Where’s My Nobel Prize?

Anne's Aster Alpinus

Anne's Aster Alpinus

The first “test tube” baby, Louise Brown, is now 32 years old and has had children of her own, albeit using an old fashion method that employed simple tools that were found around the house.      

On Monday, Robert Edwards won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine, for his work that pioneered in vitro fertilization.  His partner in discovery, Patrick Steptoe, was not eligible for this year’s Nobel, because he had already died.  The Nobel committee rightly dictates that prizes may only be awarded to living recipients; otherwise the dead of history would easily crowd out the living.     

Edwards’ work has led to the birth of four million children and counting, to parents that might not have been able to have children of their own otherwise.  Edwards’ work is not without controversy now and certainly was not then.  Not five years before Ms. Brown’s birth, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time in college.  This 1931 novel spun an apocalyptic tale of test tube born humanity, where children were more hatched than born.    

Five year’s after Ms. Brown’s birth I found myself at MIT in Boston, more specifically at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.  This division of MIT was endowed by a business man, Jack Whitehead, and at the time that I was there, was headed by the Nobel laureate David Baltimore.  Baltimore won his prize for discoveries concerning the interaction between tumor viruses and the genetic material of the cell.     

On the record, when I was in Boston, I never met nor even heard about NPR’s Car Guy’s, more the pity though for missing them when I had the opportunity to meet them, even in Harvard Square.    

The normal CDC mainframe, the Cyber, was designed in the 1960s by Seymour Cray.  It employed a 60 bit word, not 64 bit mind you, but just 60, just large enough to win the government contract that launched the series.  I first was introduced to this machine in 1972 when I attended Michigan State.  MSU had a single digit serial number machine.  A degree later, I was working at CDC.    

The Cyber Plus employed a normal 60 bit mainframe as its front end, but added a 512 bit backend.  This enormous word size was the selling point.  Boston’s hometown Digital VAX computers only had 32 bits.  If you are a geneticist and are looking at sequencing millions of genes, speed matters and the Cyber Plus looked like the ticket to that speed.  Except that it wasn’t.  It had been designed and specially built for its original purpose, cryptology, and was not easily mutable to other uses.    

I worked that summer to make the Cyber Plus a gene splicing engine, but computer architecture was working against me.  My work did not go unnoticed by the customer though.  My customer, the manager of the Whitehead computer center, reported to Baltimore.  He was ambitious too.     

He told me on more than one occasion that he wanted his Nobel too.  He felt that he had an advantage over his colleges.  He was trying to do with computers, what his Nobel competitors were still trying to do in the lab.  He was especially interested in the visualization of his work; pictures sell so much better than words.  

As a parting shot, I clued him into the Silicon Graphics workstations that we were just starting to sell.  I think that I offered him fair value for my services with that one steer.  The Cyber Plus ship was defiantly on its way down to the bottom.  He has not won any Nobel prizes as of yet, but he was young then and could still win one yet.  He is still eligible, he is still alive.

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