Excellence Extraordinaire

Unceasing quest for new knowledge, individual brilliance, perfect teamwork and beyond the pale efforts, this year’s Nobel winners show little is beyond  

By   |  Published: 20th Oct 2019  12:00 amUpdated: 19th Oct 2019  11:36 pm


How cells sense low oxygen

The Winners: William G Kaelin Jr, Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute;  Peter J Ratcliffe, Francis Crick Institute, Britain and Oxford University and Gregg L Semenza, Johns Hopkins University

Their Work: They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. Their discoveries have paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases. Oxygen sensing allows cells to adapt their metabolism to low oxygen levels: for example, in our muscles during intense exercise. Other examples of adaptive processes controlled by oxygen sensing include the generation of new blood vessels and the production of red blood cells.

Oxygen sensing is central to a large number of diseases. For example, patients with chronic renal failure often suffer from severe anaemia due to decreased EPO expression. EPO is produced by cells in the kidney and is essential for controlling the formation of red blood cells. Moreover, the oxygen-regulated machinery has an important role in cancer. In tumours, it is utilised to stimulate blood vessel formation and reshape metabolism for effective proliferation of cancer cells.

Intense ongoing efforts in laboratories and pharmaceutical companies are now focused on developing drugs that can interfere with different disease states by either activating, or blocking, the oxygen-sensing machinery.


New perspectives on our place in universe

The Winners: James Peebles, Princeton University, USA; Michel Mayor, University of Geneva, Switzerland and Didier Queloz, University of Geneva, Switzerland and University of Cambridge, UK

Their Work: James Peebles insights into physical cosmology have laid a foundation for the transformation of cosmology over the last 50 years, from speculation to science. His theoretical framework, developed since the mid-1960s, is the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe. The Big Bang model describes the universe from its very first moments, almost 14 billion years ago, when it was extremely hot and dense. Since then, the universe has been expanding, becoming larger and colder.

Barely 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe became transparent and light rays were able to travel through space. Even today, this ancient radiation is all around us and, coded into it, many of the universe’s secrets are hiding. Using his theoretical tools and calculations, Peebles was able to interpret these traces from the infancy of the universe and discover new physical processes. The results showed us a universe in which just 5% of its content is known, the matter which constitutes stars, planets, trees – and us. The rest, 95%, is unknown dark matter and dark energy.

In October 1995, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced the first discovery of a planet outside the solar system, an exoplanet, orbiting a solar-type star in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. At the Haute-Provence Observatory in southern France, using custom-made instruments, they were able to see planet 51 Pegasi b, a gaseous ball comparable with the solar system’s biggest gas giant Jupiter. This discovery started a revolution in astronomy and over 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way.

While Peebles’ theoretical discoveries contributed to our understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, Mayor and Queloz explored our cosmic neighbourhoods on the hunt for unknown planets.

Maybe we can discover some form of life, we don’t know what kind of form. Scientists have now identified more than 4,000 exoplanets and are absolutely certain that a lot of these planets have good conditions for life – Michel Mayor


A rechargeable world

Winners: John B Goodenough, Engineering Professor, University of Texas; M Stanley Whittingham, Chemistry Professor, State University of New York at Binghamton; Akira Yoshino, Asahi Kasei Corp and Meijo University in Japan

Their Work:  The foundation of the lithium-ion battery was laid during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Stanley Whittingham started to research superconductors and discovered an extremely energy-rich material, which he used to create an innovative cathode in a lithium battery. This was made from titanium disulphide, which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can house – intercalate – lithium ions. The battery’s anode was partially made from metallic lithium, which has a strong drive to release electrons. This resulted in a battery that literally had great potential, just over two volts. However, metallic lithium is reactive and the battery was too explosive to be viable.

Goodenough predicted that the cathode would have even greater potential if it was made using a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. In 1980, he demonstrated that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions can produce as much as four volts. With Goodenough’s cathode as a basis, Akira Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. Rather than using reactive lithium in the anode, he used petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can intercalate lithium ions. The result was a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991 and have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.


Exposing Europe’s fault lines

The Winners: Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk for 2018 and Austria’s Peter Handke for 2019

Their Work: Peter Handke, 76, has long faced criticism for his vigorous defence of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges, calling him “a rather tragic man.” Handke has been a big name in European literature for decades, crafting works — starting with his first novel, ‘The Hornets,’ in 1966 — that combine introspection and a provocative streak. He has written screenplays, several of them for German director Wim Wenders, who also filmed Handke’s 1970 novel, ‘The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.’ He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in ‘A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,’ his 1972 autobiographical novel about his mother’s suicide. He was cited for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” In 2014, he told the Austrian Press Agency that the Nobel Prize should be abolished because of its “false canonization” of literature.

In contrast, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk was greeted with praise even by her erstwhile critics. Tokarcuzk has been attacked by Polish conservatives for criticising aspects of the country’s past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. She is also a strong critic of Poland’s current right-wing government. Her 2014 novel ‘The Books of Jacob’ tackles the forced conversion of Polish Jews to Catholicism in the 18th century. ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is a crime thriller with feminist and animal-rights themes that offers a sometimes unflattering depiction of small-town Polish life. Her novel ‘Flights’ won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She was cited by the committee for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

I never thought they would choose me. It was very courageous by the Swedish academy, this kind of decision. These are good people — Peter Handke


The Reformist

The Winner: Abiy Ahmed Ali, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister

His Work: Within weeks after taking office in early 2018, Africa’s youngest leader Abiy Ahmed Ali shocked the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region by fully accepting a peace deal, ending a 20-year border war with neighbouring Eritrea that saw some 80,000 people killed. In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea, he quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long “no peace, no war” stalemate between the two countries. An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002.

In Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future. He spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.

Abiy has also engaged in other peace and reconciliation processes in East and Northeast Africa. Last September, he and his government contributed actively to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti after many years of political hostility. The 43-year-old has embraced the concept of ‘medemer,’ a term in Ethiopia’s Amharic language that means unity and inclusivity, and has lived it.

Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences

Fighting Poverty

Abhijit Banerjee, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA; Esther Duflo, MIT, Cambridge, USA; Michael Kremer, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

Their Work: The trio’s research has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty. Despite recent dramatic improvements, one of humanity’s most urgent issues is the reduction of global poverty, in all its forms. More than 700 million people still subsist on extremely low incomes. Every year, around five million children under the age of five still die of diseases that could often have been prevented or cured with inexpensive treatments. Half of the world’s children still leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

They have shown that the smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected. Their work in rural Kenya and in India, for instance, found that providing more textbooks, school meals and teachers didn’t do much to help students learn more.

Kremer and others found that providing free healthcare makes a big difference: Only 18% of parents gave their children de-worming pills for parasitic infections when they had to pay for them, even though the heavily subsidised price was less than $1. But 75% gave their kids the pills when they were free. Banerjee, Duflo and others found that mobile vaccination clinics in India dramatically increased the immunisation rates compared with traditional health centres. The immunisation rate rose further if parents received a bag of lentils as a bonus for vaccinating their children.

Banerjee and Duflo, who are married, also found that microcredit programmes, which provide small loans to encourage poor people to start businesses, did little to help the poor in Hyderabad; studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Morocco, Mexico and Mongolia, produced similar results. As a direct result of one of their studies, more than five million Indian children have benefitted from effective programmes of remedial tutoring in schools.

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