The Nobel Prize mystery
Medicine: Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for discovering how to turn genes on and off using RNA
Physics: John Mather and George Smoot, for discovering the variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation
Chemistry: Roger Kornberg, for studying the basis of transcription (how RNA passes genetic information in cells)
Economics: Edmund Phelps, for reinterpreting the relationship between inflation and unemployment in macroeconomic policy
This completes the first American sweep of the science prizes since 1983. The Literature prize will be announced tomorrow at 7 A.M. Eastern time; the Peace prize will be announced on Friday at 5 A.M. Eastern time. You can follow the announcements live on nobelprize.org.
Congratulations to all the prize recipients. Congratulations also to U.S. science funding agencies (especially the National Science Foundation), which must be enjoying seeing the work they funded and the nation they work for receive so much global recognition.
The thing that bothers me is this, though: how is it that a nation that sweeps all four Nobel Prize categories can have a public that knows so little about science? Why do almost half of people claim not to believe in evolution (as if evolution were something to be believed in, rather than something to be discovered and understood)? Why do a great number of Americans not know that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth, and not by varying distances from the Sun?
Is American scientific knowledge and understanding really the province of a few highly trained specialists, and not reaching the majority of the population? That would be sad. It doesn't help that there are powerful institutions in religion, government, and industry that want people not to understand science, but that doesn't seem like a fully satisfying explanation. Any other ideas?