The Nobel Prizes were awarded today. Each fall, I anticipate reading about the awardees. Collecting a Nobel Prize is surely the childhood dream of many aspiring young scientists. We love to dream of that intellectual accomplishment and the recognition (as well as the check). Soon enough in our careers, most young scientists realize that receiving a Nobel Prize is unlikely. I, too, had that realization, but in lieu of the Prize I began to collect Nobelists.
That is . . . I began to encounter Nobelists and recognized
that I was collecting a curious set of experiences.
My first Nobelist was Norman Borlaug, who received the Peace Prize in 1972 for his contribution to the so-called Green Revolution. Borlaug was a wheat breeder. In the 1940s, he was persuaded to move to Mexico and breed wheat that would feed undernourished people in poor parts of the world where populations were rapidly expanding. He succeeded. The wheat varieties bred by his team were dramatically more productive than those that had been available for Mexico. Unfortunately, the approach advocated by Borlaug required the use of high levels of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all of which were costly and served to drive up debt in poor parts of the world. The pesticides—such as DDT—were eventually implicated in ecological devastation, especially for bird populations.
In the late 1970s, Borlaug was invited to speak at Iowa
State University, where I was an undergraduate, studying botany. A dinner was held for Borlaug in the
early evening before his lecture, and I had been selected to sit beside him. I began our dinner conversation with easy-going
chit-chat, one of my strengths.
“When you started the field experiments,” I asked, “did you think about
monitoring the effects of the pesticides on other organisms?”
“Aachhh,” Borlaug said, betraying his Norwegian roots. “You could walk to the edge of the
fields, where there was a cliff above the ocean. There were birds everywhere. Thousands of birds.
We never hurt the birds.”
The rural area of Iowa in which I grew up did not offer much
in the way of foreign languages in the schools. When I went to college, foreign language courses were not
required. So I had no experience
what-so-ever with foreign languages when I began work on my PhD, which required
that I pass a foreign language exam in which translation skill was
demonstrated. During my first year
of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, I took German
Each day at noon I walked across the broad path that separated the Life Science Building from Dwinelle Hall, where various language departments were located. I struggled in the German courses, stumbling over grammar and striving to pick-up vocabulary. Each day after German class, I would stop at the rest room, and there, each day, was Czeslaw Milosz. He was then a professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and had that fall of 1980 been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had been reading his poetry and his nonfiction book The Captive Mind. I assumed that Milosz was on his way back to his office after lunch about the time that my German class finished. There we were, day after day, elbow to elbow at adjacent urinals in Dwinelle Hall. He would sometimes look up, his eyes were subtle below his thick gray eyebrows, when he turned to walk out after washing his hands. I never started a conversation, never mentioned in the Dwinelle rest room that I had been reading his books.
Berkeley is one of the few places where Nobelists are
virtually thick. You could be on
the way to the refrigerator for a beer and run into Nobelists. One of them was William Giauque. In the kitchen, he was known as Bill. Giauque, who won the Nobel Prize for
Chemistry in 1949, for developing a process called magnetic refrigeration to
achieve super cool temperatures—colder temperatures than anyone else had
managed—was a friend of my landlady, Bernice. He was a very stooped, very old man when he would pass me in
the kitchen, each of us with our minds on different kinds of refrigeration.
After taking all of those difficult German classes in graduate school and finally passing the foreign language exam after multiple tries, I received my PhD and took a postdoctoral research position in Zurich, Switzerland. I arrived in Zurich in the fall of 1986 just about the time that Heinrich Rohrer won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Rohrer, who lived and worked in Zurich, was invited to give a public lecture at the botanical garden in the building where I was then working. I decided not to go. A lecture in Swiss German was beyond my limited language abilities, it was an agony not worth an encounter with another Nobelist.