Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith, Thomas A. Steitz, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, Jack W. Szostak, and Barack Obama. Recognize any of these names? All seven are Americans but, aside from the last name listed, few people other than relatives, friends and colleagues would recognize the names of the six other men and women.
Boyle and Smith shared in the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics; Steitz received one-third of the Chemistry award; and Blackburn, Greider and Szostak split this year’s prestigious award in Medicine. Still, the only person likely to be recognized by the average American as a 2009 Nobel laureate is President Obama. This, despite the fact that the research and professional accomplishments by the other six awardees will positively affect the lives of virtually every American citizen, far more than will the actions taken by Obama that secured for him the Nobel honor.
Headlines encircled the globe in October heralding Obama’s selection as the 2009 Peace Prize recipient. However, the shallow justification for the Nobel committee’s decision forced even the president to note in his December 10th acceptance that, his “accomplishments are slight” and that his selection therefore generated “considerable controversy.” The Nobel committee itself seemed to anticipate its decision would be met with some degree of skepticism, if not derision, when it declared Obama the winner not for having yet done anything, but simply because he represented “hope for a better future” and possessed an as-yet unrealized “vision” for peace.
On the other hand, the awards received by Obama’s fellow Americans Boyle, Smith, Steitz, Blackburn, Greider and Szostak, were based on much more than “hope” and “vision.” Each one of these men and women of science and medicine – and their co-winners from China, Great Britain, and Israel – was recognized for his or her years of hard work and extensive research in their chosen fields. The importance and tangible benefits of their pioneering work could hardly be overstated.
Thomas Steitz’s work in chemistry centers on principles that, while decidedly esoteric for the non-chemist layperson, actually may dramatically and positively affect us all. Specifically, Steitz employed x-ray crystallography imaging techniques to more precisely determine the atomic structure of crystalline substances. When this technique is applied to certain bacteria and antibodies, Steitz’s work transcends the theoretical and enters the very real world of designing new and potentially life-saving antibiotics.
The work for which recipients Willard Boyle and George E. Smith received their physics award extends back to the late 1960s. Their pioneering efforts involving imaging semiconductors laid the foundation for the recent explosion in digital imaging that has revolutionized photography and telecommunications. While few Americans know what a “charge-coupled device” is, without it, innumerable devices from hand-held digital recorders to the giant Hubble space telescope currently mapping the cosmos would not have been possible.
In the field of medicine, the three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize all hail from the US. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak have been laboring since the early 1980s to unravel the mysteries of cell genomes — elusive micro structures that hold the keys to a vast array of molecular biology endeavors. The work of these three medical researchers has added greatly to understanding the mysteries of DNA, and to the development of ways to therapeutically target diseases.
Barack Obama may in the future — during or following his tenure as president — accomplish great things for the cause of world peace. The Nobel committee apparently believes he already has. However, without detracting from Obama’s great potential in this regard, it would have been nice if someone, somewhere – perhaps even the president himself in his acceptance speech – had noted these other honorees who already have accomplished so much of real substance to improve the lives of all Americans.