Vocapedia > Science > Physics, Chemistry,
Pioneer geneticist biologist James
w. molecular model of DNA.
Location: Cambridge, MA, US
Date taken: 1957
Photograph: Andreas Feininger
Science review of 2011: the year's 10 biggest stories
Neutrino particles appeared to prove
Einstein wrong by travelling faster than
while the discovery of an Earth-like planet
raised hopes of finding life on
the ten most significant objects
in the history of science,
engineering, technology and medicine
Images from other worlds – in pictures
A new exhibition at the British Library
presents the rich history of SF down
from Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century
to the Russian novel that inspired
1984. Take a look
scientist UK / USA
biochemistry and molecular biology UK
medical research UK
physics UK /USA
win Nobel prize in Physics
Nobel winner in Physics
The beauty of the Higgs boson
The discovery of the Higgs boson
is the jewel in the crown of particle physics
particle physics UK
Higgs particle / Higgs boson / "God particle"
cold fusion USA
The 10 best physicists
From subatomic to cosmic, the pick
of the pioneers 12 May 2013
Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
— physicists that
work on the properties of the universe
US scientists get glimpse of antihelium
Heaviest particles of antimatter seen in a lab
survive for about 10 billionths of a second
before crashing into collider's
laser propulsion USA
space studies USA
pioneering DNA scientist James Watson
transistor USA 1948
silicon nanowires USA
evolution > Stephen Jay Gould
evolution > British Naturalist Charles Robert
Darwin > The Origin of Species
Guardian 2008 Science Quiz: Breakthroughs and Bust-ups
DNA double helix
Francis H. C. Crick
co-discoverer of the structure of DNA
James D. Watson
co-discoverer of the structure of DNA
Time Covers - The 50S
TIME cover 04-29-1957
ill. of Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldrige.
Date taken: April 29, 1957
Photographer: Boris Artzybasheff
Time Covers - The 50S
TIME cover 11-18-1957 ill. of scientist Edward Teller.
Date taken: November 18, 1957
Photographer: Boris Artzybasheff
Science Is the Key to Growth
October 28, 2012
The New York Times
By NEAL F. LANE
MITT ROMNEY said in all three presidential debates that we need to expand the
economy. But he left out a critical ingredient: investments in science and
Scientific knowledge and new technologies are the building blocks for long-term
economic growth — “the key to a 21st-century economy,” as President Obama said
in the final debate.
So it is astonishing that Mr. Romney talks about economic growth while planning
deep cuts in investment in science, technology and education. They are among the
discretionary items for which spending could be cut 22 percent or more under the
Republican budget plan, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the plan,
which Mr. Romney has endorsed, could cut overall nondefense science,
engineering, biomedical and technology research by a quarter over the next
decade, and energy research by two-thirds.
Mr. Romney seems to have lost sight of the critical role of research investments
not only in developing new medicines and cleaner energy sources but also in
creating higher-skilled jobs.
The private sector can’t do it alone. We rely on companies to translate
scientific discoveries into products. But federal investment in research and
development, especially basic research, is critical to their success. Just look
at Google, which was started by two graduate students working on a project
supported by the National Science Foundation and today employs 54,000 people.
Richard K. Templeton, chief executive of Texas Instruments, put it this way in
2009: “Research conducted at universities and national labs underpins the new
innovations that drive economic growth.”
President Bill Clinton, for whom I served as science adviser from 1998 to 2001,
understood that. In those years, we balanced the federal budget and achieved
strong growth, creating about two million jobs a year. A main reason was the
longstanding bipartisan consensus on investing in science. With support from
Congress, Mr. Clinton put research funding on a growth path, including a
doubling over five years (completed under President George W. Bush) of the
budget for the National Institutes of Health.
In 2010, the federal government invested about $26.6 billion in N.I.H. research;
those investments led to $69 billion in economic activity and supported 485,000
jobs across the country, according to United for Medical Research, a nonpartisan
Moreover, the $3.8 billion taxpayers invested in the Human Genome Project
between 1988 and 2003 helped create and drive $796 billion in economic activity
by industries that now depend on the advances achieved in genetics, according to
the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit group that supports research for
So science investments not only created jobs in new industries of the time, like
the Internet and nanotechnology, but also the rising tax revenues that made
budget surpluses possible.
American science has not been faring so well in recent budgets. President Obama
has repeatedly requested steady increases for scientific research, aimed at
putting the budgets of three key science agencies — the National Science
Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National
Institute of Standards and Technology — on a path to double, by 2016, the
combined $10 billion they received in 2006. But a polarized Congress has not
delivered at that rate, and the goal could be nullified if next year sees the
beginning of draconian cuts.
Meanwhile, the frontiers of science continue to expand. President Obama is
proposing that the United States boost its overall national research and
development investments — including private enterprise and academia as well as
government — to 3 percent of gross domestic product — a number that would still
lag behind Israel, Sweden, Japan and South Korea, in that order.
In an increasingly complex world, that should be only a start. If our country is
to remain strong and prosperous and a land of rewarding jobs, we need to
understand this basic investment principle in America’s future: no science, no
Neal F. Lane,
a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice
was director of the National Science Foundation
and the chief science and technology adviser
to President Bill
Science Is the Key to Growth,
American Physics Dreams Deferred
May 21, 2012
The New York Times
By DENNIS OVERBYE
When three American astronomers won the Nobel Prize in Physics
last year, for discovering that the expansion of the universe was speeding up in
defiance of cosmic gravity — as if change fell out of your pockets onto the
ceiling — it reaffirmed dark energy, the glibly named culprit behind this
behavior, as the great cosmic surprise and mystery of our time.
And it underscored the case, long urged by American astronomers, for a NASA
mission to measure dark energy — to determine, for example, whether the cosmos
would expand forever or whether, perhaps, there might be something wrong with
our understanding of gravity.
In 2019, a spacecraft known as Euclid will begin such a mission to study dark
energy. But it is being launched by the European Space Agency, not NASA, with
American astronomers serving only as very junior partners, contributing $20
million and some infrared sensors.
For some scientists, this represents an ingenious solution, allowing American
astronomers access to the kind of data they will not be able to obtain on their
own until NASA can mount its own, more ambitious mission in 2024.
But for others, it is a setback. It means that for at least the next decade,
Americans will be relegated to a minor role in following up on their own
“While it’s great to support other missions,” said Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins
and the Space Telescope Science Institute, who shared that Nobel last year, “it
would be disappointing to see the U.S. lose or outsource its own leading role in
one of the hottest areas of research.”
For Dr. Riess and his colleagues, this turn of events is another example of a
worrying trend in which American scientists, facing budget deficits and
political gridlock, have had to pull back from or delay promising projects while
teams based in Europe hunt down the long-sought Higgs boson or rocket scientists
in China plan a Moon landing in 2025.
Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, called dark energy
“an example of how the U.S. seems to misplay its science hand these days.”
“We predicted and discovered dark energy,” he said. “We have the biggest
dark-energy community and the best ground game; we have been designing a space
mission since 1998; and now the Europeans will fly it with our minor
participation. Something is wrong with this picture.”
Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley, another of the dark
energy Nobel winners, said, “The danger, of course, is that we will watch the
science (and scientists — and good students) move on to other countries and
continents, where projects are being begun and completed.”
With them, scientists say, could go the cultural excitement and innovative spark
that invigorates the economy. The World Wide Web, for example, was invented at
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (home to the world’s most
powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider), to help particle
By contrast, the United States’ flagship lab for high-energy physics, the Fermi
National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, had to close down its
accelerator. the Tevatron, last fall, and learned from the Energy Department in
March that the agency could not afford to follow through for now on a $1.3
billion underground experiment to study the spooky shape-shifting properties of
particles known as neutrinos in an effort to investigate why the universe is
made of matter and antimatter.
At the same time, the department also canceled money for studies for the world’s
next big physics machine, the International Linear Collider, which would be the
successor to CERN’s giant collider. American scientists are resigned to the
likelihood that it will not be built in the United States.
American physicists are now rethinking how to carry out the neutrino experiment,
which was to have been the centerpiece of a plan to convert the old
8,000-foot-deep Homestake gold mine in Lead, S.D., into a national laboratory
for underground science.
Similar facilities in Italy, Canada and Japan have become centers in the search
for dark matter, neutrino experiments and other delicate work that requires
shelter from cosmic rays. But in 2010, the National Science Foundation walked
away from the $875 million project, citing unease about safety and “stewardship”
of the old mine, which is half full of water. Meanwhile with support from a
philanthropist, T. Denny Sanford, the State of South Dakota has reopened parts
of the mine for a pair of physics experiments.
Of course, there is no achievement of modern American science — from the
Manhattan Project to the Hubble Space Telescope to the decoding of the human
genome — that does not owe a debt to hard and even heroic bargaining in the
formerly smoke-filled rooms of Congress and the White House. Complaints and grim
prognostications about the federal research budget are part of the background
music of science. The situation is always fluid.
Given all that, other scientists say that basic research is doing as well as can
be expected given severe budgetary restraints. Among other things, NASA’s Webb
telescope, the successor to the Hubble, is on target for launching in 2018, at a
cost of $8 billion.
The science office in the Energy Department actually got an increase in the
budget released by President Obama in February, but the money went to more
applied research, into areas like energy and scientific computing.
Only last month, Congress added money to the neutrino experiment, although not
enough to get the whole project back on track, said Katie Yurkewicz, Fermilab’s
spokeswoman, and the Association of American Universities issued a statement
applauding appropriators “for their bipartisan actions thus far to sustain the
nation’s investment in scientific research.”
Debra Elmegreen, a professor of astronomy at Vassar and president of the
American Astronomical Society, has spent a lot of time in Washington lately.
“Congress seems supportive of science,” she said. “I’m encouraged that people
recognize the need for science and technology to continue.”
She added: “U.S. leadership is at risk in practically every area. We’ll get by
for now, but we can’t be complacent.”
Indeed, all bets could be off if the automated budget cuts, called
“sequestration,” decreed by the failure of the deficit reduction negotiations
last summer, go into effect in January. A certain amount of gloom has reached
the most prestigious levels of American science. Writing in a recent issue of
The New York Review of Books, Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate at the
University of Texas in Austin, decried the fact that science was increasingly
having to compete with other worthy causes, like health care and education, for
money. The solution, he said, was to raise taxes.
Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
described himself as “less gloomy” than Dr. Weinberg, but nonetheless concerned
that, with the end of the cold war and bad economic times, the traditional
political bases of government support for basic research had dwindled, leaving
only “curiosity and desire to participate, even indirectly, in doing something
great.” He added, “We should be doing that anyway, of course.”
“This is all a great pity, because tremendous scientific opportunities are
available,” Dr. Wilczek said.
The United States gave up its leadership in high-energy particle physics 20
years ago, when Congress canceled the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle
accelerator that was under construction in Texas. That move cleared the way for
CERN’s eventual supremacy.
Could the same thing happen in space? Those fears were aroused two years ago
when NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope project needed $1.6
billion more and several years to complete. It was canceled by the House
Appropriations Committee last summer but later restored. The price of that
rescue, however, was to delay NASA’s dark energy mission, and to withdraw from a
couple of upcoming joint Mars missions.
The travails of the dark energy researchers provide a window into the
labyrinthine process by which big projects live or die. Whether you find the
story hopeful or depressing depends on who you are.
Dark energy is, according to Dr. Wilczek, “the most mysterious fact in all of
physical science, the fact with the greatest potential to rock the foundations.”
The discovery that the expansion of the cosmos was speeding up came from
observing exploding stars known as Type 1A supernovas, luminous and uniform
enough to serve as distance markers. Realizing that only a telescope in space
could find and measure supernovas distant enough to shed light, so to speak, on
the genesis of this behavior, Dr. Perlmutter early on urged the construction of
a special space probe.
Two years ago, after a decade of wrangling among astronomers and NASA and the
Energy Department, a blue-ribbon panel from the National Academy of Sciences
charged with determining astronomical priorities endorsed a version of this idea
as the highest-priority space science mission for the coming decade. The
billion-dollar mission, called Wfirst, for Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope,
would search for exoplanets as well as measure the effects of dark energy on the
history and evolution of the universe. The academy’s deliberations were
ambushed, however, by the subsequent announcement of the Webb telescope’s
problems, which have pushed the Webb launch all the way to 2018.
Lia LaPiana, a program executive at NASA, said that, from 2013 to 2018, there is
“zero money” in the president’s budget for the mission.
As a down payment on an eventual mission, NASA suggested spending about $200
million for a 20 percent stake in Euclid, the European Space Agency’s mission.
The academy rejected that idea, saying that Euclid, which would not measure
supernovas at all, did not meet the academy’s requirements and could undermine
the possibility of an eventual Wfirst project.
Recently, however, a specially convened committee of the academy has given the
nod to a $20 million investment in Euclid in the form of equipment, saying it
would give American astronomers a seat on the Euclid science team and access to
What changed in the last year? David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton,
who was chairman of the committee, said, “For 20 percent, we were offered a
modest participation. For 2 percent, we were offered a modest participation.”
Paul Schechter of M.I.T., co-chairman of a team planning Wfirst, said he had
endorsed the deal on the grounds that it would not impinge on the Wfirst
project. When the president’s budget was released, however, there was $9 million
for Euclid and no money for beginning the Wfirst project. The budget is only the
first step in this dance, however.
In March, Dr. Schechter told a House appropriations subcommittee that the budget
did not represent the “strong U.S. commitment” to Wfirst that the academy had
recommended. He asked for $8 million to get things going.
The House panel agreed and responded in its report by directing NASA to explain
how its plans were consistent with the academy’s recommendations. In the
meantime, the corresponding Senate appropriations subcommittee has put $10
million for the NASA dark energy mission into its proposed budget report, citing
last year’s physics Nobelists by name.
There are more dance moves to make in this year’s budget and the rest of the
decade before the Wfirst mission can become a reality, but Dr. Schechter said he
felt encouraged. “I suspect Wfirst wasn’t very high on anyone’s list of
priorities,” he said, referring to turmoil at NASA last year.
He added, “I think that is changing.”
American Physics Dreams Deferred, NYT, 21.5.2012,
Dies at 92
April 24, 2012
The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
George Cowan, a chemist who helped build the first atomic bomb,
detect the first Soviet nuclear explosion and test the first hydrogen bomb, died
on Friday at his home in Los Alamos, N.M. He was 92.
The Santa Fe Institute, a scientific research center that Dr. Cowan headed and
helped found, announced the death.
For his many contributions, Dr. Cowan was awarded the federal Energy
Department’s highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award, and the highest honor given
by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Los Alamos Medal. The citation on his
Los Alamos award called him “the driving force in the early radiochemical
evaluations of nuclear weapons.”
Dr. Cowan began thinking about the possibility of a bomb in 1938, when he
brought a clipping about nuclear fission to his physics professor and asked him
to talk about the possibility of a weapon based on splitting the atom. His
professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts made a convincing
argument that it would not happen, but when Dr. Cowan graduated three years
later, the professor referred him to Eugene Wigner, a physicist at Princeton.
Dr. Wigner was conducting experiments on the atom’s structure with Princeton’s
atom smasher, and the experimenters needed uranium. Dr. Cowan was sent to a
laboratory in Massachusetts to retrieve a kilogram of uranium. He carried it
back to Princeton in a convertible driven by a colleague, the precious cargo
between his legs and covered in dry ice.
That experience led him to the Manhattan Project, the federal government’s
secret effort to develop the atomic bomb.
Dr. Cowan was at the first controlled nuclear reaction on Dec. 2, 1942, at the
University of Chicago. He was at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help measure plutonium
production; at Columbia University to study the energy of neutrons; and at Los
Alamos to help track plutonium inventories. He went to Bikini Atoll in the
Pacific for nuclear detonation tests.
It was unusual for a scientist to be sent to so many sites. Dr. Cowan said that
his expertise made him valuable as a troubleshooter, and that his being
unmarried was also helpful.
In 1946 he married a fellow chemist from the Manhattan Project, Helen Dunham.
They were married 65 years and had no children. She died last year.
After World War II, Dr. Cowan earned a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon
University. He returned to Los Alamos in 1949. Weeks after his arrival, an
American surveillance plane detected high levels of radiation emanating from the
Soviet Union. Dr. Cowan was named to the team that analyzed the data. The group
pinpointed the detonation of the Russian bomb to within an hour on Aug. 29,
“It’s time to write our summary,” Hans Bethe, the group leader, said, according
to Dr. Cowan. “It can be a long document about what we don’t know or a short one
about what we know.”
“We wrote a short one,” Dr. Cowan said.
President Harry S. Truman ordered the development of a more powerful weapon, the
hydrogen bomb, to counteract the Soviet device. Dr. Cowan became part of the
group that developed it. He was on the command ship, the Estes, when it was
successfully detonated on Nov. 1, 1952.
George Arthur Cowan was born on Feb. 15, 1920, in Worcester and attended local
schools before moving on to Worcester Poly. He was 21 when he joined Dr. Wigner,
a future Nobel Prize winner, at Princeton.
Dr. Cowan argued that nuclear weapons development contributed to scientific
progress, pointing to the creation of two new elements and 15 new isotopes in
the first hydrogen bomb explosion. In 1965, he directed an experiment in which
an underground nuclear explosion created fermium 257, the heaviest known isotope
that can be created by neutron bombardment of lighter elements.
In a 1979 article in Scientific American, he reported the startling discovery
that atomic reactions were going on almost two billion years ago. He said a
natural fission reactor was formed in present-day Gabon when geological changes
caused water to flow into pockets of uranium. This “reactor,” over its life span
of several hundred thousand years, consumed some six tons of uranium 235.
Dr. Cowan assembled scientists in 1984 to start the Santa Fe Institute, which
studies different sorts of complex systems. He founded the Los Alamos National
Bank in the mid-1960s and was chairman for three decades. He was part of the
group that in 1953 started the Santa Fe Opera, of which he was treasurer.
Dr. Cowan also served on the White House Science Council during the Reagan
administration, where he reunited with Edward Teller, a leader in developing the
hydrogen bomb. Dr. Teller lobbied for President Ronald Reagan’s missile defense
system, popularly called “Star Wars,” while Dr. Cowan opposed it because he did
not think it would work.
The two had been part of a regular poker game at Los Alamos. Dr. Cowan said he
particularly liked to play with Dr. Teller “because he had a tendency to draw to
inside straights” — generally a losing hand.
George Cowan, Nuclear Scientist, Dies at 92, NYT,
Who Championed the Transistor,
Dies at 98
December 20, 2011
The New York Times
By DENNIS HEVESI
Norman Krim, an electronics visionary who played a pivotal role in the
industry’s transition from the bulky electron vacuum tube, which once lined the
innards of radios and televisions, to the tiny, far more powerful transistor,
died on Dec. 14 in a retirement home in Newton, Mass. He was 98.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Robert said.
Mr. Krim, who made several breakthroughs in a long career with the Raytheon
Company and who had an early hand in the growth of the RadioShack chain, did not
invent the transistor. (Three scientists did, in 1947, at Bell Laboratories.)
But he saw the device’s potential and persuaded his company to begin
manufacturing it on a mass scale, particularly for use in miniaturized hearing
aids that he had designed. Like the old tube, a transistor is a semiconductor
that amplifies audio signals.
As Time magazine wrote in 1953: “This little device, a single speck of
germanium, is smaller than a paper clip and works perfectly at one-tenth the
power needed by the smallest vacuum tube. Today, much of Raytheon’s transistor
output goes to America’s hearing aid industry.” (Germanium, a relatively rare
metal, was the predecessor to silicon in transistors.)
That was just the start. “Now there are over 50 million transistors on a single
computer chip, and billions of transistors are manufactured every day,” Jack
Ward, curator of the online Transistor Museum, said in an interview. “Norm was
the first to recognize the potential and led Raytheon to be the first major
Thousands of hearing-disabled people benefited from Mr. Krim’s initial use of
the transistor in compact hearing aids. But not every transistor Raytheon made
was suitable for them, he found.
“When transistors were first being manufactured by Raytheon on a commercial
scale, there was a batch called CK722s that were too noisy for use in hearing
aids,” said Harry Goldstein, an editor at IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
So Mr. Krim contacted editors at magazines like Popular Science and Radio
Electronics and began marketing the CK722s to hobbyists.
“The result was that a whole generation of aspiring engineers — kids, really,
working in their garages and basements — got to make all kinds of electronic
projects,” Mr. Goldstein said, among them transistor radios, guitar amplifiers,
code oscillators, Geiger counters and metal detectors. “A lot of them went on to
Mr. Ward called Mr. Krim “the father of the CK722.”
Before the transistor, Mr. Krim had already made significant contributions to
the industry. In 1938 he led a Raytheon team that developed miniaturized vacuum
tubes for use in battery-powered radios. He also realized that the small tubes
could replace cumbersome packs that hearing-aid users had to strap onto
themselves in those days.
“Zenith, Beltone, Sonotone are some of the American companies that used his
improved, more affordable hearing-aid technology,” said Chet Michalak, who is
writing a biography of Mr. Krim. “His devices were about the size of today’s
hand-held phones.” They were also a precursor to the transistor hearing aid his
team later developed.
Norman Bernard Krim was born in Manhattan on June 3, 1913, one of four children
of Abraham and Ida Krim. His father owned several luncheonettes. By the age of
12, he was tinkering with the refrigerator motor in his home.
After graduating from George Washington High School at 16, he was accepted at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in his junior year he built an
“electrical brain” that, according to newspaper articles at the time, seemed to
be able to make childlike choices, deciding whether it preferred beets or
spinach, for example.
“He considered it a carnival act,” Mr. Michalak said.
Raytheon hired Mr. Krim after his graduation in 1934, at 50 cents an hour. By
the time he left the company in 1961, he was vice president of the semiconductor
Mr. Krim’s wife of 52 years, the former Beatrice Barron, died in 1994. Beside
his son Robert, he is survived by another son, Arthur, and four grandchildren.
Another son, Donald, a leading film distributor, died in May.
After leaving Raytheon, Mr. Krim bought two electronics stores in Boston called
RadioShack. By the time he sold the business to the Tandy Corporation two years
later, it had seven stores; today the chain has about 7,300.
Mr. Krim was a marketing consultant to Raytheon and several other companies
Norman Krim, Who Championed the Transistor, Dies at 98,
Microbe Finds Arsenic Tasty;
December 2, 2010
The New York Times
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on
a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus — one of six elements considered
essential for life — opening up the possibility that organisms could exist
elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have
not yet dared to dream about.
The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for
months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of
phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.
Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life
could be and where it could be. “There is basic mystery, when you look at life,”
said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was
not involved in the work. “Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and
chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer
that maybe there are other options.”
Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological
Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, “This is a microbe
that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way.”
This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open
the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”
Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues publish their findings Friday in Science.
Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University who was not part of the
research, said he was amazed. “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully
functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with
nothing to eat,” he said.
Gerald Joyce, a chemist and molecular biologist at the Scripps Research
Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said the work “shows in principle that you could
have a different form of life,” but noted that even these bacteria are affixed
to the same tree of life as the rest of us, like the extremophiles that exist in
“It’s a really nice story about adaptability of our life form,” he said. “It
gives food for thought about what might be possible in another world.”
The results could have a major impact on space missions to Mars and elsewhere
looking for life. The experiments on such missions are designed to ferret out
the handful of chemical elements and reactions that have been known to
characterize life on Earth. The Viking landers that failed to find life on Mars
in 1976, Dr. Wolfe-Simon pointed out, were designed before the discovery of tube
worms and other weird life in undersea vents and the dry valleys of Antarctica
revolutionized ideas about the evolution of life on Earth.
Dr. Sasselov said, “I would like to know, when designing experiments and
instruments to look for life, whether I should be looking for same stuff as here
on Earth, or whether there are other options.
“Are we going to look for same molecules we love and know here, or broaden our
Phosphorus is one of six chemical elements that have long been thought to be
essential for all Life As We Know It. The others are carbon, oxygen, nitrogen,
hydrogen and sulfur.
While nature has been able to engineer substitutes for some of the other
elements that exist in trace amounts for specialized purposes — like iron to
carry oxygen — until now there has been no substitute for the basic six
elements. Now, scientists say, these results will stimulate a lot of work on
what other chemical replacements might be possible. The most fabled, much loved
by science fiction authors but not ever established, is the substitution of
silicon for carbon.
Phosphorus chains form the backbone of DNA and its chemical bonds, particularly
in a molecule known as adenosine triphosphate, the principal means by which
biological creatures store energy. “It’s like a little battery that carries
chemical energy within cells,” said Dr. Scharf. So important are these
“batteries,” Dr. Scharf said, that the temperature at which they break down,
about 160 Celsius (320 Fahrenheit), is considered the high-temperature limit for
Arsenic sits right beneath phosphorus in the periodic table of the elements and
shares many of its chemical properties. Indeed, that chemical closeness is what
makes it toxic, Dr. Wolfe-Simon said, allowing it to slip easily into a cell’s
machinery where it then gums things up, like bad oil in a car engine.
At a conference at Arizona State about alien life in 2006, however, Dr.
Wolfe-Simon suggested that an organism that could cope with arsenic might
actually have incorporated arsenic instead of phosphorus into its lifestyle. In
a subsequent paper in The International Journal of Astrobiology, she and Ariel
Anbar and Paul Davies, both of Arizona State University, predicted the existence
of arsenic-loving life forms.
“Then Felisa found them!” said Dr. Davies, who has long championed the idea of
searching for “weird life” on Earth as well as in space and is a co-author on
the new paper.
Reasoning that such organisms were more likely to be found in environments
already rich in arsenic, Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues scooped up a test
tube full of mud from Mono Lake, which is salty, alkaline and already heavy in
arsenic, and gradually fed them more and more.
Despite her prediction that such arsenic-eating organisms existed, Dr.
Wolfe-Simon said that she held her breath every day that she went to the lab,
expecting to hear that the microbes had died, but they did not. “As a
biochemist, this stuff doesn’t make sense,” she recalled thinking.
A bacterium known as strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae family of
Gammaproteobacteria, proved to grow the best of the microbes from the lake,
although not without changes from their normal development. The cells grown in
the arsenic came out about 60 percent larger than cells grown with phosphorus,
but with large, empty internal spaces.
By labeling the arsenic with radioactivity, the researchers were able to
conclude that arsenic atoms had taken up position in the microbe’s DNA as well
as in other molecules within it. Dr. Joyce, however, said that the experimenters
had yet to provide a “smoking gun” that there was arsenic in the backbone of
Despite this taste for arsenic, the authors also reported, the GFAJ-1 strain
grew considerably better when provided with phosphorus, so in some ways they
still prefer a phosphorus diet. Dr. Joyce, from his reading of the paper,
concurred, pointing out that there was still some phosphorus in the bacterium
even after all its force-feeding with arsenic. He described it as “clinging to
every last phosphate molecule, and really living on the edge.”
Dr. Joyce added, “I was feeling sorry for the bugs.”
Microbe Finds Arsenic
Tasty; Redefines Life, NYT, 2.12.2010,
George C. Williams, 83,
Theorist on Evolution,
September 13, 2010
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS WADE
George C. Williams, an evolutionary biologist who helped shape modern
theories of natural selection, died Wednesday at his home in South Setauket on
Long Island, near Stony Brook University, where he taught for 30 years. He was
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Doris Williams.
Dr. Williams played a leading role in establishing the now-prevailing, though
not unanimous, view among evolutionary biologists that natural selection works
at the level of the gene and the individual and not for the benefit of the group
He is “widely regarded by peers in his field as one of the most influential and
incisive evolutionary theorists of the 20th century,” said Douglas Futuyma, a
colleague and the author of a leading textbook on evolution.
Dr. Williams laid out his ideas in 1966 in his book “Adaptation and Natural
Selection.” In it, he seized on and clarified an issue at the heart of
evolutionary theory: whether natural selection works by favoring the survival of
elements as small as a single gene or its components, or by favoring those as
large as a whole species.
He did not rule out the possibility that selection could work at many levels.
But he concluded that in practice this almost never happens, and that selection
should be understood as acting at the level of the individual gene.
In explaining an organism’s genetic adaptation to its environment, he wrote,
“one should assume the adequacy of the simplest form of natural selection” —
that of variation in the genes — “unless the evidence clearly shows that this
theory does not suffice.”
The importance of Dr. Williams’s book was immediately recognized by evolutionary
biologists, and his ideas reached a wider audience when they were described by
Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” (1976).
Those ideas have continued to draw attention because group selection still has
influential advocates. In highly social organisms like ants and people,
behaviors like altruism, morality and even religion can be more directly
explained if selection is assumed to favor the survival of groups.
Dr. Williams had a remarkably open turn of mind, which allowed him always to
consider alternatives to his own ideas. David Sloan Wilson, a leading advocate
of group selection, recalled in an interview that as a graduate student he once
strode into Dr. Williams’s office saying he would change the professor’s mind
about group selection. “His response was to offer me a postdoctoral position on
the spot,” Dr. Wilson said.
Dr. Wilson did not take the position but remained close to Dr. Williams, though
the two continued to differ. One matter of dispute was whether a human being and
the microbes in the gut and the skin could together be considered a
superorganism created by group selection. Dr. Williams did not believe in
superorganisms. (Nonetheless, when Dr. Wilson came to visit him one day, Dr.
Williams had taped to his door a hand-lettered sign saying, “Superorganisms
Dr. Williams’s interests extended to questions that evolution seemed not to
answer well: Why should a woman forfeit her chance of having more babies by
entering menopause? Why do people grow old and die when nature should find it
far easier to maintain a body than to build one?
An important article he wrote in 1957 on the nature of senescence led to a
collaboration with Dr. Randolph Nesse, a psychiatrist at the University of
Michigan. Together they developed the concept of Darwinian medicine, described
in the 1995 book “Why We Get Sick.” There the authors offered Darwinian
explanations for questions like why appetite decreases during a fever or why
children loathe dark green vegetables.
Dr. Williams pursued his ideas even to results that he found disturbing. “He
concluded that anything shaped by natural selection was inevitably evil because
selfish organisms outproduced those that weren’t selfish,” Dr. Nesse said.
Dr. Williams acknowledged that people had moral instincts that overcome evil.
But he had no patience with biologists who argue that these instincts could have
been brought into being by natural selection.
“I account for morality as an accidental capability produced, in its boundless
stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of
such a capability,” Dr. Williams wrote starkly in 1988.
In the field of evolutionary theory, “George was probably the most influential
author in the 1960s,” said William Provine, a historian of evolution at Cornell
University. But by choosing important subjects, Dr. Williams remained relevant.
His ideas were approachable because he wrote in clear, simple prose and largely
without the use of mathematics, an almost obligatory tool for most evolutionary
Dr. Williams joined the State University of New York at Stony Brook (now Stony
Brook University) in 1960 and worked there until his retirement in 1990.
In addition to his wife, who is also a biologist, he is survived by a son,
Jacques; three daughters, Sibyl Costell, Phoebe Anderson and Judith Pitsiokos;
and nine grandchildren.
Though a major expositor of evolutionary theory, Dr. Williams was always aware
that his explanations were a work in progress and that they might in principle
be superseded by better ones. Evolutionary theory, as stated by its great
20th-century masters Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, “may
not, in any absolute sense, represent the truth,” Dr. Williams wrote at the
conclusion of his book on adaptation, “but I am convinced that it is the light
and the way.”
George C. Williams, 83,
Theorist on Evolution, Dies, NYT, 13.9.2010,
Marshall Nirenberg, Biologist
Who Untangled Genetic Code,
January 21, 2010
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS WADE
Marshall W. Nirenberg, a biologist who deciphered the genetic code of life,
earning a Nobel Prize for his achievement, died Friday at his home in Manhattan.
He was 82.
The cause was cancer, said his stepdaughter Susan Weissman.
In solving the genetic code, Dr. Nirenberg established the rules by which the
genetic information in DNA is translated into proteins, the working parts of
living cells. The code lies at the basis of life, and understanding it was a
turning point in the history of biology.
Dr. Nirenberg identified the particular codons — a codon is a sequence of three
chemical units of DNA — that specify each of the 20 amino acid units of which
protein molecules are constructed.
The achievement, in a critical experiment in 1961, was the more remarkable
because Dr. Nirenberg was only 34 at the time and unknown to the celebrated
circle of biologists, led by Francis Crick, who had built the framework of
Dr. Crick and his colleague Sydney Brenner had established, largely on
theoretical grounds, that the code must be in triplets of the four kinds of
chemical units of which DNA is composed. But they had not developed the
experiments to work out which triplet corresponded to which amino acid.
Dr. Nirenberg amazed biologists when he and his colleague, the German scientist
Johann Heinrich Matthaei, announced their identification of the first codon. He
pulled another surprise when he beat out better-known scientists in the ensuing
race to identify the other 63 codons in the genetic code. He received the Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine shortly afterward, in 1968. (Two other
scientists shared the prize with him.)
Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born in Brooklyn on April 10, 1927, to Harry and
Minerva Nirenberg and grew up in Florida. After earning a Ph.D. at the
University of Michigan, he started work at the National Institutes of Health in
Bethesda, Md., where he spent the rest of his career.
The project he chose was the synthesis of proteins, then being studied in
mixtures of mashed-up cells known as cell-free systems. Dr. Nirenberg took the
research a stage further by focusing on the genetic information that might be
driving protein synthesis. He was joined by Dr. Matthaei, an excellent
experimentalist, and the two decided to add lengths of RNA, a close chemical
cousin of DNA, to the cell-free systems.
Success came when they added to their cell-free system an RNA molecule composed
only of uracil, one of the four chemical units in RNA. The protein that emerged
consisted only of phenylalanine, one of the 20 kinds of amino acids in proteins.
Because the genetic code was known to consist of triplets, the experiment showed
that UUU is the codon for phenylalanine, U being the symbol for uracil.
Dr. Nirenberg and Dr. Matthaei were such outsiders that they had not heard of
messenger-RNA, made to transfer DNA’s instructions to the cell’s protein-making
machinery. While biologists in the club were producing the first evidence for
the existence of messenger RNA, Dr. Nirenberg and Dr. Matthaei had independently
By rights, their experiment should not have worked at all because natural
messenger-RNAs carry at their front end a special codon that says to the
ribosomes, “Start here,” a fact not known at the time. But the recipe for
protein synthesis used by Dr. Nirenberg and Dr. Matthaei happened to contain
twice the natural amount of magnesium, an anomaly that was later found to
override the need for a start codon.
Dr. Nirenberg presented their findings at the next big conference of molecular
biologists, held in 1961 in Moscow. His talk was given to an almost empty room,
Horace Judson writes in “The Eighth Day of Creation,” his history of molecular
biology. But one of the few participants recognized its significance and told
Dr. Crick, who arranged for Dr. Nirenberg to give his talk again, this time in a
large hall attended by an audience of hundreds.
Then followed the race to identify all the other codons, a prize that Dr.
Nirenberg’s talk had placed in full view of a hall of better financed rivals
like Severo Ochoa of New York University.
“It was a David-and-Goliath situation in which a young investigator without
resources came into competition with a distinguished Nobel laureate like Ochoa,”
said Philip Leder of Harvard, who joined Dr. Nirenberg’s laboratory after Dr.
Matthaei had left.
Credit for the genetic code is often assigned to Dr. Crick and Dr. Brenner, who
resolved its general nature through theorizing and with a clever experiment. But
it was Dr. Nirenberg and Dr. Matthaei who cracked the code itself.
Mr. Judson, in his history, notes that efforts to test these ideas “achieved
little until Matthaei arrived.”
Dr. Leder recalled Dr. Nirenberg as “enthusiastic and magnetic.”
“He had an idea every two or three minutes,” Dr. Leder said.
The solving of the genetic code was such a substantial advance that several
researchers decided that the major problems in molecular biology had been solved
and that it was time to move on to greater challenges. Dr. Nirenberg switched to
neurobiology, but did not make discoveries of equal distinction there. His work
on the genetic code was sufficient achievement for any scientific career.
He is survived by his wife, Myrna Weissman, a professor at the Columbia
University College of Physicians and Surgeons; his sister, Joan N. Geiger, of
Dallas, and four stepchildren, Susan, Judith, Sharon and Jonathan Weissman. His
first wife, Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg, died in 2001.
Marshall Nirenberg, Biologist Who Untangled
Genetic Code, Dies at 82,
First to Show a Single Atom,
Is Dead at 82
November 21, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
Albert V. Crewe, the University of Chicago physicist who developed the
high-resolution electron microscope that captured the first image of an
individual atom, died on Wednesday at his home in the Lake Michigan community of
Dune Acres, Ind. He was 82.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Jennifer said.
Dr. Crewe’s research opened a new window into the Lilliputian world of the
fundamental building blocks of nature, giving scientists and engineers in fields
as varied as computing and biology a powerful new tool to understand the
architecture of everything from living tissue to metal alloys.
It was during the 1960s that Dr. Crewe became interested in electron microscopy,
which he wanted to apply to biology research then under way at Argonne National
Laboratory, outside Chicago, where he was the director.
After attending a conference in England and forgetting to buy a book at the
airport for the flight home, he pulled out a pad of paper on the plane and
sketched two ways to improve existing microscopes. Back in Chicago, he
determined that one of the approaches had already been pursued but that the
other was fundamentally new.
He immersed himself in the design of advanced microscopes with the goal of
reaching resolutions as fine as a single angstrom, about a third the diameter of
a carbon atom. By 1967, his research had become so compelling that he left
Argonne and his role as a manager there to return to the University of Chicago,
where a decade earlier he had worked on the Chicago Cyclotron, a superconducting
accelerator. This time he signed on as a full professor.
Dr. Crewe designed an enhanced electron source to bombard the object being
scanned and later improved lens and detection technologies as well. This
culminated in the first successful version of a system known as a scanning
transmission electron microscope, or STEM.
While earlier microscopes had achieved resolutions of several angstroms, Dr.
Crewe used his new electron source and newly available ultra-high-vacuum
technologies to attain a tenfold improvement in image contrast, making it
possible to see details not previously visible.
Finally, in June 1970 in the journal Science, he published a research report
titled “Visibility of Single Atoms,” in which he cautiously documented
photographic evidence that showed images of uranium and thorium atoms.
“It appears that the bright spots which we have observed are probably due to
single atoms,” he wrote, noting that the geometric placement of the bright spots
corresponded to what would be expected theoretically.
“It was extremely dramatic in 1970 when he saw single atoms,” said Oscar Kapp, a
University of Chicago biochemist, who worked with Dr. Crewe on the project as a
graduate student and continued to collaborate with him throughout his career.
Five years after that success, Dr. Crewe obtained the first motion pictures of
atoms, an achievement that offered new ways of understanding atomic
interactions. The film was even shown on a Chicago television station by the
movie critic Gene Siskel, although he noted that he would not pay a dollar to
watch it, according to one of the graduate students who worked on the
Dr. Crewe, the university’s dean of physical sciences from 1971 to 1981,
continued his research on electron microscopes through the 1980s. He held 19
patents for his inventions in the field and eventually published 275 research
papers in it. His work was essential to the development of a generation of
commercial electron microscopes, on which he consulted with the Hitachi
Corporation. Today electron microscopes are widely used both in the
semiconductor industry and in scientific laboratories around the world.
Albert Victor Crewe was born in Bradford, England, in what is now West
Yorkshire, and grew up in a working-class family. He had average grades as a
young child, but at 15 he passed a nationwide entrance exam and became the first
in his family to attend high school. He won a scholarship to attend the
University of Liverpool, where he also earned a Ph.D. in physics.
During the summer of 1946 in Cornwall, where he and other college students had
gathered to help with a postwar wheat harvest, he met Doreen Blunsdon. They
married in 1949.
After doing pioneering work on particle accelerators in England in the early
1950s, Dr. Crewe was invited to the University of Chicago in 1955 as a visiting
research associate. A year later, having helped complete the Chicago Cyclotron,
he was hired by the university as an assistant professor.
In 1958 he joined Argonne National Laboratory, where he led a team of
researchers developing another advanced accelerator. He rose rapidly at Argonne,
soon becoming director of the laboratory’s particle accelerator division and
eventually managing 100 engineers.
He was appointed the laboratory’s director in 1961, when he was only 34, an
assistant professor without tenure and not yet a United States citizen.
In addition to his wife, Doreen, he is survived by four children, Jennifer Crewe
of New York, Sarah Crewe of Ruidoso, N.M., Elizabeth Crewe of LaGrange, Ill.,
and David Crewe of Sunnyvale, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren.
In a public lecture shortly after becoming the director of Argonne, Dr. Crewe
bemoaned the growing gulf between scientists and laymen.
“There are too many people behaving like the proverbial ostrich and hoping that
science will go away if they bury their heads in the sand,” he said, “and this
in spite of the fact that the last few decades have indicated strongly that
science will not go away.”
Albert Crewe, First to
Show a Single Atom, Is Dead at 82, NYT, 21.11.2009,
for Advances in Harnessing Light
October 7, 2009
The New York Times
By KENNETH CHANG
The mastery of light through technology was the theme of this year’s Nobel
Prize in Physics as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored breakthroughs
in fiber optics and digital photography.
Half of the $1.4 million prize went to Charles K. Kao for insights in the
mid-1960s about how to get light to travel long distances through glass strands,
leading to a revolution in fiber optic cables. The other half of the prize was
shared by two researchers at Bell Labs, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith,
for inventing the semiconductor sensor known as a charge-coupled device, or CCD
for short. CCDs now fill digital cameras by the millions.
In recent years, the physics prize has varied between perplexing, esoteric
advances at the edges of physics and more comprehensible technology
developments. Last year, the academy honored “broken symmetry,” a key but
esoteric concept in the description of elementary particles. This year’s prize
was more akin to the awards in 2007, which honored a discovery that led to
smaller, higher-capacity hard disks in laptops and MP3 devices, and 2000, which
honored developments in integrated circuits.
In announcing the winners Tuesday morning, Gunnar Oquist, the academy’s
secretary general, said the scientific work honored by this year’s prize “has
built the foundation to our modern information society.”
Dr. Boyle, raised by telephone to address a news conference held by the Nobel
committee in Stockholm, sounded stunned. “I have not had my morning cup of
coffee yet, so I am feeling a little bit not quite with it all,” he said.
The awards ceremony will be held in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Fiber optic cables and lasers capable of sending pulses of light down them
already existed when Dr. Kao started working on fiber optics. But at that time,
the light pulses could travel only about 20 meters through the glass fibers
before 99 percent of the light had dissipated. His goal was to extend the 20
meters to a kilometer. At the time, many researchers thought tiny imperfections,
like holes or cracks in the fibers, were scattering the light.
In January 1966, Dr. Kao, then working at the Standard Telecommunication
Laboratories in England, presented his findings. It was not the manufacturing of
the fiber that was at fault, but rather that the ingredient for the fiber — the
glass — was not pure enough. A purer glass made of fused quartz would be more
transparent, allowing the light to pass more easily. In 197o, researchers at
Corning Glass Works were able to produce a kilometer-long ultrapure optical
According to the academy in its prize announcement, the optical cables in use
today, if unraveled, would equal a fiber more than a billion kilometers long.
In September 1969, Dr. Boyle and Dr. Smith, working at Bell Labs in Murray Hill,
N.J., sketched out an idea on a blackboard in Dr. Boyle’s office. Their idea,
originally intended for electronic memory, takes advantage of the photoelectric
effect, which was explained by Albert Einstein and won him the Nobel in 1921.
When light hits a piece of silicon, it knocks out electrons. The brighter the
light, the more electrons are knocked out.
In a CCD, the knocked-out electrons are gathered in small wells, where they are
counted — essentially one pixel of an image. The data from an array of CCDs can
then be reconstructed as an image. A 10-megapixel camera contains 10 million
“We are the ones, I guess, that started this profusion of little small cameras
working all over the world,” Dr. Boyle said.
Besides consumer cameras, CCDs also made possible the cosmic panoramas from the
Hubble Space Telescope and the Martian postcards taken by NASA’s rovers.
All three of the winning scientists hold American citizenship. Dr. Kao, 75, is
also a British citizen, and Dr. Boyle, 85, is also a Canadian citizen. Dr. Smith
Nobel Awarded for
Advances in Harnessing Light, NYT, 7.10.2009,
a Pioneer in Computing,
Dies at 77
September 7, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
Robert J. Spinrad, a computer designer who carried out pioneering
work in scientific automation at Brookhaven National Laboratory and who later
was director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center while the personal computing
technology invented there in the 1970s was commercialized, died on Wednesday in
Palo Alto, Calif. He was 77.
The cause was Lou Gehrig’s disease, his wife, Verna, said.
Trained in electrical engineering before computer science was a widely taught
discipline, Dr. Spinrad built his own computer from discarded telephone
switching equipment while he was a student at Columbia.
He said that while he was proud of his creation, at the time most people had no
interest in the machines. “I may as well have been talking about the study of
Kwakiutl Indians, for all my friends knew,” he told a reporter for The New York
Times in 1983.
At Brookhaven he would design a room-size, tube-based computer he named Merlin,
as part of an early generation of computer systems used to automate scientific
experimentation. He referred to the machine, which was built before transistors
were widely used in computers, as “the last of the dinosaurs.”
After arriving at Brookhaven, Dr. Spinrad spent a summer at Los Alamos National
Laboratories, where he learned about scientific computer design by studying an
early machine known as Maniac, designed by Nicholas Metropolis, a physicist. Dr.
Spinrad’s group at Brookhaven developed techniques for using computers to run
experiments and to analyze and display data as well as to control experiments
interactively in response to earlier measurements.
Later, while serving as the head of the Computer Systems Group at Brookhaven,
Dr. Spinrad wrote a cover article on laboratory automation for the Oct. 6, 1967,
issue of Science magazine.
“He was really the father of modern laboratory automation,” said Joel Birnbaum,
a physicist who designed computers at both I.B.M. and Hewlett-Packard. “He had a
lot of great ideas about how you connected computers to instruments. He realized
that it wasn’t enough to just build a loop between the computer and the
apparatus, but that the most important piece of the apparatus was the
After leaving Brookhaven, Dr. Spinrad joined Scientific Data Systems in Los
Angeles as a computer designer and manager. When the company was bought by the
Xerox Corporation in an effort to compete with I.B.M., he participated in
Xerox’s decision to put a research laboratory next to the campus of Stanford.
Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center pioneered the technology that led directly to
the modern personal computer and office data networks.
Taking over as director of the laboratory in 1978, Dr. Spinrad oversaw a period
when the laboratory’s technology was commercialized, including the first modern
personal computer, the ethernet local area network and the laser printer.
However, as a copier company, Xerox was never a comfortable fit for the emerging
computing world, and many of the laboratory researchers left Xerox, often taking
their innovations with them.
At the center, Dr. Spinrad became adept at bridging the cultural gulf between
the lab’s button-down East Coast corporations and its unruly and innovative West
Robert Spinrad was born in Manhattan on March 20, 1932. He received an
undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Columbia and a Ph.D. from
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition to his wife, Verna, he is survived by two children, Paul, of San
Francisco, and Susan Spinrad Esterly, of Palo Alto, and three grandchildren.
Flying between Norwalk, Conn., and Palo Alto frequently, Dr. Spinrad once
recalled how he felt like Superman in reverse because he would invariably step
into the airplane’s lavatory to change into a suit for his visit to the company
Robert Spinrad, a
Pioneer in Computing, Dies at 77, NYT, 7.9.2009,
Science Is in the Details
July 27, 2009
The New York Times
By SAM HARRIS
PRESIDENT OBAMA has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the
National Institutes of Health. It would seem a brilliant choice. Dr. Collins’s
credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and
the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account,
living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, he
published “The Language of God,” in which he claimed to demonstrate “a
consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and
Dr. Collins is regularly praised by secular scientists for what he is not: he is
not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.”
Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things
for a scientist not to be.
But as director of the institutes, Dr. Collins will have more responsibility for
biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an
annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost
representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is
important that we understand Dr. Collins and his faith as they relate to
What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on
science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California,
Berkeley, in 2008:
Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe
13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the
development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous
diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan
included human beings.”
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the
human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral
law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our
estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no
such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any
of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within
Why should Dr. Collins’s beliefs be of concern?
There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t
surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are
counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or
that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be
difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a
scientist more difficult than religion.
Dr. Collins has written that science makes belief in God “intensely plausible” —
the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of nature’s constants, the emergence of complex
life, the effectiveness of mathematics, all suggest the existence of a “loving,
logical and consistent” God.
But when challenged with alternative accounts of these phenomena — or with
evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent or,
indeed, absent — Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and
thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.
Similarly, Dr. Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s
existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship
with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the
casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr. Collins
assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and
that God’s will is a mystery.
Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the
products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes
a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our
species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will,
the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.
As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived
from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among
others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would
seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the
human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should
we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like
frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by
Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing
questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must
be steadfastly resisted.”
One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the
institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of
the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of
human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible
to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human
nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to
God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?
Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his
beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his
nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the
United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of
human nature is impossible?
Sam Harris is the author of “The End of Faith”
and co-founder of the Reason
which promotes scientific knowledge and secular values.
Science Is in the
Details, NYT, 27.7.2009,
Arthur R. Kantrowitz,
Whose Wide-Ranging Research
Had Many Applications,
Is Dead at 95
December 9, 2008
The New York Times
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Arthur R. Kantrowitz, a physicist and engineer whose research on the behavior
of superhot gases and fluid dynamics led to nose cones for rockets, heart-assist
pumps and the idea of nuclear fusion in magnetic bottles, among many other
things, died in Manhattan on Nov. 29. He was 95.
His death was announced by his family.
In a career that was often far ahead of its time, Dr. Kantrowitz ranged from
aviation and space to medicine and public policy, where he championed the
formation of a “science court” for resolving controversies. He founded and
directed the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Massachusetts, taught at
Cornell and Dartmouth, and served on the Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances
in Science and Technology in the Ford administration and on the board of the
television program “Nova.”
It was at a Thanksgiving Day party in 1954 that Dr. Kantrowitz, then a Cornell
professor, made his connection with the space program. At the party was Victor
Emanuel, the chairman of the Avco Corporation, an aerospace company, who
mentioned the problems missile engineers were having developing ballistic
missiles that could survive re-entry into the atmosphere at 18,000 miles an
hour, when friction can create temperatures of thousands of degrees. Such
conditions could not be duplicated in wind tunnels, and it would probably
require years of expensive flight tests to solve the problem, Mr. Emanuel
Dr. Kantrowitz replied that he could do it in six months in a laboratory. Avco
promptly offered to build him one, in the Boston suburbs. Using a so-called
shock tube that would release a pulse of gas through thinned air, creating shock
waves and temperatures of up to a million degrees or more, Dr. Kantrowitz and
his colleagues simulated re-entry conditions and quickly determined that the
best approach would be to coat the missile’s nose cone with a skin made of a
material that would slowly burn away.
In April 1958, a charred nose cone was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean after
an intercontinental flight on a Thor-Able rocket and 12,000-degree re-entry with
just the amount of ablation, or burn-away, that Dr. Kantrowitz had calculated.
“The recovery of that nose cone,” Dr, Kantrowitz later said, “gave the first
really solid authentication of the shock tube work that had been done several
The nose cone went into the Smithsonian, Avco set up a factory to produce nose
cones for missiles and Dr. Kantrowitz became one of the first technological
heroes of the space program.
Arthur Robert Kantrowitz was born in 1913 in the Bronx, the eldest of four
children, three brothers and a sister. His father, Bernard, was a doctor, and
his mother, Rose, designed costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies. At age 11, he was
kicked out of the private Ethical Culture School in Manhattan for showing no
He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and entered Columbia,
determined to study science. “I knew I wanted to be a physicist even before I
knew the word,” he recalled in the 1961 book “Men of Space, Volume 3.”
As a boy, he collaborated with his younger brother Adrian, later America’s first
heart transplant surgeon, to fashion an electrocardiogram device out of spare
radio parts. Adrian Kantrowitz died on Nov. 14.
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Columbia in
1936, he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or
NACA, the precursor to NASA, at Langley Field in Virginia. It was there, in
1938, that he and Eastman N. Jacobs, his boss, did an experiment that might have
changed the world, had they succeeded.
The idea was to harness the energy source that powers the sun, the thermonuclear
fusion of hydrogen into helium, by heating hydrogen with radio waves while
squeezing the gas with a magnetic field. At the time, nobody had ever tried to
produce a fusion reaction; the Manhattan Project and other attempts to create
nuclear fission were still in their infancy.
Knowing that their superiors would disapprove of anything as outlandish as
atomic energy, they labeled their machine the Diffusion Inhibitor, and worked on
it only at night. The experiment failed, and before the experimenters could
figure out why, their director found out about the project and canceled it.
Physicists unaware of the Langley experiment later reinvented the idea of
thermonuclear fusion in a magnetic bottle, and they are still trying to make it
“It was a heartbreaking experience,” Dr. Kantrowitz recalled. “I had just built
a whole future around this; I wanted to make it a career.”
He turned his attention to completing a paper about gas dynamics under the
tutelage of Edward Teller, for which Columbia awarded him a Ph.D. in 1947. By
then he was already teaching at Cornell.
In 1943, he married Rosalind Joseph, a biochemist. That marriage ended in
divorce, and she died in 2005. Dr. Kantrowitz is survived by his second wife,
Lee Stuart of Hanover, N.H.; three daughters, Barbara Kantrowitz of London, Lore
Kantrowitz of Lexington, Mass., Andrea Kantrowitz of Pelham, N.Y.; and six
In 1956, Dr. Kantrowitz left Cornell to work full time at the Avco Everett
laboratory, where he used the shock tube to explore the properties of the hot
electrified gases known as plasmas. In 1959, he and his team confirmed a
conjecture by the British cosmologist Thomas Gold that disturbances on the sun
could send shock waves through the solar system at millions of miles an hour,
creating blasts of charged particles and magnetic storms.
The team also explored ways to generate electricity from jets of hot gas and
developed high-powered lasers that, Dr. Kantrowitz suggested, could be used one
day to propel spacecraft away from the Earth.
He also revisited his childhood collaborations with his brother Adrian. In the
1960s, he and a group of other scientists and surgeons developed the intra-aorta
balloon pump. Inserted into a femoral artery, the device expands and contracts
to help the heart move blood. It has been used on three million people,
including Dr. Kantrowitz himself after he suffered a heart attack on Nov. 28.
Dr. Kantrowitz retired from Avco in 1978 and joined the Dartmouth faculty. In
his later years he spoke out about the need for a “science court,” in which the
scientific side of controversies like the use of pesticides and nuclear reactors
could be adjudicated by experts. In 1975, he was chairman of a presidential task
force looking into the idea.
Dr. Kantrowitz never lost his faith in science and in humanity’s ability to
solve its problems.
Writing in this newspaper in 1971, he said: “I submit that a space program
directed toward exhibiting that there are no visible limits to man’s future in
the universe could be a most important help in reviving faith in the hope of
progress. I can imagine nothing more relevant to our current problems.”
Arthur R. Kantrowitz,
Whose Wide-Ranging Research Had Many Applications, Is Dead at 95,
1 American, 2 Japanese
Share Nobel Physics Prize
October 8, 2008
The New York Times
By DENNIS OVERBYE
An American and two Japanese physicists on Tuesday won the Nobel Prize in
Physics for their work exploring the hidden symmetries between elementary
particles that are the deepest constituents of nature.
Yoichiro Nambu, of the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute, will
receive half of the 10 million kroner prize (about $1.3 million) awarded by the
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Makoto Kobayashi, of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK)
Tsukuba, Japan, and Toshihide Maskawa, of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical
Physics (YITP), Kyoto University, will each receive a quarter of the prize.
Ever since Galileo, physicists have been guided in their quest for the ultimate
laws of nature by the search for symmetries, or properties of nature that appear
the same under different circumstances.
However, in the 1960s, Dr. Nambu, who was born in Tokyo in 1921, suggested that
some symmetries in the laws of nature might be hidden or “broken” in actual
A pencil standing on its end, for example, is symmetrical but unstable and will
wind up on the table pointing in only one direction or the other. The principle
is now embedded in all of modern particle physics.
“You have to look for symmetries even when you can’t see them,” explained
Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, who described his colleague as “the
most humble man of all time.”
In 1972, Dr. Kobayashi and Dr. Maskawa, extending earlier work by the Italian
physicist Nicola Cabibbo, showed that if there were three generations of the
elementary particles called quarks, the constituents of protons and neutrons,
this principle of symmetry breaking would explain a puzzling asymmetry known as
CP violation. This was discovered in 1964 by the American physicists James
Cronin and Val Fitch - a discovery that also won a Nobel prize.
C and P stand respectively for charge and parity, or “handedness.” Until then,
physicists had naively assumed that if you exchanged positive for negative and
left-handed and right-handed in the equations of elementary particles, you would
get the same answer.
The fact that nature operates otherwise, physicists hope, is a step on the way
to explaining why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, one of the
questions that the Large Hadron Collider, the new particle accelerator now
preparing for operation, is designed to explore.
1 American, 2 Japanese
Share Nobel Physics Prize, NYT, 8.10.2008,
John a. Wheeler, Physicist
Who Coined the Term ‘Black Hole,’
Is Dead at 96
April 14, 2008
The New York Times
By DENNIS OVERBYE
John A. Wheeler, a visionary physicist and teacher who helped invent the
theory of nuclear fission, gave black holes their name and argued about the
nature of reality with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, died Sunday morning at
his home in Hightstown, N.J. He was 96.
The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter Alison Wheeler Lahnston.
Dr. Wheeler was a young, impressionable professor in 1939 when Bohr, the Danish
physicist and his mentor, arrived in the United States aboard a ship from
Denmark and confided to him that German scientists had succeeded in splitting
uranium atoms. Within a few weeks, he and Bohr had sketched out a theory of how
nuclear fission worked. Bohr had intended to spend the time arguing with
Einstein about quantum theory, but “he spent more time talking to me than to
Einstein,” Dr. Wheeler later recalled.
As a professor at Princeton and then at the University of Texas in Austin, Dr.
Wheeler set the agenda for generations of theoretical physicists, using metaphor
as effectively as calculus to capture the imaginations of his students and
colleagues and to pose questions that would send them, minds blazing, to the
barricades to confront nature.
Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of
Dr. Wheeler, “For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still
Under his leadership, Princeton became the leading American center of research
into Einsteinian gravity, known as the general theory of relativity — a field
that had been moribund because of its remoteness from laboratory experiment.
“He rejuvenated general relativity; he made it an experimental subject and took
it away from the mathematicians,” said Freeman Dyson, a theorist at the
Institute for Advanced Study across town in Princeton.
Among Dr. Wheeler’s students was Richard Feynman of the California Institute of
Technology, who parlayed a crazy-sounding suggestion by Dr. Wheeler into work
that led to a Nobel Prize. Another was Hugh Everett, whose Ph.D. thesis under
Dr. Wheeler on quantum mechanics envisioned parallel alternate universes
endlessly branching and splitting apart — a notion that Dr. Wheeler called “Many
Worlds” and which has become a favorite of many cosmologists as well as science
Recalling his student days, Dr. Feynman once said, “Some people think Wheeler’s
gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.”
John Archibald Wheeler — he was Johnny Wheeler to friends and fellow scientists
— was born on July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Fla. The oldest child in a family
of librarians, he earned his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University at
21. A year later, after becoming engaged to an old acquaintance, Janette Hegner,
after only three dates, he sailed to Copenhagen to work with Bohr, the godfather
of the quantum revolution, which had shaken modern science with paradoxical
statements about the nature of reality.
“You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing
that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr,”
Dr. Wheeler said.
Their relationship was renewed when Bohr arrived in 1939 with the ominous news
of nuclear fission. In the model he and Dr. Wheeler developed to explain it, the
atomic nucleus, containing protons and neutrons, is like a drop of liquid. When
a neutron emitted from another disintegrating nucleus hits it, this “liquid
drop” starts vibrating and elongates into a peanut shape that eventually snaps
Two years later, Dr. Wheeler was swept up in the Manhattan Project to build an
atomic bomb. To his lasting regret, the bomb was not ready in time to change the
course of the war in Europe and possibly save his brother Joe, who died in
combat in Italy in 1944.
Dr. Wheeler continued to do government work after the war, interrupting his
research to help develop the hydrogen bomb, promote the building of fallout
shelters and support the Vietnam War and missile defense, even as his views ran
counter to those of his more liberal colleagues.
Dr. Wheeler was once officially reprimanded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower
for losing a classified document on a train, but he also received the Atomic
Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Award from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.
When Dr. Wheeler received permission in 1952 to teach a course on Einsteinian
gravity, it was not considered an acceptable field to study. But in promoting
general relativity, he helped transform the subject in the 1960s, at a time when
Dennis Sciama, at Cambridge University in England, and Yakov Borisovich
Zeldovich, at Moscow State University, founded groups that spawned a new
generation of gravitational theorists and cosmologists.
One particular aspect of Einstein’s theory got Dr. Wheeler’s attention. In 1939,
J. Robert Oppenheimer, formerly the head of the Manhattan Project, and a
student, Hartland Snyder, suggested that Einstein’s equations had made an
apocalyptic prediction. A dead star of sufficient mass could collapse into a
heap so dense that light could not even escape from it. The star would collapse
forever while spacetime wrapped around it like a dark cloak. At the center,
space would be infinitely curved and matter infinitely dense, an apparent
absurdity known as a singularity.
Dr. Wheeler at first resisted this conclusion, leading to a confrontation with
Dr. Oppenheimer at a conference in Belgium in 1958, in which Dr. Wheeler said
that the collapse theory “does not give an acceptable answer” to the fate of
matter in such a star. “He was trying to fight against the idea that the laws of
physics could lead to a singularity,” Dr. Charles Misner, a professor at the
University of Maryland and a former student, said. In short, how could physics
lead to a violation itself — to no physics?
Dr. Wheeler and others were finally brought around when David Finkelstein, now
an emeritus professor at Georgia Tech, developed mathematical techniques that
could treat both the inside and the outside of the collapsing star.
At a conference in New York in 1967, Dr. Wheeler, seizing on a suggestion
shouted from the audience, hit on the name “black hole” to dramatize this dire
possibility for a star and for physics.
The black hole “teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into
an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and
that the laws of physics that we regard as ‘sacred,’ as immutable, are anything
but,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam: A
Life in Physics.” (Its co-author is Kenneth Ford, a former student and a retired
director of the American Institute of Physics.)
In 1973, Dr. Wheeler and two former students, Dr. Misner and Kip Thorne, of the
California Institute of Technology, published “Gravitation,” a 1,279-page book
whose witty style and accessibility — it is chockablock with sidebars and
personality sketches of physicists — belies its heft and weighty subject. It has
never been out of print.
In the summers, Dr. Wheeler would retire with his extended family to a compound
on High Island, Me., to indulge his taste for fireworks by shooting beer cans
out of an old cannon.
He and Janette were married in 1935. She died in October 2007 at 99. Dr. Wheeler
is survived by their three children, Ms. Lahnston and Letitia Wheeler Ufford,
both of Princeton; James English Wheeler of Ardmore, Pa.; 8 grandchildren, 16
great-grandchildren, 6 step-grandchildren and 11 step-great-grandchildren.
In 1976, faced with mandatory retirement at Princeton, Dr. Wheeler moved to the
University of Texas.
At the same time, he returned to the questions that had animated Einstein and
Bohr, about the nature of reality as revealed by the strange laws of quantum
mechanics. The cornerstone of that revolution was the uncertainty principle,
propounded by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, which seemed to put fundamental limits
on what could be known about nature, declaring, for example, that it was
impossible, even in theory, to know both the velocity and the position of a
subatomic particle. Knowing one destroyed the ability to measure the other. As a
result, until observed, subatomic particles and events existed in a sort of
cloud of possibility that Dr. Wheeler sometimes referred to as “a smoky dragon.”
This kind of thinking frustrated Einstein, who once asked Dr. Wheeler if the
Moon was still there when nobody looked at it.
But Dr. Wheeler wondered if this quantum uncertainty somehow applied to the
universe and its whole history, whether it was the key to understanding why
anything exists at all.
“We are no longer satisfied with insights only into particles, or fields of
force, or geometry, or even space and time,” Dr. Wheeler wrote in 1981. “Today
we demand of physics some understanding of existence itself.”
At a 90th birthday celebration in 2003, Dr. Dyson said that Dr. Wheeler was part
prosaic calculator, a “master craftsman,” who decoded nuclear fission, and part
poet. “The poetic Wheeler is a prophet,” he said, “standing like Moses on the
top of Mount Pisgah, looking out over the promised land that his people will one
day inherit.” Wojciech Zurek, a quantum theorist at Los Alamos National
Laboratory, said that Dr. Wheeler’s most durable influence might be the students
he had “brought up.” He wrote in an e-mail message, “I know I was transformed as
a scientist by him — not just by listening to him in the classroom, or by his
physics idea: I think even more important was his confidence in me.”
Dr. Wheeler described his own view of his role to an interviewer 25 years ago.
“If there’s one thing in physics I feel more responsible for than any other,
it’s this perception of how everything fits together,” he said. “I like to think
of myself as having a sense of judgment. I’m willing to go anywhere, talk to
anybody, ask any question that will make headway.
“I confess to being an optimist about things, especially about someday being
able to understand how things are put together. So many young people are forced
to specialize in one line or another that a young person can’t afford to try and
cover this waterfront — only an old fogy who can afford to make a fool of
“If I don’t, who will?”
John a. Wheeler,
Physicist Who Coined the Term ‘Black Hole,’ Is Dead at 96,
Retires After Racial Remarks
The New York Times
By CORNELIA DEAN
Watson, the eminent biologist who ignited an uproar last week with remarks about
the intelligence of people of African descent, retired today as chancellor of
the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and from its board.
In a statement, he noted that, at 79, he is “overdue” to surrender leadership
positions at the lab, which he joined as director in 1968 and served as
president until 2003. But he said the circumstances of his resignation “are not
those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.”
Dr. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix
structure of DNA, and later headed the American government’s part in the
international Human Genome Project, was quoted in The Times of London last week
as suggesting that, overall, people of African descent are not as intelligent as
people of European descent. In the ensuing uproar, he issued a statement
apologizing “unreservedly” for the comments, adding “there is no scientific
basis for such a belief.”
But Dr. Watson, who has a reputation for making sometimes incendiary
off-the-cuff remarks, did not say he had been misquoted.
Within days, the Cold Spring board had relieved him of the administrative
responsibilities of the chancellor’s job. In that position, a spokesman for the
laboratory said, he was most involved with educational efforts and fund-raising.
In the years after he left Harvard to direct the laboratory, Dr. Watson
transformed it from a small facility into a world-class institution prominent in
research on cancer, plant biology, neuroscience and computational biology, the
board said in announcing his retirement. Bruce Stillman, who succeeded him as
president, said today that he had created an “unparalleled” research environment
at the laboratory.
In his statement, Dr. Watson said the work of the Human Genome Project, an
international effort which deciphered the chemical contents of human genes, had
opened the door to work on many diseases, particularly illnesses such as
schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, ailments he said have afflicted members of
He also referred to his Scots and Irish forebears, saying their lives were
guided by faith in reason and social justice, “especially the need for those on
top to help care for the less fortunate.”
James Watson Retires After Racial Remarks, NYT,
Statement by James D. Watson
October 25, 2007
The New York Times
Here is the text of the statement issued by Dr. James D. Watson announcing
which was transmitted to The New York Times in an e-mail
This morning I have conveyed to the Trustees of the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory my desire to retire immediately from my position as its Chancellor,
as well as from my position on its Board, on which I have served for the past 43
years. Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of
leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is
occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or
That the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is now one of the world’s premier sites
for biological research and education has long warmed my heart. So I am grateful
that its Board now will allow me to remain along my beloved Bungtown Road.
Forty-nine years ago, as a newly appointed young Assistant Professor at Harvard,
I gave my first course on this pernicious collection of diseases of uncontrolled
cell growth and division. Cancer, then an intellectual black box, now, in part
because of research at the Laboratory, is almost full lit. Though important
facts remain undiscovered, there is no reason why they should not soon be found.
Final victory is within our grasp. Strong in spirit and intensely focused, I
wish to be among those at the victory line.
The ever quickening advances of science made possible by the success of the
Human Genome Project will also soon let us see the essences of mental disease.
Only after we understand them at the genetic level can we rationally seek out
appropriate therapies for such illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disease.
For the children of my sister and me, this moment can not come a moment too
soon. Hell does not come close to describing the impact of psychotic disorders
on human life.
This week’s events focus me ever more intensely on the moral values passed on to
me by my father, whose Watson surname marks his long ago Scots-Irish Appalachian
heritage; and by my mother, whose father, Lauchlin Mitchell, came from Glasgow
and whose mother, Lizzie Gleason, had parents from Tipperary. To my great
advantage, their lives were guided by a faith in reason; an honest application
of its messages; and for social justice, especially the need for those on top to
help care for the less fortunate. As an educator, I have always striven to see
that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all.
I have been much blessed.
James D. Watson
One Bungtown Road
Cold Spring Harbor, New York
Statement by James D.
Watson, NYT, 25.10.2007,
Physicist, Activist Panofsky Dies at 88
September 29, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 12:12 a.m. ET
The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky, a physicist who was a
consultant on the Manhattan Project and devoted much of his life to promoting
nuclear arms control, has died. He was 88.
Panofsky, affectionally known as ''Pief,'' had a heart attack Monday in Los
Altos, Stanford University officials said.
''He was a towering figure, admired greatly not only as a great scientist and a
leader, but as a man deeply committed to principle, and to the issue of arms
control,'' said Sidney Drell, a professor who works at the Stanford Linear
Accelerator Center, a lab Panofsky was instrumental in developing.
He won the National Medal of Science in 1969 and the U.S. Department of Energy's
Enrico Fermi Award in 1979, and he played a key role in shaping the government's
science and nuclear policies.
''He was moved by a deep ethical concern,'' Drell said. ''He had worked on the
atom bomb project, and understood what would be the effect of a nuclear war. He
was profoundly committed to enhancing prospects of peace.''
Panofsky was born in Berlin on April 24, 1919, the son of prominent art
historian Erwin Panofsky. He showed scientific promise at an early age. After
his father, fearing for his Jewish family's well-being in mid-1930's Germany,
accepted a teaching post in the United States, Panofsky attended Princeton
University. He enrolled at 15 and after graduation pursued a doctorate at the
California Institute of Technology.
He received his doctorate in 1942 and married Adele Irene DuMond, the daughter
of the physicist in whose lab he had worked as a graduate student. At first
classified as an ''enemy alien'' under California's wartime enemy exclusion law,
he soon became a naturalized citizen and worked from 1943 to 1945 as a
consultant on the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb.
He showed his leadership skills in his first professorship at the University of
California, Berkeley. Particle physics was a nascent field, and Panofsky was
exploring some of the earliest particle accelerators.
In 1951, he resigned in protest when the university's Board of Regents required
faculty members to sign an oath of loyalty. He joined Stanford, where he took a
key role in building a larger, higher-energy accelerator.
His work ultimately led to congressional authorization of the 2-mile-long
electron linear accelerator at the heart of the Stanford Linear Accelerator
Center, in 1961. Three Nobel prizes emerged from research promoted by Panofsky
over the more than two decades he was lab director.
He was a tireless adviser to presidents Eisenhower through Carter and important
figures in their administrations on issues of international security. Notable
achievements included helping to secure the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests
in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, in 1963, and the signing of
the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, in 1972.
He also helped found the Center for International Security and Arms Control in
his later years at Stanford.
Panofsky also pushed for scientific openness and exchange with researchers in
the former Soviet Union and in China.
Panofsky Dies at 88, NYT, 29.9.2007,
John W. Gofman, 88,
Scientist and Advocate
for Nuclear Safety,
August 26, 2007
The New York Times
By JEREMY PEARCE
Dr. John W. Gofman, a nuclear chemist and doctor who in the 1960s heightened
public concerns about exposure to low-level radiation and became a leading voice
against commercial nuclear power, died on Aug. 15 at his home in San Francisco.
He was 88.
The cause was heart failure, his family said.
In 1964, while he was director of the biomedical research division at Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in California, Dr. Gofman helped start a national
inquiry into the safety of atomic power. At a symposium for nuclear scientists
and engineers, he raised questions about a lack of data on low-level radiation
and also proposed a wide-ranging study of exposure in medicine and the
workplace, from fallout and other sources.
With a colleague at Livermore, Dr. Arthur R. Tamplin, Dr. Gofman then looked at
health studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as other
epidemiological studies, and conducted his own research on radiation’s
influences on human chromosomes. In 1969, the two scientists suggested that
federal safety guidelines for low-level exposures be reduced by 90 percent.
The findings were contested by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the furor made
Dr. Gofman a reluctant figurehead of the antinuclear movement. In 1970, he
testified in favor of a legislative bill to ban commercial nuclear reactors in
New York City and told the City Council that a reactor in urban environs would
be “equal in the opposite direction to all the medical advances put together in
the last 25 years.”
Both he and Dr. Tamplin left Livermore in the 1970s, and Dr. Gofman went on to
become an expert witness in radiation-exposure lawsuits and help found an
advocacy group, the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, based in San
Francisco. In an unsuccessful project, he and others called for a five-year
federal moratorium on new nuclear power stations, citing problems in the safe
storage of radioactive waste. Yet, for all his efforts as a nuclear gadfly, he
did not oppose the building of nuclear missiles.
“Because we live in a dangerous world,” he said in 1993, “I think the only thing
you have is the deterrence value” of such weaponry.
Dr. Gofman’s appearance in the nuclear debate surprised some colleagues, since a
thrust of his earlier research had been in cardiology. In the late 1940s and
’50s, he and his collaborators investigated the body’s lipoproteins, which
contain both proteins and fats, and their circulation within the bloodstream.
The researchers described low-density and high-density lipoproteins and their
roles in metabolic disorders and coronary disease.
In his earliest work, while still a graduate student at the University of
California, Berkeley, Dr. Gofman studied nuclear isotopes and helped to describe
several discoveries, including protactinium-232, uranium-232, protactinium-233
and uranium-233. He also helped to work out the fissionability of uranium-233.
John William Gofman was born in Cleveland. He graduated from Oberlin College,
and received a doctorate in nuclear and physical chemistry from Berkeley in
1943. Dr. Gofman went on to earn a medical degree from the University of
California, San Francisco, in 1946.
He joined Berkeley in 1947 and retired as professor emeritus of molecular and
cell biology in 1973.
With Egan O’Connor, he wrote a book, “X-Rays: Health Effects of Common Exams”
(1986). He also wrote “Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An
Independent Analysis” (1990).
Dr. Gofman’s wife, Dr. Helen Fahl Gofman, a pediatrician, died in 2004.
He is survived by a son, Dr. John D. Gofman, an ophthalmologist, of Bellevue,
John W. Gofman, 88,
Scientist and Advocate for Nuclear Safety, Dies,
MIT Team Powers
Light Bulb Without Wires
June 8, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 12:16 a.m. ET
The New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) -- In a perfect world, there'd be no wires. They
clutter the view, get tangled behind desks and limit how far networks can reach.
That's why the telegraph gave way to the radio. Cell phones unstrung
telecommunications. Wi-Fi liberated computer data.
Now even the last knotty wire that seemed destined to remain -- the power cord
-- could be on its way out.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers announced Thursday they had
made a 60-watt light bulb glow by sending it energy wirelessly, potentially
previewing a future in which cell phones and other gadgets get juice without
having to be plugged in.
The breakthrough, disclosed in Science Express, an online publication of the
journal Science, is being called ''WiTricity'' by the scientists.
The concept of sending power wirelessly isn't new, but its wide-scale use has
been dismissed as inefficient because electromagnetic energy generated by the
charging device would radiate in all directions.
Last fall, though, MIT physics professor Marin Soljacic (pronounced
soul-ya-CHEECH) explained how to do the power transfer with specially tuned
waves. The key is to get the charging device and a gadget to resonate at the
same frequency -- allowing them to efficiently exchange energy.
It's similar to how an opera star can break a wine glass that happens to
resonate at the same frequency as her voice. In fact, the concept is so basic in
physics that inventor Nikola Tesla sought a century ago to build a huge tower on
Long Island that would wirelessly beam power along with communications.
The new step described in Science was that the MIT team put the concept into
action. The scientists lit a 60-watt bulb that was 7 feet away from the
''It was quite exciting,'' Soljacic said. The process is ''very reproducible,''
he added. ''We can just go to the lab and do it whenever we want.''
The development raises the prospect that we might eliminate some of the clutter
of cables in our ever-more electronic world. Is that necessarily a good thing?
Soljacic acknowledged ''that it's far from obvious how crucial people will find
But at least one benefit could be that if devices can get their power through
the air, they might not need batteries and their attendant toxic chemicals.
Before that can happen, the technology has a ways to go.
The MIT system is about 40 percent to 45 percent efficient -- meaning that most
of the energy from the charging device doesn't make it to the light bulb.
Soljacic believes it needs to become twice as efficient to be on par with the
old-fashioned way portable gadgets get their batteries charged.
Also, the copper coils that relay the power are almost 2 feet wide for now --
too big to be feasible for, say, laptops. And the 7-foot range of this wireless
handoff could be increased -- presumably so that one charging device could
automatically power all the gadgets in a room.
Soljacic believes all those improvements are within reach. The next step is to
fire up more than just light bulbs, perhaps a Roomba robotic vacuum or a laptop.
The MIT team stresses that the ''magnetic coupling'' process involved in
WiTricity is safe on humans and other living things. And in the initial
experiments on the light bulb, nothing bad happened to the cell phones,
electronic equipment and credit cards in the room -- though more research on
that is needed.
The harmlessness apparently extends both ways: The researchers noted that
putting people and other things between the coils -- even when they block the
line of sight -- generally has no effect on the power transfer.
On the Net:
Soljacic's Web page:
MIT Team Powers Light
Bulb Without Wires, NYT, 8.6.2007,
Donald M. Ginsberg, 73,
Expert in the Working
Superconductors, Is Dead
May 19, 2007
The New York Times
By JEREMY PEARCE
Donald M. Ginsberg, a physicist who became a leading expert on the production
and functioning of superconductors, died on May 7 at his home in Urbana, Ill. He
The cause was melanoma, his family said.
In their various forms, superconductors are used in computers, electrical
generators and medical equipment, among other applications. Dr. Ginsberg was
widely recognized for his work on superconducting crystals, and in particular
for improving the production of a useful metallic crystalline compound called
Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Ginsberg grew YBCO crystals in his laboratory at the
University of Illinois and studied their ability to conduct electricity with
great efficiency when heated to high temperatures. Although other scientists had
developed the YBCO compound, Dr. Ginsberg established a process that allowed the
growth of crystals of exceptional purity. He then distributed the results to
fellow researchers at Illinois and institutions worldwide.
Michael Tinkham, emeritus professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard,
said the results of such efforts had made Dr. Ginsberg the world’s leading
expert on making high-temperature crystalline superconductors.
Dr. Ginsberg wrote about the subject in “Physical Properties of High Temperature
Superconductors,” an influential five-volume series of reference books that he
edited in the 1980s and ’90s for an audience of physicists, chemists and
In other work, Dr. Ginsberg studied superconductors made from films of lead, tin
and mercury. He also wrote and published often humorous poetry on subjects
related to physics and laboratory research.
Donald Maurice Ginsberg was born in Chicago. He earned his doctorate in physics
from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960.
He joined the faculty at Illinois in 1959, remained there for his career and was
named an emeritus professor of physics in 1996.
Dr. Ginsberg is survived by his wife of 50 years, the former Joli Lasker; a
daughter, Dana, of Columbus, Ohio; a son, Mark, of Urbana; and a brother, David,
of Ann Arbor, Mich.
Donald M. Ginsberg, 73,
Expert in the Working of Superconductors, Is Dead,
Ft. Duquesne Remnants
May 16, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 9:48 p.m. ET
The New York Times
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- About two weeks ago, archaeologist Tom Kutys thought he'd
found a stone wall when he came across mortared capstones in a trench at the
state park that once was the site of French and British forts. Instead,
archaeologists at Point State Park believe they very well might have uncovered
long-buried remnants of Fort Duquesne, Pittsburgh's original fort.
''If we are correct about this, we are looking at the earliest example of
European masonry in Pittsburgh,'' said Brooke Blades, an archaeologist with A.D.
Marble and Co., which is working on the $35 million renovation of the park in
After excavating around Kutys' discovery, workers found what they believe to be
a drainage system that once served the fort in the mid-1700s, he said.
''It argues that there may be extensive other evidence of Fort Duquesne,''
Blades said. ''People always knew where Fort Duquesne was, but the question was
how much of it was left? ... It is tangible evidence. It's where the permanent
occupation of Pittsburgh began.''
The discovery, however, won't slow down the renovation of the park. In fact,
Kutys' discovery will be buried as work continues to upgrade the 36-acre park to
include a new lawn area, irrigation and electrical systems, landscapes, vendor
hookups, benches and wireless Internet in time for Pittsburgh's 250th
anniversary celebration next year.
No artifacts associated with Fort Duquesne have been found, but Blades said the
location of the drain only 45 feet from where the fort stood -- coupled with the
fact that the brick dates back at least to the early 19th century -- indicates
that the drainage system likely was part of the fort established by the French
''I can't think of it getting much better,'' said Kutys, 25, of Philadelphia.
As French and British forces fought to seize control of North America, the
French built Fort Duquesne where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to
form the Ohio River. The French destroyed the fort as British forces advanced in
1758 during the French and Indian War. The British then built Fort Pitt on the
ruins of Fort Duquesne between 1759 and 1761.
Blades said excavation in another section of the park will begin next week and
he hopes to find evidence of the fort's stockade.
The renovation has angered preservationists, who said history was being buried.
Michael Nixon, a lawyer and volunteer with the Fort Pitt Preservation Society,
did not immediately return a phone call Monday seeking comment on the discovery
of the drainage system.
Supporters of the renovation, however, said they plan to start an archaeological
program at the park sometime in the future.
''We have to figure out who's going to do it, how it's managed and how it's
funded,'' said Laura Fisher of the Allegheny Conference on Community
Development. ''It has to be real research. The vision is to have an actual
program of archaeology. Things like this find help build the case to do it.''
Scientists Unearth Ft.
Duquesne Remnants, NYT, 16.5.2007,
James Hillier, 91, Dies;
January 22, 2007
The New York Times
By JEREMY PEARCE
James Hillier, a physicist and inventor who helped develop an early and
commercially successful electron microscope for RCA and then found ways to apply
it for medical research, died last Monday in Princeton, N.J. He was 91.
The cause was a stroke, his family said.
In 1938, while he was still a graduate student at the University of Toronto, Dr.
Hillier and a fellow researcher, Albert Prebus, adapted the work of German
scientists and others to develop a prototype that would later become a widely
used electron microscope.
The device sent a stream of electrons through magnetic coils to produce an image
7,000 times the size of the object being studied, a magnification three times
more powerful than contemporary optical microscopes.
Dr. Hillier took the prototype to the Radio Corporation of America in Camden,
N.J., in 1940, and set out to produce a compact microscope that would be cheaper
and more effective for biological research.
He quickly saw “the real name of the game was to find out how to put significant
things” like blood cells and bacteria into the microscope without “burning them
to a crisp” in the potent electron beam. Dr. Hillier and others developed
methods of preparing samples using protective colloid film, which allowed them
to view bacteria. RCA’s microscopes were used in 1949 at the Sloan-Kettering
Institute to view cancer cells taken from animal tumors.
By that time, the microscope’s magnification had increased to 200,000 times, a
landmark on the route to today’s magnifying power of two million.
In subsequent refinements, Dr. Hillier helped correct the problem of astigmatism
in the lenses and worked on a scanning electron microscope that produced images
of even higher resolution. From 1940 to the 1960s, when RCA ended its
production, the company sold about 2,000 electron microscopes.
The technology could easily have gone to General Electric, which had recruited
Dr. Hillier after his early research, but he said he preferred the emphasis on
practical innovation and application he found at RCA.
James Hillier was born in Brantford, Ontario. He received his doctorate in
physics from the University of Toronto in 1941.
In 1958, Dr. Hillier became director of RCA’s research laboratories in Princeton
and later oversaw the company’s projects involving transistors, lasers and
liquid crystal display. He was named an executive vice president for research
and engineering and a senior scientist before retiring in 1977.
Dr. Hillier was an officer of the Order of Canada and became an American citizen
in 1945. He received an Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1960.
Dr. Hillier’s wife, the former Florence Bell, died in 1992. The couple resided
He is survived by a son, J. Robert Hillier, an architect, of New Hope, Pa.; two
sisters, Mary Hillier of Brantford and Thelma Henshaw of Naples, Fla.; four
grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
James Hillier, 91, Dies;
Co-Developed Electron Microscope, NYT, 22.1.2007,
2nd law of robotics:
give them faces
Wednesday August 30, 2006
In a nondescript house somewhere near
Hatfield, something that could pass for any student digs, groups of men and
women have been rehearsing for the future. In a year-long series of experiments,
scientists and engineers are studying how people behave around the building's
sole permanent resident, a 1.2 metre-tall, silver-headed robot with
sinister-looking gripping claws.
Their goal is to improve the way robots interact with people: everything from
what the machines should look like to how they should behave.
And the early evidence from inside the Robot House is that our utopian vision of
a future of splendid idleness may be clouded by a distinct unease in the company
of our robot servants.
"It is not enough that the robot is in your house and doing different things,"
says Kerstin Deutenhahn, an expert in human-robot interaction at the University
of Hertfordshire. "That same robot should also be able to perform this behaviour
in a way that is acceptable and comfortable to people."
The idea is to look ahead to the day when silicon-brained home-helps have
relieved us of the burden of household chores and work out which robot
behaviours people like and which distress us. What should the robot look like?
How should it move? How should it attract our attention?
The researchers have resisted the temptation to give the robot a name because
they do not want the volunteers in their experiments to feel too familiar with
it. "Once you name them then people will put gender associations on them, which
is a big problem," says researcher Kheng Lee Koay.
It moves on three wheels and can stop itself bumping into walls using devices
that emit a rapid-fire stream of sonar pulses. By analysing the echoes from its
surroundings, rather like a bat surveying its environment, it can work out
whether it is heading for a collision with a nearby object. But its sonar pulses
cannot tell the machine that people get really squeamish when it creeps up
A typical experiment involves sitting a volunteer down, so that the robot is
slightly taller, and sending the machine on a pre-programmed approach route. The
volunteers then indicate when they feel the robot has come uncomfortably close.
"People strongly dislike it when the robot moves behind them for example," says
Prof Deutenhahn. "Most volunteers also felt uncomfortable when the robot came at
them directly from in front, possibly because it seems aggressive. A more
subservient, oblique approach seems the best option."
The volunteers also preferred the robot to look a little human, with a face
containing mouth and eyes that light up to give rudimentary expressions. A
purely mechanical exterior was apparently harder to relate to.
But robotics experts note that the human guinea pigs don't want their
machine-servants to be too much like them. Ben Krose, a professor at the
University of Amsterdam, says: "The more human-like the robot becomes, the more
it is accepted, but after a certain point it gets scary."
The current crop of robots - most of which are only capable of carrying out
menial tasks such as cleaning carpets or mowing lawns - are too simple for
anyone to be concerned with their behaviour. But engineers are fast developing
more complicated and flexible machines, and working out how these should be
programmed to interact with people is becoming an important research question.
Sophisticated robots will never be successful if people do not like their
A conference on human-robot interaction at the University of Hertfordshire next
week may offer more cause for human anxiety as one Japanese expert will advocate
a fundamental shift from Isaac Asimov's first law of robotics, which states that
a robot should be programmed never to harm a human, either deliberately or by
Shuji Hashimoto will propose what he calls a "new relationship between machine
and human", where robots should be allowed to go through a kind of adolescence,
and be given the ability to think and make decisions for themselves and even to
harm humans if necessary. "The philosophy of Asimov is too human-centred," says
law of robotics: give them faces,
July 31, 1844
The man who applied maths
From the Guardian archive
Wednesday July 31, 1844
[Dr John Dalton was considered so well known
that this death notice did not bother
to give his Christian name.]
Our venerable and venerated townsman - one of
the greatest philosophers of his age and the father of the present race of
chemical investigators and discoverers - is no more.
Science has lost one of its most devoted sons; England one of her greatest
savants, and humanity one of its brightest examples of the wisdom of the
philosopher united to the purity of the child; for truly he was wise as the
serpent, harmless as the dove.
His long and useful life closed unexpectedly, but apparently without suffering,
on Saturday morning last.
Shortly before his death, Dr. Dalton attended a meeting of the council of the
Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and received an engrossed copy,
on vellum, of a resolution of that society, recording:
"Their admiration of the zeal and perseverance with which he has deduced the
mean pressure and temperature of the atmosphere, and the quantity of rain for
each month, and for the whole year, with the prevailing direction and force of
the wind at different seasons in this neighbourhood, from a series of more than
200,000 observations, from the end of the year 1793 to the beginning of 1844,
being a period of half a century."
He appears to have had an early tendency to mathematical pursuits. It is related
that, when about ten years old, his curiosity was excited by a dispute among
some mowers, as to whether sixty square yards and sixty yards square were
identical: at first he concluded that they were, but reflection showed him they
[In 1804] Dalton stated that he thought he could render greater service to
science by remaining at home and pursuing his own peculiar studies.
The greatest of Dr. Dalton's discoveries - the discovery of the atomic theory -
first presented itself to the philosopher's mind in 1803.
In the last course of lectures ever delivered by Sir Humphrey Davey to the Royal
Institution, in 1813 or 1814, he stated that the greatest step in science was
the application of mathematics to chemistry, for which the world was indebted to
Even in death, his brow was radiant with the characteristic expression of a
benevolent spirit. The aspect and features were those of the aged Christian
philosopher, who having finished his work had laid down to rest, calm in the the
tranquil faith which ever distinguished him, and without one struggle of
departing mortality, or one fear of the darkening gloom of the "valley of the
shadow of death".
the Guardian archive,
July 31, 1844,
The man who applied maths to chemistry,
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