Posted by: The Amoeba | October 8, 2009

Waiting For Nobel

The other day, I was relaxing during the intermission of a band rehearsal, when a bandmate comes up to me and says:

“One of my old buddies just won a Nobel Prize!”

Now, you probably know this already, but just in case you didn’t: the scientific Nobel Prizes (Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Physics) are something of a holy grail for scientists. Some of us anyway … let’s establish right now that the Nobel Prize Committee spares no thoughts for amoebae, or those who work on them. These prizes are for the folk who make Really Big Contributions to the health and welfare of We the People. Funded by the inventor of the principal means, pre-1945, of blowing We the People skyhigh.

Needless to say, hearty congratulations were in order. Especially since, in this particular case, my bandmate’s glory was not entirely reflected; he had participated in early phases of the work, and then chosen a different path for his career. Which is working right well for him.

In this case, the Really Big Contribution is an understanding (I’m oversimplifying here) of how cells, including human cells, sense how old they are, and, to a degree, control that aging. This understanding plays a role in (for example) understanding cancer. Which is, in essence, a bunch of cells that don’t age and won’t quit dividing even when the rest of the body (not to mention the chemotherapy and radiation treatments) tells them not to.

With this piece of information, Medicine will make strides towards curing cancer.


Which, to some people, isn’t good enough. The Nobel discoveries aren’t curing people now, so therefore “the Nobel Prizes have long since strayed from Alfred Nobel’s original wish” and why are we taking precious space away from Viagra advertisements to talk about them?

Behind every major scientific discovery, there are a thousand, if not ten thousand, assembled facts. Behind every Big Name in the sciences, there are a thousand Ph.D.s whose names are known only to the author indices of the scientific journals, but without whom the Big Names wouldn’t be. The lone scientist working in the wilderness and coming up with The Discovery was always something of a myth, and is even more so now, when significant resources in materials and personnel are necessary to make even the anonymous research findings possible, never mind those that make News.

It’s been written that the prime mission of today’s scientist is not to serve the community, but to keep the laboratory in funds. To a degree this is true. After all, we no longer deem it appropriate for science to be conducted only by independently-wealthy gentlemen, so we now have a cadre of professionals for whom The Mortgage Payment dictates the direction of the search for Truth.

But shall We the People strip the resources from a group of people whose efforts will make a difference in our ability to survive and thrive on this planet, even if we don’t understand those efforts, in order to promote those things that we think we do understand? American Idol, for instance?

About those resources. The three Nobel Prize winners will split a prize that (before taxes, I suppose) amounts to the grandiose sum of $US1.4 million.

Let’s see. If I have my arithmetic right, and if our Nobelers do some really hard bargaining with the suppliers, that $1.4 million will get the three of them one cruise missile each. Without the launcher.

Choices, choices …

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.



  1. It’s not a nobel prize or anything, but I always thought ribosomes were nifty.

    • Having spent a couple of decades staring at their images in an electron microscope, Doug, I’d say they were more than nifty. See “mortgage payment”, supra.

  2. Well congratulations to the friend-of-a-friend, more for the achievement and discovery, than the shiny new cruise missile. That sounds like fascinating stuff, cell-wise.

    Agreed—if the human race had its priorities straight, good God, what could be achieved! But, here we are, spending our spare cash and energies on pro wrestling et al.

    • Susan, sometimes we humans remind me of a horse addicted to locoweed. The stuff is deadly, but an animal that’s taken to eating it will refuse to eat anything else. I understand that ranchers consider such animals unrecoverable, and euthanize them …

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