Date: July 1st, 2002
Nearly 80 years ago, a grade school teacher told her class: "Each of you has special potential and talents. One of your responsibilities is to find out what those are and to use them."
Philip Abelson, a boy in her class, remembered those words. Now an accomplished scientist and public commentator, Dr. Abelson continues to fulfill that responsibility by exploring and influencing the world of science even as he nears his 90s.
As the editor of Science magazine for 22 years, Abelson wrote some 600 editorials addressing the public debate over scientific research. His name is often connected with his work on such well-known projects as the powering of nuclear submarines and the Manhattan Project.
"It would be no exaggeration to say that he is among a handful of the most important living scientists," said Ellis Rubinstein, the current editor of Science.
Abelson has won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science, the National Science Board's Vannevar Bush Award, and the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal. In his honor, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) established the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize to recognize scientific achievement.
Today, Abelson coordinates his activities from his office at AAAS. He downplays his official capacity with the organization, calling himself an "honorary old fellow." According to AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, however, Abelson's positions as senior advisor and deputy editor are far more than window dressing.
"There is a steady line of people, beginning with me, coming to seek his advice on programmatic, scientific, and editorial issues. His experience and insights have been tremendously useful as we chart the AAAS course into the future. And he's still proposing and implementing new programmatic initiatives every year," Leshner said.
Abelson is currently working with colleagues to plan a one-day seminar on human health, a favorite topic of his.
"The more we learn about the human body, the more we learn what a remarkable machine it is," he said. "People don't realize what privileged characters they are. Then they go and abuse their bodies."
Abelson governs his own life by simple, practical guidelines. Proper diet and exercise, for example, are an important part of his daily routine. A fruit cocktail prepared in the blender always follows his morning regimen of speed-walking four miles.
Physical health is only part of the picture for Abelson, however. He subscribes to about a dozen different scientific journals, and scans them every day for information he finds worthy of further study. Abelson credits his father, a civil engineer, for this passion for information.
"He had certain principles. He kept up with new engineering methods. He sort of set an example for his boy," Abelson said.
The principles introduced by his father were well ingrained by the time Abelson reached adulthood. As a chemistry student at what was then Washington State College in Pullman, Wash., he stayed ahead of the curve with strict self-discipline. While most students would put off reading the lab manuals outlining the experiments they were to conduct until they got to the lab to conduct them, Abelson would read the manuals the night before, so he arrived at the lab with a plan of attack for that particular day's work.
Such an efficient approach to his coursework enabled Abelson to complete a semester's worth of work early and spend the rest of the time performing experiments of his own choosing. Even today, he sits down daily to make a list of a half-dozen tasks he would like to accomplish that day, then prioritizes them.
"You get in the habit of planning your activities to get as much accomplished as possible during the day," he said.
This method has proved useful for him as he has risen as a star among brilliant peers. As his reputation grew, he found himself with demands on his time and choices to make.
"With the times, the opportunities change," he said. "Within the scientific enterprise, there are always new developments. As you achieve something, people want you to serve on committees somewhere else. The picture keeps evolving."