Physicist And Geneticist Are Named Winners Of Enrico Fermi Award

President Clinton's choices for the winners of the 1994-95 Enrico Fermi Award--Freeman Dyson, a professor, emeritus, of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Liane B. Russell, a geneticist who is a senior corporate fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee--reflect a changing attitude on the part of the United States government about the benefits of nuclear power, say some scientists. Th

Oct 31, 1994
Neeraja Sankaran

President Clinton's choices for the winners of the 1994-95 Enrico Fermi Award--Freeman Dyson, a professor, emeritus, of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and Liane B. Russell, a geneticist who is a senior corporate fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee--reflect a changing attitude on the part of the United States government about the benefits of nuclear power, say some scientists.

The award, the U.S.'s oldest in science and technology, was established in 1956 to honor the memory of Enrico Fermi, the leader of the group of scientists that achieved the first self-sustained, controlled nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942.

The honor was originally intended to recognize the development of applications in the field of nuclear energy and technology. Among the early winners, for example, was nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who played a central role in developing the first atomic bomb. But in the past several years, observers note, the prize has gone to scientists with theoretical interests--for instance, 1988 physics Nobelist Leon Lederman, who was a recipient in 1993.

"I believe the prize has gone more towards the theoretical side in recent years," affirms A. David Rossin, who served as assistant secretary of energy in 1986-87, and was president of the American Nuclear Society, Lagrange Park, Ill., in 1992-93. Rossin, a metallurgist and nuclear engineer, is now an independent consultant based in Los Altos Hills, Calif.

"The recipients this year are both exceptional people with exceptional accomplishments," he adds, "[but] the award should swing back to recognizing the practical and engineering applications of nuclear sciences. Fermi himself had the greatest ability to translate fundamental physics to practical applications."

Dyson recognizes a degree of irony in his being honored with the award. "The joke is that the Fermi Award was originally established for the glorification of nuclear physics and technology, and now I am being honored for being a critic," he observes.

Dyson is cited, in part, for his questioning of the risks and benefits of science and technology, including the use of nuclear energy. His book Weapons and Hope (New York, Harper and Row, 1984), in which he addressed various scientific military questions, won the National Books Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1984.

"I would have to agree with Professor Dyson," says Rossin about the change in the nature of the Fermi Award's focus, adding, however, his view that "Dyson's entries into policy issues were not convincing," and did not ultimately prove to be correct. Although not an aggressive critic of nuclear energy or policies, the other winner, Russell, is being recognized for her studies on mutagenesis and teratogenesis--investigations that led to discovery of the risks of nuclear energy, rather than its glorification. She was one of the first scientists to establish the relationship between various abnormalities of newborns who had been exposed prenatally to radiation.

Both individuals will receive their awards--a gold medal and $100,000 each--from Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary at a ceremony to be held in Washington D.C., early next year. The prize--awarded intermittently but not more than once a year--is administered by the Department of Energy, with the president making the final selection from a list of recommendations from the energy secretary.

Dyson's citation for the Fermi award also recognized his contributions to the realms of theoretical physics and his achievements in communicating science to the general public. The 70-year-old physicist's interests have included quantum electrodynamics, scattering theory, and statistical physics. "I jump around from one thing to another," he says. "Nowadays my work is more mathematical." He is well known for his early association with the renowned Richard Feynman, who went on to win the 1965 physics Nobel.

Dyson's articles for lay audiences have appeared frequently in such popular magazines as the New Yorker and Scientific American. Among his well-known books are Disturbing the Universe (New York, Harper and Row, 1979), an autobiographical work; Origins of Life (Cambridge University Press, 1986); Infinite in All Directions (Harper and Row, 1988), for which he received the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science in 1988; and, most recently, an anthology of essays titled From Eros to Gaia (New York, Pantheon Books, 1992). Last year, he also appeared in the public television science series "The Glorious Accident."

Having earned his B.A. in mathematics from Cambridge University, England, Dyson did graduate studies at Cambridge's Trinity College and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for one year each. He does not have a formal doctoral degree but has received honorary Ph.D.'s from several notable universities around the world, including Princeton University; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and the City University of London. He has been at the Institute for Advanced Study since 1953 and is currently visiting at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., as a Montgomery Fellow. He was elected as a fellow to England's Royal Society in 1952, and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1964.

Only the second woman to receive the Fermi Award, Russell, 71, is being honored for her contributions in basic genetics, radiation mutagenesis, and teratogenesis--which refers to the development of congenital defects owing to mutations induced in different stages of the embryo. In the early 1950s, Russell conducted extensive studies on the effects of prenatal radiation exposure in mice, and made specific recommendations for avoiding exposure to X-rays. In addition, she pioneered a number of mammalian mutagenesis tests currently used in various diagnostic as-says worldwide. An example is the "spot test," which Russell says uses the appearance of colored spots on the skin as an indicator of a mutation introduced in the gene of the animal.

Among her most cited papers are: L.B. Russell, "X-ray-induced developmental abnormalities in the mouse and their use in the analysis of embryological patterns," Journal of Experimental Zoology, 114:545-602, 1950; and L.B. Russell, "Genetics of mammalian sex chromosomes," Science, 133: 1795- 1803, 1961. Each paper has received more than 200 citations.

Over the years Russell has worked on characterizing various mutations induced by radiation. "Instead of throwing away [destroying] the mice, we held on to them, and today they are a very valuable mutational resource for studying various disorders," she explains.

Currently, she is studying a variety of mutations that cause such genetic disorders as polycystic kidney disease, diabetes, and congenital cleft palates in mice.

Born in Vienna, Russell attended Hunter College in New York City, where she obtained a bachelor of arts degree, summa cum laude, in 1945, and then went on to receive a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Chicago in 1949. She has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1986.