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Nattering With Nobelists: Q&A with 2006 Nobel Prize Laureates

All five of this year's science Nobel Prize laureates wax lyrical about their discoveries, their heroes, and how they plan to spend their winnings.

By Alex Stone, Coco Ballantyne, and Dave Mosher
Oct 13, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:21 AM


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To celebrate the 2006 science Nobel Prizes, DISCOVER fired a string of questions at this year's honorees. They are:

Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, who won the prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of RNA interference, or RNAi, a means by which cells use the genetic molecule RNA to silence or regulate genes;

John Mather and George Smoot, who won the physics prize for using the COBE satellite to analyze the cosmic microwave background radiation, a relic of the Big Bang and the earliest observable phase of the newborn universe;

Roger Kornberg, who captured the chemistry prize for creating the first images of cells transcribing DNA into RNA. His father, Arthur Kornberg, shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for describing how genetic information is transferred from a mother cell to its daughters.

Craig Mello 

Medicine University of Massachusetts

DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science?MELLO: Mine was doing field trips and looking for fossils. One of the things that I first remember wanting to be was a "geolisty"—that was the best I could say when I was a kid. That was right after I stopped wanting to be a fireman or a truck driver. Because my dad is a paleontologist who worked with the Smithsonian, I got to see the bones up close and the exhibits behind the scenes there.

What were you doing when you heard you'd won the Nobel? I was doing a blood-sugar check for my 6-year-old daughter, who has diabetes, so I happened to be awake. When I came back into my bedroom my wife said, "Don't answer the phone, it's a prank call," because when she picked it up before there was no answer. When I saw the phone ringing again, I knew that the Nobel was going to be announced that night or morning, so I was sort of shocked instead. I told my wife, "It might be the Nobels calling."

Who's the first person you called? I called my parents. They were thrilled, just very excited, and they said the usual congratulatory things, but my mom was very funny about it. In a glib question-as-a-joke sort of way she asked me, "Can you win it again?" My dad was more direct; he always used to say, "There's room for improvement" when he looked at my report cards.

What are you going to do with the money? I am going to be making a gift of some of the money to our public school system. But we can't afford to give all the money away. We want to use some of it to create some momentum in the field.

Whom do you most admire? This is a hard question. What I really admire are people like my daughter, Victoria, who don't give up, who have daily medical challenges and medical conditions. They go on with their lives and make the best of it, not giving up even when it's not easy.

What impact has your discovery had on the world? I think it's too early. Only in 2001 were the first applications in human cells described. This is so new that policy decisions in government haven't occurred yet—I don't think the word RNAi is in even the NIH Roadmap. It's so new, but it's such a tremendous opportunity.

One reason the Nobel community is recognizing it so early is to help publicize the discovery. We need to dramatically increase funding for this type of research, and I want the current administration to take hold of this. My dad likes to compare it to Lewis and Clark's discoveries; if you have these guys come back and say, "Hey, there's this huge continent out there," you should listen to them. This research is like the opening of a new world in medical science. People are, quite literally, dying from a lack of understanding of human disease—we are poised to understand it all. And it doesn't cost that much.

I also want to make sure it's clear that this discovery wouldn't have happened without the work of hundreds or thousands of scientists around the world—they made RNAi readily able to function with genes in organisms.

Where do you have your best ideas? The absolute best ideas come from talking to my students and colleagues. There's nothing else like it. That's what Andy and I did during the collaboration that ultimately won the prize—Andy is just full of great ideas.

What do you do when you're not doing research? I love to do things like sail and hike, but they don't give me the satisfaction of knowing the potential of something you've learned in the lab.

What do you want to do next?

I want to make a difference in the world because I believe that's what science is for.

Andrew Fire

Medicine Stanford University

DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science?FIRE: I grew up around science, actually, in an area that wasn't quite Silicon Valley but is now. There were always a lot of people around doing technological and scientific development. My father was working in communications coding theory, developing the kind of software that makes floppy disks have very few errors.

Who's the first person you called?

Partly as a consequence of not wanting to wake people up in the wee hours of the morning, I called a couple of the institutions I thought would be interested in the news. I called the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Washington and the National Institutes of Health. I also called Stanford—I figured they might have a busy day ahead of them too.

What are you going to do with the money? I'm probably going to set it aside for the moment—it's a very nice thing. The hope is that it can benefit people through research and also benefit [Craig Mello and me] by making sure we don't go bankrupt on a trip to Sweden.

What impact has your discovery had on the world? It hasn't created a revolution in day-to-day life yet, but obviously we think it's really, really interesting science. The particular impact of this will be through clinical trial treatments involving RNAi. Our research is already starting to help to guide development of treatments.

Why do you do what you do? I enjoy it. One does research as part of a bigger sense, like going to grad school or aiming for an academic career, but ultimately I wanted to help people. To sustain life in a lab, you need to enjoy day-to-day science.

Where do you have your best ideas? My sparks come from talking to other scientists. But it's not always so clear because I could be talking to anyone, ranging from high school students to people at the most hard-boiled scientific meetings. It's very hard for me to have ideas come out of a vacuum.

What do you do when you're not doing research? When I'm not at the lab, it's family time.

What's the last book you read?Duck for President by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. I read it every night for the past several weeks. It's about a duck who runs for president. I don't know if it's meant to be comedic—it's sometimes hard to tell.

John Mather

Physics NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science?

MATHER: My dad was a scientist, and he used to tell me bedtime stories about cells and genetics when I was very little. My mother's father was a bacteriologist who helped develop penicillin. When I was eight my family went to visit the American Museum of Natural History with its Hayden Planetarium, and I was already interested in astronomy but also volcanoes, dinosaurs, and evolution.

What are you going to do with the money?

I don't know, but I'll be talking with my wife about it.

Whom do you most admire?

I have a long list of favorite scientists from the old days, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, and Richard Feynman among them. In graduate school I wanted to be just like Richard Feynman, but that was not possible.

What impact has your discovery had on the world?

Now that we have seen with our own instruments how it all began—the state of the universe when it was very young—we have started to understand how it works. We are piecing together our own history from the first moments to the present time. As far as we know, humans are the only beings who care about this, but we care deeply and profoundly.

Where do you have your best ideas?

In conversation with my friends.

What do you do when you're not doing research?

I read the news, I read books occasionally, I listen to music and go to the movies, and I go to the ballet with my wife, who is a ballet teacher.

What's the last book you read?

The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington. It's scarier than any movie.

What is your favorite quote or motto?

"What seems to be a curse may be a blessing, what seems to be a blessing may be a curse." Perhaps a fictional Chinese proverb.

What do you want to do next?

Finish up the James Webb Space Telescope and get it launched and working in 2013! This project is way bigger than the COBE mission and will support and be used by thousands of astronomers around the world.

George Smoot Physics University of California at Berkeley 

DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science? SMOOT:

My mother was a science teacher, and my father was a hydrologist, so I was always being exposed to science.

What were you doing when you heard you'd won the Nobel? I was asleep until the phone rang to notify me that I had won the Nobel for Physics. 

Who's the first person you called? I started to call my family, but I e-mailed instead, as I began getting calls immediately and because I did not want to wake them up. They could sleep in even if I couldn't. 

What are you going to do with the money? I am in discussions about donating it to the University of California at Berkeley to provide fellowships for postdocs and graduate students, pending matching funding donations.

What impact has your discovery had on the world? It has had a number of impacts. First, we immediately had evidence for the seeds—initial conditions—that grew into galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Second, we realized that we had a tool with which to probe the early universe and understand its makeup, starting point, and future development. Third, it has attracted many outstanding young researchers in the field and convinced funding agencies to support further research. 

Where do you have your best ideas? While I am out walking. 

What do you do when you're not doing research? I prepare my lectures for the classes that I teach. I enjoy gardening, working on my house, and tourism—traveling and exploring. 

What are the last books you read? The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, by Lee Eisenberg; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; and The Early Middle Ages by Philip Daileader. 

What is your favorite quote or motto? "Endeavor to persevere!" and "Will that be on the exam?" 

Roger D. Kornberg Chemistry Stanford University 

DISCOVER: What was your first brush with science? KORNBERG: 

I was exposed to science from the earliest age, as it was—and is—my father's profession. What were you doing when you heard you'd won the Nobel? I was awakened from sleep at 2:30 a.m., having gone to bed at 11 p.m. after more than 50 hours without sleep, due to traveling from Israel to the United States the day before. 

Who's the first person you called? My wife, who was still in Israel, returning a week from now with our youngest child. 

What are you going to do with the money? Give half to the government, pay debts on our home, pay for our children's educations, and if there is any money remaining, replace our 20-year-old jalopy. 

What impact has your discovery had on the world? It has employed the press, entertained people at breakfast, given pleasure to friends and colleagues, and will doubtless one day have an impact on human health. 

Where do you have your best ideas? Wherever I may be, as I enjoy thinking about my work all the time. 

What's the last book you read?American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. 

What do you want to do next? More of the same!

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