Nobel prizes in the classroom

October 8, 2007

One of my elementary teachers used to make a big deal of the Nobel Prizes every year. We’d get the newspaper clips on the prizes, calculate how much they were worth, and discuss what the people did to win them.

Nobel Prize medallion, from Deccan Herald

Several years ago I started offering grade boosts to economics students who could predict the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. One year I actually had to pay up, after another teacher discovered a Nobel handicapping site, and one student got very, very lucky. What other uses can you find?

I especially remember the prize to Penzias and Wilson in Physics in 1978, because it meant we didn’t have to study Steady State any longer (and I’d always found that description confusing). Steady State was still in some books, more than a decade after their discovery of Big Bang.

Here’s the schedule for Nobel announcements, over the next week or so:

Announcements of the 2007 Nobel Prizes and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel will be held on the following dates:
Physiology or Medicine – Monday, October 8, 11:30 a.m. CET (at the earliest)
Physics – Tuesday, October 9, 11:45 a.m. CET (at the earliest)
Chemistry – Wednesday, October 10, 11:45 a.m. CET (at the earliest)
Literature – Thursday, October 11, 1:00 p.m. CET (at the earliest)
Peace – Friday, October 12, 11:00 a.m. CET
Economics – Monday, October 15, 1:00 p.m. CET (at the earliest)

While working in education policy years back I noticed that Nobel winners come disproportionately from the U.S., and disproportionately from the public schools. Watching such trends tends to be a practice of journals outside the U.S., however, such as the Times of India:

Americans tend to dominate the science prizes and last year they made a clean sweep, taking the medicine, physics, chemistry and economics awards. Read the rest of this entry »

Nobels: Medicine prize for gene knockout tools

October 8, 2007

My general predictions about Nobel Prizes are way off after the first announcement today.

The London Telegraph announced it:

The Nobel prize for medicine is shared today by Mario Capecchi, Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies for their work on stem cells and genetic manipulation that has had a profound impact, from basic medical research to the development of new treatments.

Although stem cells are one of the hottest fields in science today for their potential for growing replacement cells and tissue for a wide range of diseases, the prestigious 10 million Swedish crown (£750,000) prize recognised the international team’s work for genetically manipulating stem cells to find out what genes do in the body and to provide animal versions of human disease to help hone understanding and test new treatments.

Capecchi was born in Italy and is a US citizen. Both Evans and Smithies are British-born. Sir Martin is known for his pioneering work on stem cells in mice, while Capecci and Smithies showed how genes could be modified.

The Nobel Committee press release gives their formal identification and affiliations:

Mario R. Capecchi, born 1937 in Italy, US citizen, PhD in Biophysics 1967, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.

Sir Martin J. Evans, born 1941 in Great Britain, British citizen, PhD in Anatomy and Embryology 1969, University College, London, UK. Director of the School of Biosciences and Professor of Mammalian Genetics, Cardiff University, UK.

Oliver Smithies, born 1925 in Great Britain, US citizen, PhD in Biochemistry 1951, Oxford University, UK. Excellence Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

My usual (and still standing) prediction is that most Nobel winners will be Americans, and educated in America’s public schools. Of the three announced today, one is Italian born (but a U.S. citizen now), and the other two are British.

Update: Turns out that Dr. Capecchi moved to the U.S. from Italy at the age of 9. Does anyone know where he went to elementary, junior high and high school?

Capecchi’s success belies his very difficult upbringing in war-torn Italy during World War II. At the age of four, he was separated from his mother, who was taken by the Gestapo to the Dachau concentration camp. For the next four-and-a half years, he lived on the streets, fending for himself by begging and stealing. The two reunited when Capecchi was nine, and they soon moved to the United States, where he began elementary school without knowing how to read or write or how to speak English.

More prizes to come.


Sputnik on newsreel

October 8, 2007

We still had movie newsreels in 1957. ASAP Retro, a part of Associated Press, I think, features the classic Ed Herlihy-announced 30 second explanation of Sputnik that was seen in movie theatres across America in late 1957 and early 1958.

You’ll need a live internet link to use it in class.

I do wish that more of these newsreels were available for easy use by teachers in classrooms, say on DVD, in short segments.

Origins of secular education in New York

October 8, 2007

Mary L. Dudziak at Legal History Blog reports a new article on the rise of secular education:

Ian C. Bartrum, Vermont Law School, has posted a new article, The Origins of Secular Public Education: The New York School Controversy, 1840-1842. It is forthcoming in the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty.

The abstract from SSRN:

As the title suggests, this article explores the historical origins of secular public education, with a particular focus on the controversy surrounding the Catholic petitions for school funding in nineteenth-century New York City. The article first examines the development of Protestant nonsectarian common schools in the northeast, then turns to the New York controversy in detail, and finally explores that controversy’s legacy in state constitutions and the Supreme Court. It is particularly concerned with two ideas generated in New York: (1) Bishop John Hughes’ objection to nonsectarianism as the “sectarianism of infidelity”; and (2) New York Secretary of State John Spencer’s proposed policy of “absolute non-intervention” in school religion. The article traces these ideas through the 1960s school prayer decisions, where they appear as Justice Stewart’s objections to “the religion of secularism,” and the general contention that disestablishment requires only that the government not favor one religion over another. In the process, it examines the conceptual problems that arise when we try to enforce religious neutrality by exclusion, rather than inclusion. Ultimately, the article concludes that the Court chose exclusive neutrality, not because it best served the constitutional mandate, but because it forwarded a social policy – begun with the common schools – that treats public schools as nationalizing institutions. Thus, I contend that the Court has chosen to promote cultural assimilation over authentic freedom of conscience.

Yeah, that ought to provoke some discussion.

There once was a Union Maid

October 8, 2007

Labor Day blew away too quickly. We didn’t honor labor as we should have — nor do we ever, in my estimation. Summer, especially in a teacher’s life, is a parenthetical expression between two holidays that fail to honor the designated honorees, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Perhaps that is fitting and proper, but of what, I do not know.

Nor do I wish to live where such dishonoring is proper, or fits.

The United Auto Workers called a strike against General Motors, but a contract agreement arrived in just a couple of days. Today UAW announced a strike deadline for Chrysler, in their “pattern” bargaining, whereby the union strikes a deal with one of the Big 3, then takes that as the starting point for negotiations with the others, who usually have to keep up with the Sloans, Fords, Chryslers and Ketterings (used to be a Romney in there, remember, not to mention Kaiser and Packard and Willys).

NPR’s interviews at the GM strike featured one autoworker who remembered the last GM strike, when 400,000 workers left the assembly lines to man the picket lines. This time? He said he realized the stakes when they announced 74,000 workers would strike. What happened to the other 326,000 people? Gone to competition, mechanization, globalization, and general political wind changes.

Mrs. Cornelius wrote at A Shrewdness of Apes about the labor dream, the union dream, that some of us still remember (not enough of us). I won’t say the dream is shattered. It is not a dream shared by as many people any more.

When you read her essay, note a key part of it, a piece of almost every story about a working, union family in the U.S.: Mrs. Cornelius was the first in her family to graduate from college. Once upon a time a good, basic union job offered the opportunity to raise a family, buy a house to make a home, and send the kids to school and to college, in the hope and expectation that the children would have a better life than the parents as a result of those educational opportunities.

That shared belief is gone. America suffers for its loss.

I wonder whether there is a correlation between the loss of those two shared value planks that once formed the platform of our national morality, the respect for unions and the hope that hard work would help the next generation, and the understanding that educational opportunities would and should be available.

When did we lose those dreams? I first became aware when I left the Senate Labor Committee; while we generally had a few sourpusses complaining about education as a monolithic institution at every education policy hearing, they were vastly in the minority, and their views were not views that generally pushed discussion. Touring the nation with the President‘s Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO), we kept running into people who, though not rich by any standards, had adopted the turtle-with-head-in-shell stance of the hereditary rich and other nobles, resisting change in an effort to cling to what property and privilege they had. It was in Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee that fellow driving a decade-old car phrased it succinctly: “I didn’t graduate high school, and I get along pretty well. I don’t want my kids learning stuff they don’t need.” (Lamar was chairman of PCAO.)

Then a few months later, after I moved to the U.S. Department of Education, at a speech talking about changing the ERIC Library System to increase accessibility especially for parents, the usually-angry-at-ED cluster of teachers afterward had a guy who said, “You just don’t get it — the parents don’t care. The parents don’t want their kids to get a good education if it means they can read books and see movies the parents don’t approve of.”

Pete Seeger segués Woody Guthrie’s story of the “Union Maid” into the chorus, “You can’t scare me: I’m stickin’ to the union/I’m stickin’ to the union . . . ’til the day I die.”

When did that become, “I’ve got mine, get your own?” When did the hope of Woody Guthrie give way to the experienced, cynical blues of Billie Holiday?

When did we move from communities that made schools a first priority, as in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785-1789, as in the first things pioneers did once they settled west of the Mississippi, as in the creation of the Land Grant Colleges, to communities where plucking out the bricks of the foundation of education is acceptable government policy? Utah’s pioneers prided themselves on establishing schools as a first order of business once they got to the Salt Lake Valley, in 1847. This year the Utah legislature, no longer dominated by the kids of those pioneers, voted to start unraveling that system despite it’s being a model in many ways, and successful by almost any measure, by using vouchers to take money from public schools.

And how do we make those not sticking to the union, nor sticking to any communities of shared values that emphasize building for the future, get back to the hope that we can make a better future, if we work together?

Announcements for Nobel winners started today (it’s October, after all). I’ll wager, again, that most Nobel winners will be American, and that most of the winners will be products of America’s public schools. How long can we keep that up, if we don’t dream it any more?

Mrs. Cornelius said:

There is no such thing as a job Americans won’t do. There is such a thing as a job Americans can’t afford to do on the salary offered.

God bless the working man and woman. They deserve much more than a day off from work. They deserve our respect. They are the backbone of our country.

People are so scared they won’t stick to the union, to any union. That’s not because the unions are too powerful, certainly, or it would be the other way around.

Now, excuse me, but I have to go listen to Taylor Mali again.

West Nile virus: No call for DDT

October 8, 2007

DDT-obsessed politicos look for any opportunity to slam scientists and policy makers who urge caution about using the chemical. Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla) unholy campaign against the memory of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, is only Exhibit A in how the obsession skews public policy now.

In earlier posts I’ve warned that there will be calls for more DDT use, with reports of West Nile virus spreading this season. Winter is coming slowly to the American Midwest, so mosquitoes still crop up carrying the virus. Voodoo science and junk science advocates look for such opportunities to claim that we need to “bring back” DDT, ‘since the claims of harm have been found to be false.’

No public health official, no mosquito abatement official, has asked for DDT to fight West Nile virus, even as the virus infects humans across the nation. Nor has any harm of DDT been refuted (quite the opposite — we now know of more dangers).

One reason, of course, is that DDT is not the pesticide of choice to use against West Nile vector mosquitoes. Mosquito abatement efforts aim at the larvae, where DDT use would be stupid.

A survey of the nation, in places where West Nile is a problem provides a good view of how West Nile virus is fought by public health and mosquito abatement officials. DDT is used in no case.

While you’re at it, take a look at what LeisureGuy has to say about DDT and scaria. Then wander over to, and see what scaria really looks like, in a shameless column from Paul Driessen, the author of the anti-environmentalist screed Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. According to Driessen, it appears that environmentalists have been biting Africans to spread malaria, not mosquitoes. He may exaggerate some.

West Nile virus is a great problem for people in the United States. No health official, mosquito abatement official, or anyone else in a position of responsibility, has called for DDT.

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