Nobel minds

Alfred Nobel as a young scientist

Nobel Minds on the World Debate, BBC World December 12 2009.  The link takes you to a series of YouTube segments of this program. I can't figure out how to get them in order, sorry.

On Nobel Minds (BBC Saturday), the efficient and amazing Zeinab Badawi powered the physics, chemistry and economics 2009 Nobel winners through a 50-minute discussion of their work, how they made their discoveries, their childhoods, life and work.  Ribosomes and telomeres seemed to dominate chemistry, CCDs and fibre optics the physics and common sense the economics.  Boyle and Smith developed the CCD sensor that allowed digital imaging, 40 years ago at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.  As Smith told it, Bell put pressure on the lab to come up with something innovative to justify its expense, and after brain-storming for an hour and a half, they came up with the CCD sensor.  Do I believe it happened just like that?  Well, no, but it was his story and he was sticking to it. 

They were all brilliant and ordinary, outstanding and humble.  They stressed that study for study's sake was what they did.  It was curiousity-driven research, not application-driven that led to their discoveries.  Ramakrishnan, one of the three Chemistry winners, also pointed out that prizes are misleading as science is done by a huge community, they all acknowledged the contributions young people in their labs make and how they facilitate the best in their students.  Boyle and Smith are very elderly and very retired and Kao, who developed fibre optic glass, has Alzheimers, but the others when asked if there was life after the Nobel prize seemed aghast at the question.  Of course, nothing has changed, they are just eager to get back to their work.

It occurred to me that in the discussion of any sort of work that is driven by interest, it is the interest itself that is the most difficult to define.  It is not enough to be useful, competant and reliable, clearly one must be driven, and not driven towards worldly success but simply towards the production of knowledge.  Other people will figure out what to do with your discoveries, and certainly do.  There was a certain amount of iconoclasty in these laureates.  They broke new ground because they didn't really care about the ground as it stood at the time.  Elinor Ostrom's work with farmers in developing countries rejected market structures as the model for land management and instead looked at such things as the family unit, or the local community governance structures.  Of course I might have this all wrong, but it appeared that she looked at the smallest units and how they work rather than meta-theory. 

I keep trying to relate such ideas to the discussion of architecture.  There isn't a Nobel prize for an architecture that improves the state of the world and contributes to peace.  There aren't even such discussions.  What actually defines 'interest' in architecture?