Video: Obama awards tech and science medals staff and news service reports
updated 10/7/2009 10:09:42 PM ET 2009-10-08T02:09:42

President Barack Obama linked scientific discovery to helping the struggling economy Wednesday as he honored those who invented batteries for implanted defibrillators, mapped the human genetic code and made global positioning systems possible.

Later in the day, the president invoked Galileo's legacy to inspire the next generation at what may have been the first White House skywatching party. It was a star-studded finish for a day devoted to science, technology and innovation.

During a White House ceremony, Obama handed out the National Medal of Science and the Medal of Technology and Innovation to more than a dozen recipients. The president said the United States must continue to invest in “the next generation of discoveries and the next generation of discoverers.”

Repeating his pledge to put thousands more students in college classrooms, he committed to spending 3 percent of the gross domestic product to educate future scientists and researchers.

“Throughout our history, amid tumult and war and against tough odds, this nation has always looked toward the future and then led the way,” he said.

With the country facing economic and security challenges, Obama said the recipients of the nation’s highest research honor are reminders that the United States can pull itself out of an economic recession that has defined his first year of his presidency.

“For at our best, this nation has never feared the future,” he said. “We’ve shaped the future. Even when we’ve endured terrible storms, we haven’t given up or turned back — we’ve remain fixed on that brighter horizon. That’s how we’ve led in the pursuit of scientific discovery; and in turn that’s how science has helped us lead the world.”

From atoms to the stars
Among those honored was Dr. Francis Collins, Obama’s director of the National Institutes of Health, who mapped the human genome. The president also honored the IBM Corp. for its supercomputers and a pair of Adobe Systems Inc. officials for changing how Americans use their computers to find information.

7 green energy hot spotsOther medal recipients included scientists who created the ventilator and batteries for implanted defibrillators, whose research helped others understand brain functions and addiction, and who studied genetic links with skin diseases.

“The scientists in this room have plumbed the furthest reaches of the universe and the deepest recesses of the human mind. They’ve sequenced the human genome and stimulated the workings of the atom. They’ve developed technologies that have greatly improved our understanding of the human body and the natural world, and they’ve fostered innovations that have saved millions of lives and improved countless more,” Obama said.

“So this nation owes all of you an enormous debt of gratitude far greater than any medal can bestow.”

In the evening, Obama welcomed 150 schoolchildren to the White House for an astronomy event. More than 20 telescopes were set up for skywatching — and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, took questions from the kids as well as from Internet users. Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld were also in attendance.

A first for the White House?
The White House star party may have been a first for the president’s home, according to U.S. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester. The event was organized under the auspices of the International Year of Astronomy, which marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations of Jupiter and its moons with a telescope.

Image: Star party
Telescopes are set up in the dark for Wednesday night's White House star party.
“What will your great discovery be?” Obama asked the students. “Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky. Now it’s your turn. ... We need your restless curiosity.”

Then the president looked through an 8-inch telescope, hauled south from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and focused on twin stars nicknamed “double-double” that are in the constellation Lyra. The stars are 160 light-years away, which translates to 960 trillion miles.

“That’s really far away,” Obama said after his glimpse into the scope’s eyepiece. “Outstanding.”

Dean Howarth and Dan Carroll, suburban Virginia high school science teachers, had a brass replica of Galileo’s telescope and a fancier Newton telescope replica for the White House party. And as if that weren’t enough, they also were planning to change into costumes to dress as the two science legends.

“We’re either really cool or really crazy,” Howarth said before he changed into his Newtonian garb.

Tyriek Mack and Owen Duffy, eighth graders from Washington, liked science enough to have attended space camp in Alabama, but the visit to the White House was even better, they said. Duffy, whose personal telescope is broken, said he couldn’t wait until the president was done so he could “rush back to the telescopes” set up on the lawn.

So with the telescopes, astronomers, and costumes, was there an element of geekiness on the White House lawn?

“Does the geekiness need to be questioned?” Howarth said. “The nice thing is that people are paying attention to geeks.”

This report includes information from The Associated Press and

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