Scientists Fêted at 190th Annual Franklin Award Ceremony

Previous Franklin Laureates included:
• 1889, 1899, 1915: Thomas Alva Edison. For the telephone, electricity, phonograph and more inventions.
1894: Nikola Tesla. For high-frequency alternating electrical current.
1909: Marie and Pierre Curie. For the discovery of radium.
1912: Alexander Graham Bell: For the electrical transmission of articulate speech.
1914, 1933: Orville Wright. For the arts and science of aviation.
1918: Guglielmo Marconi. For the application of radio waves to communication.
1935: Albert Einstein. For work on relativity and the photo-electric effect.
1939: Edwin Hubble. For studies of extra-galactic nebulae.
• 1953: Frank Lloyd Wright. For contributions to architecture including Philadelphia’s Beth Shalom Congregation.
• 1970: Jacques Cousteau. For placing man in the sea as a free agent.
• 1981: Stephen Hawking. For contributions to the theory of general relativity and black holes.
• 1999: Noam Chomsky. For contributions to linguistics and computer science, and insight into human thought processes.
• 2003: Jane Goodall. For pioneering studies with chimpanzees.
2008: Judea Pearl (father of Daniel Pearl) for work in computers and cognitive science.


UCLA professor Judea Pearl created the first general algorithms for computing and reasoning with uncertain evidence, allowing computers to uncover associations and causal connections hidden within millions of observations.

Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute has been presenting the Benjamin Franklin Medal to leaders in science and engineering since 1824. It is the longest running science award in the United States; its history eclipses the Nobel Prize which was first awarded in 1901. This year’s distinguished laureates join the ranks of some of the most celebrated scientists and engineers in history who have come to Philadelphia to receive the Franklin Institute Award. (See sidebar on the right.)

As master of ceremonies for the fifth consecutive year, Bob Schieffer pointed out past laureates who were in attendance before the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at the Franklin Institute. Schieffer is the moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation and has interviewed every US President since Richard Nixon. He enjoyed the chance to return to Philadelphia:

I interview people in Washington. Not much happens there anymore. [But] these [scientists]  are people who get things done…. As Franklin said: “An investment is knowledge pays the best dividends.”

Physics Award

Daniel Kleppner is one of the great Jewish minds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He designed the precision hydrogen maser clocks which made today’s global positioning system (GPS) possible. He invented these clocks for an entirely different reason — to prove that time is slowed down by gravity as predicted by Franklin Award laureate Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Kleppner also devised techniques to create and manipulate Rydberg atoms. In recent years, Kleppner was indispensable in the creation of the long-sought Bose-Einstein condensate predicted by Einstein nearly a century ago. This is a rare and curious state of matter that is possible only at extremely low temperatures and may be instrumental to work in quantum computing.

Mechanical Engineering Award

Ali Hasan Nayfeh (VPI — Univ. Jordan) had a surprising journey to academic acclaim. He was born to illiterate parents in the Arab village of Tulkarm (טולכרם) during the British mandate of Palestine. (10 miles East of Netanya between Tel Aviv and Haifa). He quipped that if his father had listened to the local wise men he “would have been a camel driver” instead of a leading mechanical engineer. However, his mother encouraged him to study in the United States saying “Go ahead, but do not come back without earning the highest degrees.” He started at San Mateo Community College but followed his mother’s advice, earning his BS, MS and Ph.D. from Stanford University in four and a half years. He returned to the Middle East and founded the engineering school at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan.

In a broad sense, Nayfeh’s specialty is about finding some kind of order and predictability in seeming chaos, whether in the form of vibrations and sounds occurring in jet and rocket engines, the movement of water around ships, or the oscillations of huge structures such as cranes and skyscrapers. Unless well modeled, dangerous consequences may result: A bridge may collapse; a ship may break apart; a building may fall; a plane may crash. Nayfeh’s developed new analytic methods  using multiple time scales in perturbation analysis for the solution of the nonlinear differential equations at the heart of these phenomena.

More biographies and videos follow the jump.
Life Science Award

Joachim Frank was born during World War II in Siegen, Germany. He has vivid memories of staying in bomb shelters during allied bombing raids and wonders whether the uncertainty of war creating a need for order in his mind which led to his scientific investigations. According to Karpas Mossman:

As an 8-year-old boy, Frank was fascinated by science and conducted chemistry experiments under the veranda of his family’s house. Frank, like many scientists of a certain age, entered physics through the portal of amateur AM radio. “When I was 12 or 13,” he recalls, “I bought the first stuff for building radios-very small devices. Later I took old radios apart and reassembled them.”

Frank studied earned his Ph.D. in 1970 under the direction of Walter Hoppe, an X-ray crystallographer, in Munich at the Max Planck Institute für Eiweissund Lederforschung.

One of the professors on the examining board, impressed, nominated him for the prestigious Harkness fellowship. Under the terms of the Harkness, Frank was funded for two years’ work in the United States at any laboratory that would have him, plus a generous stipend for traveling. On arrival in the United States, Frank headed for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. The JPL might seem to be an odd destination for a specialist in microscopy, but “at the time,” Frank says, “they were the leading people in the world in image processing.” He was able to adopt the JPL software, to which he made his own electron-microscope-specific improvements.

The Franklin Institute’s award committee cited

Joachim Frank for the development of Cryo-Electron Microscopy [and] for using this technology to investigate the structure of large organic molecules at high resolution, and for discoveries regarding the mechanism of protein synthesis in cells.

Much of biology comes down to studying the smaller pieces of the larger whole: the structure and workings of DNA, RNA, the synthesis and folding of the proteins through which all life’s workings are accomplished. But these intricate processes occur at a level of existence that requires sophisticated techniques to capture, study, and ultimately understand. Joachim Frank has dedicated his career to extending the vision of science to previously unseen layers and depths.

Ever since its invention, electron microscopy (EM) has been one of science’s most powerful tools. Using a beam of electrons to probe matter at infinitesimal scales impossible with light microscopy, it has revolutionized the study of both the living and non-living universe. But it has its limitations, particularly in biology, where the radiation and hard vacuum needed for EM are anathema to living cells. Examining biological samples with EM generally means working with dead cells with a somewhat distorted structure unlike those in their native state. While dead cells are useful, their study doesn’t allow in vivo visualization of living processes. Using the techniques of cryo-electron microscopy and single-particle reconstruction, Frank has overcome these difficulties and accomplished unprecedented feats of structural biology, including some of the most detailed images yet seen of the ribosome and its workings.

The ribosome, the complex molecular machine that translates messenger RNA into functional proteins, has been a central touchstone for most of Frank’s work, both as a testing ground for the development of his microscopy and single-particle imaging techniques and as an object of study in its own right. Because the ribosome lacks the convenient crystallographic symmetry of other biological macro-molecules, it has proven notoriously difficult to fully visualize at high resolution. However, Frank made major strides in overcoming that problem. Devising techniques by which 2-D images from various angles (i.e., “single particles”) could be combined and averaged to create 3-D images, Frank the first three-dimensional images of the ribosome. He went on to develop the SPIDER software suite for the single-particle reconstruction of molecular structures, now used by researchers worldwide. In cryo-electron microscopy, a sample is examined after being frozen in vitreous (uncrystallized) ice, allowing biological macromolecules to be examined in their natural state without staining or other artifacts that can obscure structural detail. Frank used his image processing techniques in conjunction with cryo-EM to visualize the ribosome in action, showing protein synthesis as it happens. Perhaps his most notable achievement along these lines has been his discovery of the “ratcheting” motion that moves tRNA and mRNA through different parts of the ribosome during translocation.

Joachim Frank is a professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University in New York City. His lab is located at Columbia University Medical Center. He is married to Carol Saginaw, a Jewish woman from Michigan.

While I was speaking to him at the Franklin Institute, a guest came by to show him a necklace that she was wearing. The pendant on the necklace was a 3-d model of the ribosome structure which Frank had discovered from thousands of images. Indeed, Frank spoke in the institute’s video of the beauty in nature that can only be appreciated through science. Driving through the forest shortly after his discovery of the “ratcheting” motion of the two components of the ribosome he thought to himself how many trees there were, each with thousands of leaves, each with millions of cells, each with thousands of ribosomes constantly dancing in this “ratcheting” motion as they build new proteins and he felt privileged to have made the discovery which allowed him to be able to appreciate these processes which go on around us and inside us all the time.

Chemistry Award

Harvard Professor Christopher T. Walsh revolutionized “the development of antibiotics for the treatment of disease and provided the foundation for the new field of Chemical Biology.”

Earth and Environmental Science Award

Lisa Tauxe (Scripps, University of California San Deigo) developed “observational techniques and theoretical models providing an improved understanding of the behavior of, and variations in intensity of, the Earth’s magnetic field through geologic time.”


Electrical Engineering Award

Until recently magnetic media stored information “longitudinally” as magnetic signals arranged end-to-end on magnetic disks or tapes. However, technology had already approached the theoretical density limit as nearby magnetic dipoles naturally repel each other making further miniaturization impossible without a new paradigm. Instead, Shunichi Iwaski (Tohoku) and Mark Kryder (Carnegie Mellon) arranged the magnetic signals side-by-side, that is perpendicular to the magnetic media, boosting capacity by orders of magnitude. Seagate commercialized the first PRM hard drive in 2006 and now “virtually all hard disk drives operate with PRM principles”.


Bower Science Awards

Additionally since 1990, the Franklin Institute has bestowed the Bower Science Awards made possible by a bequest by the late Philadelphia chemical manufacturer Henry Bower. The Bower Award for Achievement in Science includes a $250,000 prize, one of the most significant scientific prizes in the U.S.

Edmund M. Clark (Harvard) led in “the conception and development of techniques for automatically verifying the correctness of a broad array of computer systems, including those found in transportation, communications, and medicine.”

William H. George (Carnegie Mellon) was honored for “his visionary leadership of Medtronic Corporation, his promotion and writings on corporate social responsibility and leadership, as well as his extraordinary philanthropic contributions to education and health care through The George Family Foundation.”

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