Nobel prizes grow in U.S. public schools

October 4, 2017

I’m an advocate of public schools. I graduated from public schools, I attended two state universities, Universities of Utah and Arizona, graduating from one. My law degree came from a private institution, George Washington University’s National Law Center. I’ve taught at public and private schools.

Public schools are better, on the whole. Public schools form a pillar of U.S. national life that we should protect, and build on, I find.

That’s not a popular view among elected officials, who generally seem hell bent on privatizing every aspect of education. We would do that at our peril, I believe.

We can argue statistics, we can argue funding and philosophy — believe me, I’ve been through it all as a student, student leader, parent, U.S. Senate staffer (to the committee that deals with education, no less), teacher and college instructor. I find fair analysis favors the public schools over private schools in almost ever circumstance.

Though I admit, it’s nice to have private schools available to meet needs of some students who cannot be fit into education any other way. Those students are few in any locality, I find.

There is one area where the quality of U.S. public schools shines like the Sun: Nobel prizes. In the 100+ years Nobels have been around, students out of U.S. public schools have been awarded a lot of those prizes. Public school alumni make up the single largest bloc of Nobel winners in most years, and perhaps for the entire period of Nobels.

I think someone should track those statistics. Most years, I’m the only one interested, and in many years I’m too deeply involved in other work to do this little hobby.

2017 seems to be off to a great start, spotlighting U.S. public school education.

Comes this Tweet from J. N. Pearce, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune:

Followed by a Tweet from a Utah teacher, Tami Pyfer, noting that Kip Thorne is not the only Utah public school kid to win recently:

Two categories of prizes have been announced already in 2017, Medicine and Physiology, and Physics.

In both categories, the prizes went to three Americans. In Medicine or Physiology, for their work on circadian rhythms, the prize went to
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young.

Physics Nobel winners Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne. 2017 Physics Laureates. Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2017

Physics Nobel winners Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne. 2017 Physics Laureates. Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2017

In Physics, for work on gravity waves, the prize went to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne.

Thorne, we already know, was born in Logan, Utah, and graduated from Logan High School. Rainer Weiss was born in Berlin, so it is unlikely he attended U.S. public schools — but I haven’t found a definitive answer to that question. All three of the Physiology or Medicine winners were born in the U.S. Michael Young was born in Miami, but attended high school in Dallas. Oddly, Dallas media haven’t picked up on that yet. Dallas has some good private schools, and some of the nation’s best public schools.

(That article from the Logan Herald-Journal notes Logan High School also graduate Lars Peter Hansen, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, in 2013.)

Nobels in Chemistry will be announced Wednesday, October 4; Literature will be announced Thursday, October 5 (this category award often goes to non-Americans); Peace will be announced Friday, October 6 (another category where U.S. kids win rarely); and the Nobel Memorial prize for Economics will be announced next Monday, October 9.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. Ill. Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2017.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. Ill. Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2017.

If you know where any of these winners attended primary and secondary education, would you let us know in comments? Let’s track to see if my hypothesis holds water in 2017. My hypothesis is that the biggest bloc of Nobel winners will be products of U.S. public schools.

As I post this, the Chemistry prize announcement is just a half-hour away. Good night!

A video about the work of Kip Thorne, from CalTech:

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Nobelist’s biography questioned: We’re still inspired

November 7, 2007

Mario Capecchi’s story of his mother’s arrest by the Gestapo, and his life on the streets of Italy as a young boy, only piqued interest in the story of his winning a Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, earlier this year.

It is such a great story, people set out to write it down in detail. Some of the details discovered, however, don’t quite square with historical records.

A group of reporters with the Associated Press uncovered the discrepancies. Realizing that the story comes from the memory of a very young child, so far the headlines and the stories have been corrective, but gently and adoringly so.

The story Capecchi has told repeatedly over the years in speeches and interviews begins when he is 3 and the Gestapo, Adolf Hitler’s secret police, snatch his mother before his very eyes and dispatch her to Dachau concentration camp. The peasant family that takes him in abandons him and he spends four years wandering about northern Italy – a street urchin, alone and begging for food.

At war’s end – on the boy’s ninth birthday – mother and son are reunited in the hospital ward where he is being treated for malnutrition and typhoid. They set sail for America where he flourishes, embarks on a brilliant research career – and goes on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine.

But The Associated Press, which set out to chronicle his extraordinary story in greater detail, has uncovered several inconsistencies and unanswered questions, chief among them whether his mother was in Dachau, and whether he really was for a long time a homeless street child.

You can read the full story at The Salt Lake Tribune.

This is a classic case. Memory differs from the facts. Human minds fill in details that would otherwise leave a mystery, and the details filled in differ from the details that can be corroborated.

This is part of what keeps history lively.

We see here also a demonstration that there is much we can never really know for sure. Historians work from imperfect records in the best of circumstances.

The director of the Dachau Memorial, Barbara Distel, said women weren’t imprisoned at Dachau until September 1943 – more than two years after Capecchi says his mother was arrested. She also said only Jewish women from eastern Europe were held in Dachau’s satellite camps.

”I do remember – I remember the Gestapo coming to the Wolfsgruben chalet,” Capecchi told AP in the interview, conducted days after his Nobel Prize was announced. ”It’s sort of like a photograph. I can tell you how many people were in the room, which ones were in uniform and which ones weren’t. Just boom. It’s there.”

Pressed to explain how he could be certain he was just 3 1/2 at the time and remember it so clearly, he stood by his account.

The big question we want answered here is this: How can we get more great people like Mario Capecchi? Can we get a few Nobelists out of the current generation of children?

No one proposes revisiting war to make kids great, so the fascination with Capecchi’s childhood is more academic, if still for inspiration.

In the end, we have a mystery. How did Capecchi get to be such a great man? There remains that great chapter near the end of the book; early chapters are missing.

Perhaps AP could put a team of reporters on a story to explain exactly how Capecchi’ s research explains what it does, and what it means down the road. That’s a story that needs to be told, too.


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