Nobelists Enchant an Admiring Crowd

Eight Hundred People Packed Dwinelle Hall and Three Overflow Rooms to Witness the Rare Gathering

by Marie Felde

As a campus, Berkeley proudly embraces its Nobel Laureates. But what does this collection of brilliant scholars really mean to the undergraduates who pass through, or the staff who rarely venture into a classroom, or the faculty whose interests are far afield of the nobelists' expertise?

A great deal, by all appearances.

At least that's the impression one took home following the first-ever public gathering of five of our Nobel Prize winners.

More than 800 people packed Dwinelle Hall on the evening of Sept. 27. Those who couldn't get into the main auditorium poured into 145 Dwinelle to watch a simulcast, and when it filled, they occupied two overflow rooms in the basement.

The five Nobel Prize winners spoke for two hours. At the end, these grand men of accomplishment seemed as thrilled by the experience as the audience, which thanked them with a standing ovation and a rush for autographs.

Gathered by UC Berkeley Extension, which sponsored the free public discussion, physicists Owen Chamberlain and Charles Townes joined chemist Glenn Seaborg, economist John Harsanyi and poet Czelaw Milosz on the lecture stage of 155 Dwinelle.

With questions gently posed by the Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ, their thoughtful, good-humored, down-to-earth responses were equally enlightening and enchanting.

Chamberlain was perhaps the most surprising. In a bright red shirt setting off his thin white hair and beard, his apparent frailness all but disappeared as he straightened himself to speak into the microphone, displaying a fine talent for storytelling.

At 75, it has been 36 years since he won the Nobel Prize in physics with Emilio Segrè for their work in creating anti-protons. When the panel was asked to describe the pitfalls and breakthroughs on the way to the Nobel, he responded: "We ought to get in here somewhere the element of luck."

Seaborg, whose list of accomplishments includes a stint as Berkeley chancellor, entertained the audience with his unexpected, but delightful impersonation of John F. Kennedy calling to offer him the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Townes relayed how he was told by his department chair at Stanford that his work didn't have much promise. "Fortunately," he told the audience, "I was an associate professor and had tenure." And a few years later, he had a Nobel Prize for work that led to the development of the laser.

Later, the Nobelists were asked to say something about how their work had changed their fields and the world.

The men, ranging in age from 75 to 84, had spent long lifetimes isolated in labs, or crunching numbers in complicated mathematical equations, or, in Milosz's case, writing poetry at times when loneliness was his only companion. And yet, for each one of them, it was the human impact of their work--not the scientific glory--that they focused on.

"When a scientist comes by and tells me a laser saved his sight," Townes said, it is a very personal and very emotional moment.

"Poetry doesn't change anything in the world," said Milosz in his thick Lithuanian accent. But then the 1980 Nobel Prize winner in Literature added that he does have a tangible sense "that my poetry helps people."

Seaborg, whose discovery of transuranium elements brought him a Nobel in chemistry in 1951, ran down a long line of positive results of his work. The discovery of plutonium, he said, "prevented the advent of World War III."

But Seaborg concluded with a tale of his ill mother. An early use of Iodine 131, he said, "saved my mother's life."

Harsanyi, who is Berkeley's newest laureate, receiving the 1994 prize in economics for game theory, said its greatest value is that it provides a practical way to use economic theory.

"When we understand better how economics works," said Harsanyi, "there's a better chance it will work properly" and help private citizens and governments "make the right decisions."

Chamberlain seized the question to say, "This reminds me of a bumper sticker I have: Every war is a civil war." We can't forget, he said, that in any conflict, "you're taking potshots at your brothers and sisters."

Asked to look ahead, they had no trouble seeing an exciting future for scientific discovery.

"It will be in the biological sciences because there's a wondrous world we've only started to look at," said Chamberlain.

Seaborg agreed. "The main discoveries in science...will be biology and biochemistry. It is possible to learn a lot more about the life processes" to prevent disease, to cure disease and "possibly create life," he said.

Harsanyi said, "I hope economies will progress so that the poorer countries can catch up with the richer ones."

Townes said he sees a future of space travel and occupations of other worlds.

He said he once calculated the cost of putting an atmosphere on the moon at $5,000 an acre.

"That's not so bad, though my figures could be wrong," he said, with a smile.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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