President Barack Obama Tuesday awarded 16 people the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, including two scientists: theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University and Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and geneticist Janet Davison Rowley of the University of Chicago.
This is America's highest civilian honor bestowed by the government. Award recipients are chosen for their exceptional contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. This year's awardees were chosen for their work as agents of change--discovering new theories, launching new initiatives, and opening minds.
Hawking has been instrumental in the study of cosmology, quantum gravity, and black holes. He also has helped bring science to a wider audience through his books and talks. His academic success and openness has also helped to dispel stereotypes about the limits of contributions by people with disabilities.
"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said in a press release. "Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.
"Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive," he added.
Citation for Hawking:
Persistent in his pursuit of knowledge, Stephen Hawking has unlocked new pathways of discovery and inspired people around the world. He has dedicated his life to exploring the fundamental laws that govern the universe, and he has contributed to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time. His work has stirred the imagination of experts and lay persons alike. Living with a disability and possessing an uncommon ease of spirit, Stephen Hawking's attitude and achievements inspire hope, intellectual curiosity, and respect for the tremendous power of science.
Citation for Rowley:
Dr. Janet Davison Rowley was the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers--considered among the most important medical breakthroughs of the past century. After enrolling at the University of Chicago at age 15, she went on to challenge the conventional medical wisdom about the cause of cancer in the 1970s, which had placed little emphasis on chromosomal abnormalities. Her work has proven enormously influential to researchers worldwide who have used her discovery to identify genes that cause fatal cancers and to develop targeted therapies that have revolutionized cancer care. The United States honors this distinguished scientist for advancing genetic research and the understanding of our most devastating diseases.
View the full list of awardees.