Brouhahas

En route to the House of Sweden today to meet this year's American Nobel Prize winners, I had to elbow my way past a dozen camera crews. They were parked at the tony Four Seasons Hotel, where the laureates are staying. But the glare of the mass media's lights was not for them today. No, that honor was reserved for alleged White House crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi. The reality show wannabes were at the Four Seasons as well, conducting an interview with Matt Lauer via satellite. I'm guessing the Salahi's have very little to say about the blurring of science's disciplinary lines or the state of math and science education. But the Laureates served up plenty of good discussion along those lines at the House of Sweden's annual meeting of the Nobel minds. The chat, held in front of an audience of over 100, was wide-ranging, from funding for basic science to the origins of life. Tom Steitz weighed in on my question about the debate on the biological nature of this year's chemistry prize. (Here's C&EN's October coverage of the prize announcement). That's me asking him about whether he thinks the chemistry prize was too biological. And in the midst of a discussion about how to improve K-12 science education in the U.S., Carol Greider explained why PI's must lead the change in what defines a "successful" career after grad school. Right now, the laureates are at the White House to meet with President (and fellow laureate) Barack Obama. No word on whether the Salahi's will crash that, too. Video credit: Carmen...

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On Foxes And Half-Full Glasses
Oct07

On Foxes And Half-Full Glasses

Looks like the glass is half-empty around some of the chemistry blogosphere (and twittersphere, if that's even a word) today. But here's some good news. Consider Jack Szostak, the most chemistry-oriented of the Medicine-Nobel-winning trio. The fact he's shared in this prize should matter a lot to people thinking about what kind of work *should* win the Nobel Prize. Unlike his co-winners, Szostak isn't really in the telomere field anymore. His interests have since shifted- to RNA and to the origins of life. Szostak is a fox in the Isaiah-Berlinian sense- someone who's looked at the world through a variety of scientific lenses. Szostak has had multiple scientific careers, Tom Cech, former HHMI president and himself a Nobel laureate (in chemistry) told me over the phone. "I don't want to give the impression that he flits around from one thing to another. Whenever he moves into a new area, he makes deep and lasting contributions, and then moves on to something else where he can make a big impact," he says. In choosing the scientists who won for telomere biology, "clearly the Nobel Committee went back to the intent of Alfred Nobel's will, which said that the award was supposed to honor an important discovery and not be a lifetime achievement award," Cech adds. UPDATE: FWIW, Terra Sig has a fantastic post about the chemistry prize. The money quote: "If I see electrons being pushed around, it's...

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Getting What You Want Out Of Nobel
Oct06

Getting What You Want Out Of Nobel

When the Nobel committee announces the new prizes every year, what is the most important thing for the world to know about them? Your answer will almost certainly depend on who you are, and if you're in the business of communicating the news in some way, who your audience is. Yesterday at lunchtime, I was sitting in a smallish auditorium two train rides and an exorbitant cab fare away from my office, waiting for one of the Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, to make some remarks and answer questions. It was an eclectic gathering- grad students and admins from Greider's department rubbed elbows with reporters from local paper the Baltimore Sun, a reporter on her first day with Baltimore's local CBS affiliate, and more. There are lots of angles to the story of this year's medicine prize- too many to mention in any one news story. It's fascinating to see the details that different outlets took back with them and how different players in the day tried to steer the message one way or another. Take the local CBS affiliate I mentioned earlier. They keep the focus on the "local scientist gets a surprising phone call from Sweden" angle. It would've been nice for them to go into the science, but on some level, it accomplishes something good for science in the eyes of the readers/viewers. The piece humanizes Greider- it says- hey, look, scientists are normal people just like you and me. They live in our neighborhoods, have kids, and go to spin class in the morning. Take a look at Reuters, and it's a different story entirely. It just so happens that one of the Laureates, Elizabeth Blackburn, is based at a university in California. The state's currently mired in budgetary woes- now the Nobel trains the spotlight on the funding difficulties for basic research. Also, Greider happens to suffer from dyslexia, and Blackburn was once unceremoniously dismissed from the Presidential Council on Bioethics. At the press conference, Greider went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of basic research to the prize. That's not something you have to explain to fellow scientists-lots of Nobels get handed out for basic research. But to a roomful of reporters emphasizing the applications in their questions, it seems like a good idea. (I should note that not everyone had that focus- kudos to whoever the reporter was calling in to the conference who asked Greider about the moment of her discovery.) Provided news outlets get whatever sliver of science that's in the articles right, I don't think these stories are such a bad thing. Science is woven into everyone's...

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