American Geeks Outperforming Jocks This Year

It's not the ultimate grudge match between brain and brawn, NPR Science Editor David Malakoff and NPR Sports Correspondent Tom Goldman face off in smackdown discussions over America's Nobel Prize wins in science, and how poorly American athletes performed in recent international competitions.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

American scientists scored a hat trick in Nobel prize competition this past week. U.S. lab wizards in physics, medicine and chemistry brought home the gold at a time when Americans have suffered a string of embarrassing defeats in international athletic competition. Just last month, American golfers had yet another loss in the Ryder Cup. U.S. tennis players were conspicuously absent from the winner's circle at Wimbledon, and let's not even talk about soccer's World Cup. So is the brain drain over with the Nobels? Are we now facing a brawn drain? Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent and David Malakoff is an editor with NPR's science desk. Good morning, gentleman.

DAVID MALAKOFF: Good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN: Good morning.

SEABROOK: Let me start with you, David. High fives all around in scientific communities. I have this image of physicists shaking up bottles of champagne and spraying them all over another. What's the atmosphere you're hearing? Is it...

MALAKOFF: Oh, it's - there is a lot of celebrating going on in the U.S. this week. I mean this is an incredible sweep. You know, but on the other hand, I don't think there's a lot of chanting of USA, USA either. So, you know, this burnishes the American prestige, but I think they're celebrating more the championship of ideas.

SEABROOK: Tom, are athletes feeling a little glum these days?

GOLDMAN: Well, the athletes probably feeling the sting the most are the athletes for whom international competition is important, like soccer players. But the World Baseball Classic, the Basketball World Championships, the Ryder Cup, the Davis Cup - those are all wonderful events and those are steeped in traditional, except the Baseball Classic, that was new this year. But they don't really mean that much to athletes who make fortunes in their U.S. based leagues.

Although, Andrea, as far as, you know, whether they're feeling one-upped by the so-called brainiac scientists, we're not sure on that. But you know, you never know, some elite athletes may be very interested in learning more about chemistry prize-winner Roger Kornberg and his studies of how genes are copied. Because as you may have heard, gene doping is supposed to be the next big thing.

SEABROOK: David, are the scientists pumped up with the amount of money they're making? Are they all going out and buying Lamborghinis now?

MALAKOFF: Well, you know, the Nobel Prize, this year it's about $1.4 million.

SEABROOK: How many Lamborghinis? That's like two Lamborghinis?

MALAKOFF:: Not very many Lamborghinis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALAKOFF: You know, some of the prizes are split, so you're talking 700,000 bucks. For some of these guys it's a lot of money. But frankly, for scientists who work in biomedicine or in the biotech industry, some of them have patents and other discoveries that are worth millions or tens of millions of dollars.

SEABROOK: Well, Tom, are the athletes green with envy over these, you know, this $700,000 prize that the scientists might bring home?

GOLDMAN: No. Take, for instance, the top three U.S. players who were considered flops in the recent Ryder Cup. That would be Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson for the United States. Tiger Woods has earned a shade under $10 million this year in prize money. Now, don't forget the millions in endorsements. Jim Furyk, he's made about 6.5 million; Phil Mickelson, a paltry 4.2 million. I assume that money will help soothe the pain of the Ryder Cup debacle. As a matter of fact, the week after, all of them were out doing their thing on the tour.

SEABROOK: So I'm sure, David, the money aside - comparing the money aside - these scientists must really feel like science is going in the right direction these days.

MALAKOFF: Well, you know, the funny thing is, in the United States, the irony is that the U.S. scientists are winning all of these prizes. But within the scientific community, there's tremendous hand-wringing and worrying about the future pre-eminence of American science. I mean, basically, they say there are two problems, and their problems will be really familiar to sports fans.

One problem they say is that the farm system just is not producing enough prospects. And the other problem is that we have too much reliance basically on imported superstars,

You know, on the farm system side, they say the basic problem is not enough Americans want to study math or science or engineering. I mean, here's one number to think about. This year, U.S. colleges are going to give about 140,000 degrees in science and engineering. China alone is going to give 350,000 degrees in science and engineering. So the science community's just really worried that competitors in other countries are just doing more to get better, faster.

GOLDMAN: I would like to say, conversely, that there is dancing in the streets internationally - dancing in the arenas and stadia - at the perceived demise of U.S. sports. I mean, the U.S. is always put up there as the Goliath against all these little countries, and the internal dialogue in this country, in some circles, is wow, what do we do to keep up now, to get even, to get back even or to get back on top? That's happening in basketball. We exported the game of basketball that we invented, and then the world came back and beat us at it, and they beat us at it with a more fundamentally sound game.

And so I think it's obvious, in the context of this conversation, if the USA wants to reassert itself as a sporty nation, it's obvious the kids have to stop concentrating on math and science and this stuff that's earning Nobel Prizes and start sweating and practicing more.

MALAKOFF: This reminds me of where I used to go to college, when we would lose the football games. The entire student body would stand en masse and chant: We have better SAT scores.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: All right then. David Malakoff is an editor on NPR's science desk, and Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondents. Thank you very much, gentleman.

MALAKOFF: Thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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