Tools for Winning Nobels

October 20, 1990

If it were anything less than the Nobel Prize, the news that Americans have yet again won in the sciences would by now be old hat. Americans take home Nobels routinely, it seems, especially in the sciences.

Elias James Corey, a Harvard researcher, won for developing new methods for synthesizing complex molecules. His work reordered the world of pharmaceutical manufacturing, allowing easier and simpler derivation of new drugs from natural compounds. Stanford physicist Richard Taylor and two MIT colleagues, Henry Kendall and Jerome Friedman, former graduate school classmates, won laurels for particle physics. In economics, Baruch College professor Harry Markowitz won for demonstrating a practical way to value investments. It led to the development of the mutual fund industry.

Complacency is inappropriate, however. As Stanford's Richard Taylor made clear, without great tools any scientist can get stuck in second gear. Dr. Taylor, who won his Nobel for finding the quark particle and proving that even atoms could be broken down into standard building blocks, gave the credit to his teacher and mentor, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, builder of the Stanford Linear Accelerator on which the pioneering work was done. Co-laureates Henry Kendall and Jerome Friedman agreed.

"It's sad that they don't give Nobel Prizes for [Dr. Panofsky's] kind of achievement -- the creation of truly great experimental machines," Dr. Taylor said.

One example of what happens when scientists are denied critical tools is the state of computer prowess in the Soviet Union. Now that glasnost has torn down Soviet walls of secrecy, Westerners are discovering a wealth of computer science talent in the East. Those walls held back the kind of go-go development computer technologists are used to in the West, however.

Thus, Soviet programmers and industry leaders have no access to the kind of minicomputers, supercomputers and even desktop systems Westerners are used to. So the Soviets understand the theories of computing very well, but have not been able to put these theories to use in reshaping Eastern Bloc economies the way Westerners did repeatedly.

Dr. Taylor's latest work is being done on a new accelerator near Hamburg, Germany. Opponents of the Superconducting Supercollider, take note.

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