Prizes in sciences this year went to researchers...


November 03, 1993

THE NOBEL prizes in sciences this year went to researchers into the realm of the very large and the very small. Americans Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr. won the physics prize for their discovery of a new type of collapsed star, while Kary B. Mullis and British-born Canadian Michael Smith won the prize in chemistry for inventing a new technique for genetic research. Mr. Hulse and Mr. Taylor used the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to discover the first binary pulsar, a pair of super-dense neutron stars some 16,000 light-years from Earth which are locked in an orbital embrace so powerful they shed energy in the form of gravitational waves. The existence of such waves was predicted by Einstein's Theory of General Relatively, but the effect has never been observed directly. Mr. Hulse and Mr. Taylor's discovery, which provides strong observational evidence for Einstein's ideas, gives scientists a natural laboratory for testing gravitational theories.

Mr. Mullis and Mr. Smith were honored for inventing a method called the polymerase chain reaction, which makes it possible to make millions of copies of a single, microscopic strand of DNA within hours. The technique is widely used by doctors and scientists to diagnose infections, find the causes of hereditary diseases and recover DNA from fossils. It was the latter application that produced the germ of the idea carried into fiction in the book and movie "Jurassic Park."

Ironically, neither of these discoveries was dependent on the kind of costly "big-project science" facility exemplified by the proposed Superconducting Supercollider or the Space Station Freedom. Though the Arecibo instrument used by Mr. Taylor and Mr. Hulse is far beyond the means of the average backyard astronomer, it's hardly in a class with today's mega-billion science projects. Mr. Mullis' breakthrough in molecular biology wasn't even made in a laboratory, but while he was riding his motorcycle along a California highway. The idea simply came to him, and he pulled over to mull its implications. "I do my best thinking while driving," he said.

Nor should it be forgotten that virtually all of Einstein's most important discoveries were arrived at using instruments no more elaborate than pencil, paper and the human brain. The fact that significant discoveries continue to be made by scientists working with relatively modest equipment is not so much an argument against pursuing the "big science" projects as it is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of true scientific creativity.

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AT THE end of a long campaign, weary politicians are apt to speak more colorfully. Here's Christie Whitman, Republican candidate for governor in New Jersey, in one final effort to distinguish herself from Democrats: "Unlike the president, I inhaled. And then I threw up."

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