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The first integrated circuit

NOVA's Tim De Chant posted this awesome photo of the Kilby Solid Circuit, the first working example of a miniaturized electric circuit that combined all the necessary structures onto a single chip. Back in 2000, when he won the Nobel Prize for this achievement, inventor Jack Kilby gave a really nice talk about the history of electronics and the context that lead to his creation. It's definitely worth a read.

Dark energy: No, seriously, what the heck is it?

The fun thing about the Nobel Prize in Physics is watching pundits try to explain to the public the research that won. It doesn't always go well. Physics is not, shall we say, the public's best subject. (And I include myself in that "public".) Beyond that, words that describe legitimate concepts in physics have taken on new, more fantastical meanings in science fiction, which only serves to confuse people further.

That's why I like this video produced by KQED Science. It features Lawrence Berkeley Lab astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, one of the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics, and does a nice job of explaining what "dark energy" really is, why work with dark energy is worthy of a Nobel, and what Perlmutter and his colleagues have contributed to the expansion of human knowledge.

Video Link

How do you want to be remembered?

I know we're all thinking of a different death today, but I'd like to go back for just a moment to Ralph Steinman. Steinman is the man Xeni told you about earlier this week, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine but died (of pancreatic cancer*) before the award could be made public.

Only living people can win a Nobel Prize. That rule is why neither Gandhi, nor Rosalind Franklin, is a Nobel award winner. But Steinman is going to be the exception. Technically, he won the Nobel before his untimely death, and the Committee has decided that he gets to keep it. So Ralph Steinman will be the first person to receive a Nobel Prize posthumously. (EDIT: I got this wrong, as a couple of commenters have pointed out. Rules are that you must be alive when decision is announced, but can die between then and the ceremony and still get the award. That's happened to several people. What's different with Steinman is that he was dead before the announcement, but because he died so suddenly the Nobel Committee didn't realize it until after they'd proclaimed him a winner. So Steinman is getting in under what commenter Warren_Terra calls a Schrodinger's cat clause: The Nobel Committee has decided that Steinman wasn't dead until somebody checked.)

Now, Gandhi and Franklin are the famous examples, but death has knocked a lot of people out of the Nobel running over the years. My friend David Isenberg grew up with the children of Stephen Kuffler, a neuroscientist who probably would have won, along with his colleagues, the 1981 Nobel for medicine, had he not died in 1980. On the occasion of Ralph Steinman's posthumous win, David got a really nice email from Kuffler's son, about what awards do and don't tell you about a person, and what you really want people to remember about you after you die:

... prizes are an honor and a delight to win, but of greater importance is having put forth good and constructive efforts and having done so with integrity. Since it is all too easy to strive for honor without integrity and in so doing to win awards, relying only on being awarded prizes to be considered “good” is most unfortunate.

Those of us had the good fortune of growing up around individuals who did good science, are even more fortunate in having had the greater pleasure of knowing some of those people were both good scientists and good persons. What greater honor can there be than being considered a good person, of having integrity, and having one’s efforts be considered to have been constructive. In fact, those very individuals are themselves most fortunate and honored by having been supported in their attempts to fulfill their own passions. What could be a greater privilege?

Although by their very existence, prizes preclude most people from winning them, many people in addition to awardees are worthy of being awarded aspects of an awarded prizes. After all, it is only as a consequence of the minor and major contributors of all others working in our field of expertise that our own work can rise to be seen in the context of the broad fabric of our research field. Since no research is performed in a vacuum, the honor of any prize really goes to all those who participated in, supported and allowed exceptional work to be performed, and many of these individuals are not even scientists. In the end we can hope that we each one who contributes is a winner in our own domain.

Great science lecture series in Minnesota

If you live anywhere near St. Peter, Minnesota, I highly recommend taking tomorrow and Wednesday off from work to attend the 47th Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. Every year, the school brings in eminent scientists from around the country for a two-day public lecture series centered around a theme. This year, it's "The Brain and Being Human." Presentations will cover everything from the merging of mind and machine, to therapies for autism and depression, to everyday applications of neuroscience in the real world.