Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everyone should know who Marie Curie and John Bardeen are

Needless to say, there are many scientists out there who left important marks on our world. Even the least educated amongst us usually know something about Einstein “that genius guy with the crazy hair.” But Einstein perhaps is unique among scientists in how widely recognized he is. I would guess that even such greats as Darwin or Newton are nowhere near as universally known. Who else does every school child know about, and who should they know about?

In the current state of affairs, I think the general public is woefully ignorant of the sciences (as well as being almost completely innumerate). The question I would like to pose is, given that we scientists cannot reasonably demand that the public knows about every important scientist, we might want to come to a consensus as to which scientists should be in the educational canon.

Marie Curie:

When I was growing up, one scientist that I really admired was Marie Curie. Most of the educated, have probable heard of her, I would hope. Her story is truly a great one. Coming from a relatively poor background in Poland, she eventually ended up winning two Nobel prizes (A prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for discovery of radioactivity and a solo prize in Chemistry in 1911 for isolation of Radium). She achieved all this despite being one of very very few women in all of science at the time. Perhaps the atmosphere in science was so difficult for women that you really had to be this good to have anyone pay attention to you at all.

Incidentally, in 1943, when biographical movies were very popular, a movie was made about Curie starring Greer Garson, who was nominated for an academy award in this role. Although clearly Hollywood-ized at least a bit, it is still very much worth the rental. There are also several good books about Curie. I remember reading a children’s book about her when I was about nine years old and being completely enthralled – in particular by one episode where she was so engrossed in her work that she only ate radishes and cherries for several days then fainted from exhaustion. For anyone who doesn't know Curie’s story in detail, go rent the movie or read a book about her.

So let us set our bar about this high. In order to be in the required educational canon, you must be arguably as important as Curie. There have been several hundred Nobel laureates since the inception of the prize in 1901, but a mere handful of people have gotten two. Even Einstein only won a single prize, although many insist that he was entitled to one more for general relativity, which was not really convincingly confirmed until after his death. So who else is on the list of double Nobel winners?

Linus Pauling:

His first prize was in Chemistry in 1954 for the orbital hybridization model of chemistry. Most high school students who study chemistry do learn this, at least vaguely (Remember sp3 and sp2 hybrids?). After this, as a prominent scientist, he became an outspoken opponent of Nuclear armaments, and he ended up winning the Peace prize in 1963 during the height of the cold war, for campaigning against nuclear testing. But the Peace prize is a strange one – it is usually a prize of the time, as this one clearly was, and is meant to effect the progress of diplomacy and peace in the world. Although Pauling was a great man in multiple ways (and the only person to have ever won two solo Nobel prizes) it is also true that he did not win two science Nobels.

John Bardeen:

I can already hear people scratching their heads and saying “Who?”. Yeah, that’s my point. Bardeen should be a name we all know – he won two prizes in physics for two of the most important advances of the last century.

His first prize was in 1962 for the invention of the transistor along with Walter Brattain and William Shockley (the work was done at Bell Labs in the building where I’ve worked for the last 11 years and will work for one more week before I go off to Oxford). It is hard to overstate how important this advance has been to the world, as it was the fundamental advance that allowed the computer age and the information age to come about. The laptop I am using right now contains over a billion transistors inside of it. In fact, practically no electronic device these days is without them – hundreds, thousands, millions, or billions of them. Yes, it is true that the transistor was only the first step in the electronics revolution, but it was a very important step. (Perhaps as important was the integrated circuit that allowed many transistors to be made at one time – Kilby won a Nobel in 2000 for this advance).

Bardeen’s second prize was in 1972 for creating the theory of superconductivity, along with Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer. The fact that at low temperature certain materials lose all resistance to electricity was discovered in 1911 by H. Kamerlingh Onnes (he won the Physics Nobel in 1913). If you make a loop of sufficiently thick superconducting wire and you start running current around the loop, it will literally continue flowing for the age of the universe without any noticeable reduction in current (as long as the temperature stays low). It took half a century of work to come up with a theory of why this happens And when the theory was finally worked out it was incredibly beautiful – universally hailed as one of the major intellectual milestones of the century. Indeed, the theory even gave us hints at the structure of symmetry breaking for fundamental particles and the electro-weak interaction (the so-called Anderson-Higgs mechanism).

Considering this remarkable two-fer, it is amazing that so few have heard of Bardeen and that his is not a household name like Watson and Crick, or Feynman – who admittedly had some very large publicity operations on their side, but only had one Nobel each.

Fredrick Sanger:

OK, here I admit that I am a bit guilty of what I blame the “ignorant masses” for – saying “Who?”. Clearly my education in chemistry is lacking. Once again, we have a double Nobel Laureate and no one has ever heard of him. Well, to be more honest, I did vaguely know who he was, but I couldn’t actually remember what his prizes were for and I had to look them up.

His first prize, in Chemistry in 1958 was for determining the structure of insulin. This was the first protein to be sequenced (it took 12 years for him to do so) and this result started the trend of examining the relation between structure and function of biological materials. His second prize, shared with two others, also in Chemistry, in 1980, was for developing techniques to figure out the sequences of long DNA and RNA molecules – also incredibly important in modern biology and biochemistry.

And that is all she wrote. Only four people have ever been double Nobel laureates. Isn’t it odd that every high school student (much less every student potentially interested in science) isn’t reading their biographies? Maybe they should be. How about a remake of the Curie movie starring some beautiful starlet like Anne Hathaway or similar? The supposedly politically conscious Hollywood might be interested in promoting better images of women than most of what I see in movies these days. Come on Hollywood, I dare you.


Jessy Randall said...

I can totally picture that dinner table conversation. Wish my kids could have been part of it. My son Will (age seven) loves "science" but I'm not sure how he would define the term. He'll always choose a book or film or after-school class if it has "science" in the name. I'll ask him what he thinks science is.

Tomas said...

You will frequently hear "Nice going, Einstein!" in my household.

JT said...

Good post, and I'll admit I was shamed by not knowing who John Bardeen was.

I would pay to see that Anne Hathaway remake, btw.