WASHINGTON – Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek doesn't particularly like it when his wife,Betsy Devine,compares his work to Dungeons and Dragons,the popular role-playing strategy game.
But it was the only way Devine,who holds a master's degree in engineering,knew to bridge the intellectual chasm between her husband's work and Washington reporters invited to have coffee with the 2004 American Nobel laureates Wednesday.
The seven Americans and one Norwegian winner living stateside chatted with reporters before meeting with President Bush en route to Stockholm,Sweden,for the Dec. 10 award ceremony.
These super-scientists often find it difficult to explain their work for public consumption,and sometimes rely on families and spouses to interpret.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding by the public about science research. I've gotten pretty used to explaining it in simple terms,” said Linda Buck,one of two recipients of the physiology or medicine prize. She and colleague Richard Axel were recognized for their olfactory system discoveries,which were decades in the making.
Some scientists acknowledged that it can be a frustrating and toilsome task to explain their life's work in obscure realms over dinner or cocktails.
“I do this a lot with my wife,” said David Gross,one of three physics prize recipients. “She's a science writer. If I can explain it to her,I can explain it.”
Gross said that it's “very hard” for a scientist to learn to talk to the public,and that most are tripped up by jargon.
“A certain patience is required,” Wilczek said. “Sometimes it's disturbing,the lack of science understanding,but I enjoy trying to explain things to the public.”
Wilczek cited pictures and metaphors as his biggest helpmates. “I also try to reach out to other scientists in high-energy physics,” he said. “It's very expensive,what we do,and because we ask for a lot,I think we should explain ourselves.”
He,along with Gross and David Politzer,was recognized for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in strong force interaction theory. Their discovery explains the fluctuation of forces affecting quarks in an atom's nucleus.
Some people attending the event theorized that Americans fail to grasp scientific concepts because of a lack of education,even though they're familiar with the Nobel Prize and its substantial award money – more than $1 million in each category.
Leif Pagrotsky,Swedish minister for education and culture,said Sweden spends more money per capita on science research than any other country. He and Roger Brent,Buck's husband,said this may also explain why many Americans are ignorant about science.
“There's some really bright kid out there in Oakland who's going to be a really successful CEO. And vaguely unhappy – because he should have been a scientist,” Brent said. “They just don't offer it in schools.”
The only “social contract” high-level scientists have with the public,Brent said,is through biochemistry. He characterized the relationship as “you give us cures for diseases,and we'll give you money.”
The prizewinners said they plan to continue work in their fields after the award ceremony,and most expressed a wish for the media to explain their doings to the public.
That doesn't mean giving up,though,said Wilczek: “I've sort of had this secret plan,after winning the Nobel Prize,to write this up for public consumption. We'll see.”