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KPBS Commentaries

Science Stars

Tony Gwynn will always rank as a star in San Diego. Khalil Greene, the Padres' rookie shortstop, is a new star. Myrna Loy was a star. Oprah Winfrey is a star. Julia Roberts remains one.

We cherish our own lists of stars. Stars brighten our lives through their talents and good looks.

To see athletic stars, we go to games. Actors and actresses lure us to movies and theater.


Yet it is the stars of science who most often change our lives, and they are seldom seen or heard. They avoid publicists and photographers. In laboratories and classrooms, they talk to the handful who understand their science.

In 1955, Jonas Salk evolved a polio vaccine in his lab and calmed a world of terrified parents. He became the founding star of San Diego's now distinguished science colony.

A dozen Nobel Prize winners have quietly plied their science at UCSD and The Salk, at the Scripps Research Institute and Neurosciences Institute.

When the San Diego Symphony played recently in the courtyard of the Salk, Renato Dulbecco, a Nobel laureate on the Salk faculty, was introduced and applauded.

But from the grad students thronging the upper balconies of the Salk that night, there came loud and respectful cheers. They understood what his work in genetics has meant to all mankind. To them, he is a star.


And so was Francis Crick, whose death in August brought former British colleagues to the Salk to join his widow Odile and friends at final services.

A giant illuminated image of Crick's famed double helix shone that night in his memory on the Salk courtyard wall.

At Crick's funeral, Dulbecco called his friend uncanny in his ability to identify the most advanced biological problem at any given time and to pursue it.

In San Diego, we know these stars only by name, but we understand that they are the celebrities of science.

Many appear in public forums on their campuses at Torrey Pines. Public access is part of their role. Their lives seem marked by familiar doses of the commonplace. But these stars bear marks and memories of moments of exaltation in their discoveries.

Yet I have the kind memory of a trip to our mountain cabin with Renato Dulbecco, where he took along his plumbing tools and fixed our plumbing.

Jim Sweig, a San Diego builder, treasures a memory of Francis Crick, who hired him to build a home office. Crick plunged into the project as if it were another laboratory hypothesis. He admired Sweig's tools and tried to join in the work.

Sweig left one afternoon just before replacing the office door. On the next morning, Sweig found Crick awaiting him, his hawkish, suave face rimmed with pride. Crick had worked alone...into the night..... unscrewing and screwing back hinges and finally hanging the door by himself.

Sweig debated with himself for hours, but finally told the great scientist:

"With the utmost respect for your learning skills, I should tell you that you didn't need to spend those hours with the hinges. We slip the door on and off, sir. That's what the dowels are for."