Sunday, April 15, 2007

Giant Friends

The 2006 Nobel Prize winners in physics, John Mathers and George Smoot, gave a special Nobel Prize Symposium this morning. Each winner spoke for about half an hour and then answered questions about the history of their prize-winning work on the cosmic microwave background radiation.
More about their work

(I really wanted to ask them if they were relieved to have been awarded 2 extra years of life, but I thought that might be inappropriate...)

This afternoon David Kestenbaum, currently a science reporter for National Public Radio, gave a lunchtime talk on the failure of the 17th street canal in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.
Listen / read his NPR report

Although the Nobel Prize Symposium and the lunchtime talk were on totally different subjects, a common theme stood out to me.

Transformational projects like the building of the New Orleans levees and large, space-based instruments used to investigate the cosmic microwave background ration aren't solo efforts.

Not only are engineers and scientists involved, but politicians, funding agencies, competitors, interns, journalists, citizens... As Kestenbaum pointed out and the picture of the levee breach so dramatically and tragically illustrates, it only takes a failure in one small area to create a big disaster. Smoot and Mathers' success (as they would tell you and as they told us in the talk) depended on the great work of many others.

Newton is famous for his line, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,"

but a more fitting line for the interconnected society of today might be, "If I have seen further, it is only by having lots of giant friends all across society."

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