3:40 p.m., Oct. 26, 2009----Three University of Delaware faculty members discussed the contributions of the 2009 Nobel Prize recipients in physiology or medicine, physics and peace during a symposium Friday afternoon, Oct. 23, in the Trabant University Center Theatre.
The event is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and a second symposium will be held from 2-4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 30, also in the Trabant Theatre. At the second symposium, Brian Bahnson, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will discuss the Nobel Prize in chemistry; Monika Shafi, Elias Ahuja Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures and director of the Women's Studies Program, will discuss the literature prize; and Jeffrey Miller, professor of economics, will discuss the economics prize.
Last Friday's symposium featured comments by Zhihao Zhuang, assistant professor of chemistry, who discussed the Nobel Prize in medicine; Barry Walker, professor of physics, who discussed the physics prize; and David Wilson, assistant professor of political science and international relations, who discussed the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to President Barack Obama.
The faculty members were introduced by Douglas Doren, associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Doren also moderated the event by introducing each professor and encouraging audience participation following each presentation.
“The Nobel Prize is the most widely recognized symbol of academic achievement in the world, the prizes are given to those whose work has had a big impact,” Doren said. “This symposium gives experts from UD faculty an opportunity to talk about their perspective on the work.”
Zhuang spoke on the significance of the contributions made by Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, who will be awarded the prize in medicine for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.
In a press release accompanying the announcement, the Nobel Prize Committee noted that the three recipients “have solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation,” and that the recipients “have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes -- the telomeres -- and in an enzyme that forms them -- telomerase.”
“I would like to put out two interesting observations about this year's prize. First, this is the very first time two women scientists were awarded the prize in physiology or medicine,” Zhuang said. “This year, the prize in physiology or medicine actually is very chemical. There has been some criticism about the recent years Nobel Prize in chemistry being too biological. I guess the message from the Nobel Committee is that the traditional boundaries between chemistry and biology are very blurred.”
Zhuang also noted that the work of this year's recipients holds important promise for researchers in the fields of cancer and aging. “This makes us ask, can we target telomerase for cancer therapy,” Zhuang said. “We also have to ask if this activity can prevent cells from aging.”
Research interests for Zhuang include understanding the chemistry and biology of eukaryotic DNA damage and repair tolerance.
The groundbreaking achievements physics prize recipients Charles Kao and Willard Boyle and George Smith were the focus of Walker's presentation.
Kao was recognized for his groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication. Boyle and Smith were recognized for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit, the CCD sensor.
“If you use a cell phone to take a picture or to send it, you are using both discoveries of the Nobel Prize in Physics recipients,” Walker said. “All communication today is through fiber optics, and the impact of fiber optics in everyday life has been significant, as has been the impact of imaging.
Wilson noted that the contributions of Boyle and Smith can be seen in the use of real time surveillance devices, as well as copy machines, scanners and cell phones, with examples ranging from the use of remote sensing by the U.S. Army in Iraq to sending back images of the bow of Titanic on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Research interests for Walker include ultrafast opto-electronic technology, atoms in ultra high intensity laser fields, and atoms and molecules in perturbative multiphoton and nonperturbative strong optical fields.
While Obama, on accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, said he felt he did not deserve “to be in the company” of past winners, Wilson said the president may have been a bit too gracious.
“The committee said the 44th president was awarded the prize for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” Wilson said, adding that is something that needs to be further examined.
“We know how statesmen wage war,” Wilson said, “But how do statesmen wage peace?”
This waging of peace, Wilson noted, can be accomplished by a multitude of approaches, including fostering cooperation while identifying and building on areas of consensus.
“Statesmen go places where they are not necessarily welcome as a show of goodwill,” Wilson said. “Statesmen go places where they are not necessarily welcome as a show of good will. They often extend the hand of friendship first. They seek to build trust rather than confrontation. And, if conflict is present, they are typically motivated to resolve it, rather than win it.”
Examples of the statesmanship undertaken by President Obama that may have influenced the Nobel Prize Committee, Wilson said, include:
- The decision to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program;
- Taking diplomatic steps to reinvigorate U.S. efforts in the Israel-Palestinian peacemaking process;
- Delivering a speech in Cairo, Egypt, to help the Muslim world understand America's predicament, and also help Americans understand that we cannot allow fears and stereotypes to dictate our foreign policy;
- Ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; and
- Cancelling a planned missile-shield defense system in Eastern Europe.
Wilson said that such decisions have helped improve the image of America to a world that had come to disapprove of the country's foreign policy decisions over the past seven years.
“When the 2009 Nation Brands Index survey reported that, for the first time in the survey's history, the United States topped the list as the most admired and appreciated nation around the world, it showed that something was different,” Wilson said. “Thus, the Norwegian committee did not award President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize because he is popular, or because he is simply the U.S. president. They awarded him the prize because, through his efforts, which obviously included his campaign activities and promises, he has changed the direction of the United States and arguably the world.”
While Americans differ on whether or not Obama has done enough in less than a year in the Oval Office to warrant receiving such a prestigious award, Wilson said that perhaps it is a nudge by the committee to stay the course with his diplomatic initiatives.
“The Nobel Peace Prize is like the little white angel sitting on the shoulder fighting the little red devil,” Wilson said. “It keeps the recipient of the award on the right path, not because it's simply the right thing to do, but because the recipient is the one people look to for the courage to do it.”
Research areas for Wilson political psychology and survey research methods, and he specializes in public opinion on racial attitudes, workplace politics, and survey context effects.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson