Many, many years ago, a now-successful American cardiologist did some work on the side that showed some strange bacteria in the stomach linings of ulcer patients. But others could not reproduce his results partly because of private agendas. He was then dissuaded from pursuing this stuff, because his main line of work was cardiology. Others came along later, discovered the bacteria all over again, and are on their way to Stockholm to receive their Nobel Prize.
There aren't many people who can even claim to be in the same league. We are, after all, talking about Nobel-worthy work.
Read this sensitive and sympathetic profile of Dr. A. Stone Freedberg, a 97-year-old retired Harvard scientist.
Dr. Marshall [one of the Nobel-winners this year], asked in a telephone interview whether he would have won his Nobel Prize if Dr. Freedberg had been able to pursue his ulcer research, said, "No way."
"If Dr. Freedberg's team had been able to culture H. pylori," Dr. Marshall said, "they would have seen that bismuth kills the bacteria and they could have developed a treatment in a few years."
He added: "They would have won the Nobel Prize about 1951 as I was getting born. So it was just a bit of bad luck for a lot of people."
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Donald McNeil Jr. has an article in the New York Times about some of the ideas being pursued by brilliant minds. If these ideas ever fructify, they would make this place a lot easier for people to live in. In particular, poor people would benefit a great deal from their success.
Just look at a sample of them: Dried vaccines that you can mix in a cup of juice, infecting mosquitos with life-shortening bacteria, studying prostitutes who are extremely resistant to HIV infection, developing cyanide-free cassavas, a kind of tuber that sustains life in Africa during hard times, developing a portable (palmtop?) diagnostic kit for use in poor areas, messing with the smell organs of mosquitoes so they leave humans alone, and many others.
They are some of the 43 research projects to be funded by the 'Grand Challenges to Global Health' program announced by Bill Gates in 2003. His 450 million dollar kitty "was to make sure that innovation wasn't reserved just for big-ticket items like cancer and heart disease".
Mr. Gates, in an interview, sidestepped a request to name his favorite projects. "Oh, I love all my children," he said.
But he remained brutally realistic about where his "children" - and the money he lavishes on them - were likely to end up. "Eighty percent of these are likely to be dead ends," he said. "But even if we have a 10 percent hit rate, it will all have been worthwhile."
Though I don't like the business or the tactics of M$, but I certainly admire the philanthropic instincts of one of its founders.
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Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Google, and Hal Varian, a Berkeley professor and consultant to Google, have a Newsweek column in which they talk about "seven key principles we use to make knowledge workers most effective."
In case you are wondering, yes, one of them is "Don't do evil".