Echo Foundation honors Jerry Richardson, Nobel chemists

Justice. Tolerance. Humanity.

The Echo Foundation motto hung over the McGlohon Theater stage Wednesday night through tears and thunder, through scientific wisdom and a singalong from “The Sound of Music,” through the honoring of a German hero dead for 70 years and a local hero in his late 70s.

The thunder arose from the West Mecklenburg High School marching band, whose drum and cymbal corps came out of nowhere to welcome Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. The tears also came out of nowhere, as Richardson broke down while accepting the Echo Award Against Indifference.

He began by recalling Wofford College, where “I graduated with a C average, and what I learned was that you had to earn more money than you spent.” He praised his adopted home town: “In Charlotte, there are constant acts of kindness every day. … And we can do more.”

His chest heaved and his voice cracked as he suddenly addressed the hot-potato issue in front of the National Football League.

“I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple,” he said. “To those who would suggest we’ve been too slow to act, I ask that you … not be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity.”

He made no mention of Panther Pro Bowler Greg Hardy, who’s accused of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. (He’s due in court Nov. 17.)

Richardson provided a somber note in a joyous evening. Katie Chamblee, a lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights, gave a blazing speech about accepting “the pain that comes when we integrate our lives with people who suffer.” Kurt Waldthausen, former honorary German consul to this region, spoke with quiet dignity of his grandfather: Walter Cramer, who helped try to assassinate Hitler and paid with his life.

A panel discussion with Nobel Prize laureates Peter Agre and Martin Chalfie reminded participants of the joys of scientific pursuits and the dangers of underfunding them: Bright youngsters don’t become scientists, and veteran researchers must leave the field when lab resources shrink.

That pair shone at a morning session, exploding myths before 600 high school and college students at UNC Charlotte.

They told their audience top scientists (even Nobel winners) don’t need to be geniuses, sometimes work without a clear purpose in mind, conduct experiments that frequently fail, and may even barely pass high school science courses.

Agre and Chalfie shared chemistry awards with other scientists in 2003 and 2008 respectively. Agre studied how the protein aquaporin could affect the permeability of water in living things; Chalfie helped define the way green fluorescent proteins could be used as genetic markers.

The subjects may sound dry, but the men were not. With self-deprecating humor and self-analysis, they opened students’ eyes.

Foundation President Stephanie Ansaldo kicked off the morning event by reminding the audience that, for 17 years, “We’ve brought in people who have taken responsibility for society.” She promised the crowd that “You’re going to leave here different.” And if the young questioners took nothing else away, they learned that the two laureates weren’t different from ordinary guys, except perhaps in their patience, persistence and perspicacity.

Said Agre, “The problem in science is not having ideas – though if you don’t have them, you’re in the wrong business – but in proving your idea is true. The discovery is your reward.” Chalfie reminded the crowd of Enrico Fermi’s observation: “If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”

Chalfie shared his prize with Japanese scientist Osamu Shimomura, who made a crucial discovery by accident: He threw a presumably failed experiment into a sink, then saw that the resulting mess glowed. Decades later, these proteins can be used to do everything from create art to locate land mines. (They also explain why Bruce Banner turns green as The Incredible Hulk.)

For all the humor and inspiration they provided, the two made serious points. Agre reminded us that not everybody has to become a scientist, but everyone needs a grounding in scientific subjects (toxicity, global warming) to navigate the modern world. Chalfie noted that we can’t always forecast practical results from speculative experiments.

“Cellphones came out of quantum physics research, but we didn’t get into it to invent cellphones,” he said afterward. “Lasers began as an experiment in theoretical physics; nobody knew about CD or DVD players or the ways we can do laser surgery. We don’t always see applications at first.”

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