Comment »Posted on Monday 13 October 2008 at 9:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Those of you who actively follow science news might have been wondering this past week why I hadn’t yet commented on the Nobel Prize announcements. No, I haven’t forgotten in all the course-starting excitement – I just thought it would be more useful to wait until all of the prizes had been announced. Before the results however, a bit of history.

The Nobels have been awarded for over 100 years, with the first prizes given out in 1901. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, wishing to to atone for his inventing dynamite, specified in his will that his fortune should be used as a fund that would celebrate intellectual achievement. He decreed there should be awards given annually to five disciplines: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature. Later in 1969, a prize for Economics was created in honour of his memory.

I always wondered why there is no Nobel for Mathematics. A story I’ve often heard is that Nobel’s wife cheated on him with a mathematician, but it turns out this story is completely unfounded – for one thing, Nobel was never even married. There is no concrete reason as to why Mathematics was omitted, but many feel it is because Nobel viewed it as a science with little practical benefit for humanity. So there! On to this year’s prizes:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Half of this prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer.” The second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is estimated to cause 253,500 deaths worldwide each year. The work done by zur Hausen has lead to vaccines that provide greater than 95% protection against infection by two high risk strains of human papilloma viruses, HPV types 16 and 18.

The other half of the prize was split between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” By isolating and cloning HIV, their work allowed other groups to prove the virus’s link to acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Working with the virus to create diagnosis methods and antiviral drugs would not have been possible without the pair’s discovery.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Yoichiro Nambu received half of the prize “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics”, whilst one quarter each went to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.”

Symmetry breaking is responsible for the universe around us – without it, we wouldn’t be around to award Nobels! When the universe was created, matter and antimatter particles annihilated each other in a great cosmic battle for supremacy. If there had been an equal amount of particles on both sides, the universe would have been left empty as both matter and antimatter were completely obliterated. It’s thanks to the “breaking” of this matter-antimatter symmetry that matter was able to achieve dominance and lead to the universe we see today. Even one extra particle of matter for every ten billion of antimatter was enough to break the symmetry.

Nambu was the first to mathematically model how this symmetry breaking could occur at the subatomic level, and in doing so helped refine the standard model of particle physics. The symmetry breaking model formulated by Kobayashi and Maskawa suggested an extension of the standard model was required to explain some observations in particle physics, and they hypothesised the existence of third family of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up many matter and antimatter particles. Their model predicted in the 1970′s particles that weren’t observed until the late 1990′s.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

The Chemistry prize this year was split an equal three ways, by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.” First observed in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in 1962, this protein is used by scientists around the world to learn more about biological processes.

Pigs with GFP modified DNA glow green.

By modifying a subject’s DNA to attach GFP to another protein as marker, scientists can visually follow the progression of the protein around an organism as it glows green. It can be used to watch the growth of nerve cells, or observe the development of cancer. Following the discovery of GFP, other colours were added to a biologist’s toolkit, allowing further flexibility in their use. One group of researchers even marked the different nerve cells in a mouse’s brain with a multitude of colour, without harming the mouse in any way.

The Nobel Prizes in Literature and Peace and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008

Whilst great achievements, the other Nobel Prizes fall a bit too far outside the “science” umbrella to discuss here. Nevertheless, congratulations to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”, to Martti Ahtisaari “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”, and to Paul Krugman “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Indeed, congratulations to all of the Nobel Lauretes (the Nobel foundation does not like to call them winners, because it’s “not a competition or lottery, and therefore there are no winners or losers”) on their fantastic achievements. Who do you think should be up for the honour next year?


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