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Schawlow, Djerassi honored with national medals of science, technology

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped conceive the laser and the chemist who made both birth control and safe pest control practical with the use of hormones were honored Sept. 16 with the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology.

In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Bush presented the nation's highest honor in science to Arthur Schawlow, one of 20 recipients this year. The highest award for technological achievement went to Carl Djerassi, one of 13 recipients in 1991.

The National Medal of Science honors scientists for the total impact of their work on the present state of physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, behavioral or social sciences. Schawlow is Stanford's 19th Medal of Science holder; two others are affiliated with the Hoover Institution.

The National Medal of Technology honors contributions to the well-being of the United States through the development or commercialization of technology or the establishment of a technically trained work force. Djerassi is the third Stanford faculty member to receive the Technology Medal since it was first awarded in 1985. He received the National Medal of Science in 1973.

Laser's surprising uses

Schawlow, 70, received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1981 for his contributions to the development of laser spectroscopy, the examination of substances by how they reflect or absorb light. He and his brother-in-law, Charles Townes, now a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, published their first paper showing how to build a laser at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1958.

Since that time, he said, his work has concentrated on the "pure science" of laser spectroscopy, developing techniques to improve lasers by tuning them more sharply. For example, he and Theodore Hansch found ways to use laser light to observe very fine details -- even single atoms -- partly by eliminating the broadening of the spectral lines of light caused by the thermal motion of atoms and molecules. Among these methods was laser cooling, which opened up a new field of study in 1975.

"We have let the applications come along later from people who know their needs," Schawlow said. The results have sometimes been surprising.

"In the beginning of lasers, science-fiction writers and journalists assumed they would be used for a death ray," Schawlow said. "There still aren't any effective laser weapons."

Instead, eye doctors saw ways they could use laser light for eye surgery to stop retinal detachment. Sound engineers learned to use lasers to record on compact discs -- a result that pleases Schawlow, a jazz enthusiast who in recent years has taught the "Physics of Music."

And recently he discovered one way it contributes to improved human nutrition. Schawlow and a graduate student jokingly demonstrated to a television reporter the ability of a laser to peel a potato in 1965, he said.

"Then, this July, I read in the Wall Street Journal that the Heinz Co. has installed three 25,000-watt lasers each costing $1 million, to peel a potato in one second and take less potato with the skin," Schawlow said.

The National Medal of Science comes at a time of difficult adjustments for the physicist, whose wife, Aurelia, was killed in an automobile accident May 6. He will retire Oct. 1 from teaching but will maintain a small lab at Stanford, and will continue to experiment with computers and other devices that might assist his son, Artie, who is autistic, in communicating.

Schawlow used most of his Nobel Prize in 1981 to help found California Vocations in Paradise, Calif., for autistic adults.

The cockroach on the Pill

Djerassi, 67, was honored "for his broad technological contributions to solving environmental problems; and for his initiatives in developing novel practical approaches to insect control that are biodegradable and harmless."

Best known as the leader of the scientific team that first synthesized a practical oral contraceptive, Djerassi later founded Zoecon Corp. to apply the same principle -- disrupting basic hormonal cycles -- to make "biorational" pesticides with a minimal impact on the environment.

Zoecon scientists developed such chemicals as Methoprene, an ingredient now found in most household flea and cockroach sprays that mimics a hormone found only in insects. It prevents juvenile insects from developing into reproducing adults, without harming other animals or humans.

The parallel between these two lines of work has led more than one reporter to ask, "But tell me, doctor, how do you get a cockroach to take the Pill?"

A self-described "intellectual polygamist," Djerassi has been both a university research scientist and industrialist for much of his career, a poet and novelist for the past decade.

Among his awards have been the Priestley Medal, the Perkin Medal, the Roussel Prize, the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and the first National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science.

As an organic chemist, Djerassi is co-author of more than 1,100 scientific articles and seven monographs. He shared in the invention of pyribenzamine, one of the first antihistamines, and in the first successful synthesis of cortisone. He has had a hand in developing some of the tools that scientists now use to characterize chemical substances, as well as the computer artificial intelligence used to analyze them.

He has worked with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from 52 countries, and teaches undergraduates in Stanford's Human Biology and Feminist Studies programs.

As an industrialist, Djerassi has played a major role in several research-oriented corporations. At the pharmaceutical firm Syntex Corp., he led the research that scored that firm's early successes, including the synthesis of the contraceptive Norethindrone. The company moved to the Stanford Industrial Park from Mexico City after Djerassi accepted a professorship at Stanford in 1959.

He served for a time as president of Syntex's research division and helped found several spinoff companies, including SYVA, an innovator in medical diagnostics, and Zoecon.

For many years he maintained a half-time appointment at Stanford to keep his corporate work separate from his university research.

Djerassi is a collector of art and founder of an artists' resident colony in Woodside, Calif. He also writes in a genre he calls "science-in- fiction," using fiction to explore the subcultures of science. His books include collections of short stories and poems; two novels, Cantor's Dilemma (Doubleday, 1989) and The Bourbaki Gambit (in press) and an autobiography, The Pill, Pigmy Chimps and Degas' Horse (to be published by Basic Books in 1992).

This year, Djerassi closed his Stanford research laboratory. He plans to continue teaching and to devote more time to writing. He currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, English professor Diane Middlebrook.


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