Advancing the Frontiers of Knowledge

October 22, 2018

Global research universities nurture ideas that change the world. At Yale, our faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, pursuing knowledge that can improve lives. Supporting that enterprise through research and education is our mission and responsibility.

This month we honor one scholar and mourn the passing of another who both made extraordinary intellectual contributions to the world. William Nordhaus ’63 B.A., ’72 M.A., Sterling Professor of Economics, was awarded the 2018 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences—better known as the Nobel Prize in Economics—on October 8. And, with great sadness, we paid tribute to Thomas A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who died on October 9.

Professor Nordhaus is one of the leading economists of climate change. Celebrated for “integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis,” his imaginative research has transformed our understanding of the costs of environmental degradation and change. Yet when he began this research, few people were considering how environmental concerns interacted with economic models.

Professor Nordhaus’ pioneering research has influenced national and international thinking about how to curb carbon dioxide emissions, and it helped shape Yale’s campus carbon charge program. His insights have never been more critical as scientists warn of dire consequences if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. As the New York Times reported, “the world is becoming a laboratory for theories that Professor Nordhaus developed decades ago.”

A faculty member at Yale since 1970, Professor Steitz was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the structure and function of the ribosome, the molecular machine in cells that makes proteins. We owe the development of drugs that combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria in part to his groundbreaking research. Combining insights and methods from several fields—chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, and computational science—he helped open new pathways for scientists to explore. The Washington Post called Professor Steitz an “atomic cartographer, crafting three-dimensional maps that showed the location of tens of thousands of atoms within complex molecules.”

These faculty members and their exemplary achievements remind us of Yale’s responsibility to encourage the next generation of thinkers and scholars. The day he received the Nobel Prize, Professor Nordhaus reflected on the often “underappreciated” role of institutional support in making scholarship possible. With tremendous humility, he expressed gratitude for Yale’s support—financial, emotional, and intellectual—and for the many people who contributed to his success. And he urged us to remember what he called “the role of great institutions” in providing support for “the kind of work that this prize recognizes.”

In a different discipline, Professor Steitz reflected on the significance of institutional support for his work. In his Nobel Prize autobiography, he wrote about Yale’s facilities, equipment, and scholarly community. “A very important factor in making the quality of structural biology so excellent at Yale beginning in the 1970s was the shared computation and x-ray facility, the ‘core’ laboratory, and the many interactions it facilitated,” Professor Steitz recalled. These “provided perhaps the best environment in the world for doing structural biology in general and determining the structure of the ribosome in particular.”

Yale’s commitment to excellent and innovative scholarship is as strong as ever. Our support takes many forms, such as investing in cutting-edge technology and building thoughtful physical spaces that nurture collaboration. The goal is to cultivate a community of learning where new ideas flourish.

As we celebrate our university’s most recent Nobel laureate and reflect on another’s passing, I am grateful to the Yale scholars who are changing our view of the world—from the subatomic level to the distant planets beyond—creating knowledge and understanding to benefit humanity.