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Wild and Crazy Nobel Guys

3 minute read
Carolyn Sayre

Science is boring? Not during nobel week, when the recipients of the highest honors in chemistry, medicine and physics are announced. The 2006 winners were named last week, continuing a tradition begun in 1901, five years after Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel died, leaving $9 million and instructions to start annual prizes to honor achievements in those three scientific fields as well as in literature and peace. (Recipients of those awards will be announced this week, along with the winner in economics, a prize created in 1969.) The stories behind this year’s science winners are particularly compelling. It was a banner year for the Americans, and there were family ties as well as years-old feuds. Here’s the scoop.

U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Maybe the color of the Nobel Prize medal should be changed from gold to red, white and blue. U.S. researchers swept the science awards for the first time since 1983. But the joy came with a warning from many in the U.S. scientific community: the kind of basic research that won Nobels is no longer getting adequate funding. Without more funds, they argue, U.S. scientific dominance won’t last, as other nations become more competitive in these cutting-edge fields.


A big winner this year was research on RNA–the genetic “messenger” that transcribes DNA code so it can be made into proteins. Work in this area earned the chemistry prize for Stanford University’s Roger Kornberg and the medicine prize for Andrew Fire, also of Stanford, and the University of Massachusetts’ Craig Mello. Studying RNA is important because a full understanding of its functions could lead to therapies and cures for diseases linked to defective genes.


For Kornberg, the prize meant living up to his father’s example: Arthur Kornberg won a Nobel for medicine in 1959. The Kornbergs are in good company–seven other sets of parents and children have won science’s highest honor. The most famous was also the most prodigious: Marie and Pierre Curie won in 1903 (Marie won another on her own in 1911); then daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, along with her husband Frédéric Joliot, won in 1935. Who wouldn’t pay to get a piece of those genes?


Physics winners George Smoot of U.C.-Berkeley and John Mather of NASA have long feuded over discoveries they made while both were at NASA trying to prove the Big Bang theory. Mather was infuriated when Smoot, in 1992, announced some results of their collaborative research in what Mather alleged was a grab for solo glory. But after they won the prize last week, the pair seemed buddy-buddy again. Nothing brings people together like shiny gold medals and a check for $1.4 million.

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