Heads Up

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

As the Nobels are awarded, President Obama and friends grab their telescopes and head injuries to athletes go under the microscope.

Illustration: Mike Pick

Three of the top science honors were awarded this week: the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, as well as the perennial sentence-confounding Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

All three awards went to three-person teams, which were predominantly American and surprisingly (by Nobel standards) female. Two of the laureates for physiology or medicine were women, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, as was one of the recipients of the chemistry prize, Ada E. Yonath.

The latter is particularly notable, as the last time a woman was awarded the prize in chemistry, it was 1964. And Yonath is only the fourth woman to receive the prize, joining Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Irène Joliot-Curie, and her legendary mother, Marie Curie

And while the field of chemistry might be heavily skewed towards men, it has nothing on physics. Marie Curie with her first Nobel win represents a full 50 percent of the women laureates in that category. Judging by the gap between that 1903 prize and Maria Goeppert-Mayer’s in 1963, we can expect our next female laureate in physics in 14 years.

We will likely get one much sooner, however, as the Nobels are almost assuredly a lagging indicator of women’s status within science. Barring a few exceptional game-changers, it’s hard to tell what kind of impact a particular discovery will have in the long term. Thus, the Nobels usually look backward: Blackburn and Greider first discovered telomerase 25 years ago, and Charles Kao’s initial work on fiber optics (which netted him the prize in physics this year) was done in the 1960s.

The number of women graduating with degrees in the physical sciences has risen substantially since Greider and Blackburn started their Nobel-worthy work, but the rate of growth has been uneven. Fortunately, it seems we’re in the midst of a fairly steep uptick, according to Department of Education stats. The last five years saw a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of women awarded doctorates in the physical sciences; prior to 2002, it took twice as long to make that gain.

The new female laureates shouldn’t rest on their laurels just yet as there’s still plenty of role modeling to be done. For while women are now reaching parity with men on the bachelor’s and master’s levels in science (and they’re handily beating them in biological subfields), the gender ratio among current doctorates closely matches that of the Nobels: three men for every woman.   

Eyes on the skies

Hot off the heels of the Nobels, President Obama handed out the country’s top science honors this week—the National Medals of Science and Technology. (And like the Nobels, they preserved that 3:1 gender ratio.)

After bestowing these medals (ducking out for a quick meeting on the ongoing national security threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan), Obama convened a “White House Star Party” on his front lawn. Inviting professional and amateur astronomers, as well as a gaggle of middle school students, the president arranged to have on hand more than 20 telescopes and other space-watching gear in an outreach effort pegged to World Space Week and the International Year of Astronomy

If the White House were on the West Coast (and in a less light-polluted city), the best time for such a party would have been early this morning. That’s when NASA smashed two probes into the surface of the Moon as part of the LCROSS mission, kicking up a plume of dust big enough to be seen from Earth with a basic telescope.

LCROSS has attracted some attention over the last few weeks, including when a engine-firing error put the mission in jeopardy and when confirmation of water on the Moon bode well for its forthcoming findings. 

But it wasn’t until this week that I began seeing people protesting our apparent bombing of the Moon in the name of science. It’s hard to tell if this Huffington Post column is a joke. It’s even harder to tell with this Rush Limbaugh transcript.

While shades of this argument about the “sanctity” or “purity” of the natural world can be found in legitimately troubling ethical debates, such as the one over primate rights, let’s be clear: Humans can have a tremendously negative impact on the natural world with a wide enough effort over a long enough time, as evidenced by the current state of our climate. But when it comes to lunar impacts, we simply cannot compete with what the rest of the universe has already done to the Moon

And even on the climate front, human intervention in the “natural order” doesn’t necessitate negative outcomes. Some of most steadfast tree-huggers are coming around on this position: Last month, the World Wildlife Foundation issued a statement supporting biotechnology used in the service of carbon mitigation techniques, suggesting a détente might be in the works between environmentalists and genetic engineers.

Eyes on these guys

Though the panda people have had sole rights to the acronym WWF since early 2002, it still brings to mind visions of sweaty men hitting each other with folding chairs. This week we’re more interested in that WWF (now WWE), thanks to recently launched efforts to understand and combat traumatic brain injury. 

The connections between the worlds of science and professional wrestling have been essentially nonexistent, other than a few gimmicky characters. At the top of that list would be Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s more erudite brother, Lanny “The Genius” Poffo. Nothing speaks to pro-wrestling’s conception of the life of the mind quite like The Genius: a mincing, snobbish coward who spoke in rhyme and was universally hated. 

The modern heir to The Genius was Chris Nowinski, a more heteronormative snobbish coward who may not have worn academic robes and a mortarboard, but did constantly boast of his Harvard degree. The difference was that Nowinski does really have a Harvard degree (a BA in sociology, 2000). And since being forced into early retirement by a concussion, he’s been leveraging his academic and athletic connections to investigate the link between these head injuries and long-term mental health issues.

Through his Sports Legacy Institute and its partnership with Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Nowinski has been instrumental in bringing several high-profile cases of post-concussion syndrome in former NFL players to light. And though neuroscientists have known about behavioral changes associated with brain injuries like concussions for many years, the message seems to be only now getting though to those who can act on it.

Last Friday, the NFL player’s union announced that is forming a commission to study the long-term effect of concussions on its players. This announcement followed a similar one from Congress the week before, as well as promises from three current NFL players to donate their brains to the BU Center. 

Whether this sinks in at the level of individual players and coaches is another matter, and one that will face a big test tomorrow. Superstar Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow was badly concussed in his last game, but intends to play in the big game tomorrow against LSU. And though he may have divine protection, here’s hoping he doesn’t end up like so many of Nowinski’s former colleagues, who plied their trade without the benefit of a helmet. 

Of course, if we devoted the same amount of public attention to science as we did to Tim Tebow, it might not take a former pro-wrestler to tell the world that hitting one’s brain against the inside of one’s skull might have long-term effects. Our coverage of the Nobels and National Science Medals might look a bit different, too.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published October 9, 2009

Tags medicine neuroscience prizes space

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