Nobel Novelties

Here’s what this year’s laureates did to expand the frontiers of science, knowledge, humanity and hardwork

By   |  Published: 18th Oct 2020  12:01 amUpdated: 18th Oct 2020  12:45 am
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ChemistryNobel Novelties

  • Emmanuelle Charpentier (51), France
  • Jennifer A Doudna (56), US

These two researchers developed CRISPR-cas9, a simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases. Over 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” shares Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine.

Jennifer Doudna said CRISPR also has the potential to be used to engineer plants to store more carbon or to withstand extremes of climate change, giving researchers a chance to “address urgent problems humanity is facing.” “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, affiliated to the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s the fourth time in the 119-year history of the prizes that a Nobel in the sciences was won exclusively by women.

“This genetic tool has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments”

Literature

  • Louise Glück (77), US

Glück has received virtually every honour possible for a poet, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for ‘The Wild Iris,’ The National Book Award in 2014 for ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’ and a National Humanities Medal in 2015. She is just the 16th woman to get the Nobel for literature since it started in 1901.

Nobel Novelties

A native of New York, descended in part from Hungarian Jews, Glück began reading poetry obsessively as a child, and by her early teens, she was trying to have her work published. She struggled with anorexia as an adolescent, later saying that her eating disorder was less an expression of despair than of her desire to free the soul from the confines of her body, a theme that later arose in her work. She draws from personal experience, common history and mythology. Her poetry collections include ‘Descending Figure,’ ‘Ararat’ and ‘The Triumph of Achilles,’ winner of the National Book Critics Circle prize in 1985. It contains one of her most anthologised poems, the spare and despairing ‘Mock Orange,’ in which a flowering shrub becomes the focus of a wider wail of anguish about sex and life.

Glück’s currently divides her time between Yale University and Stanford University. “Worldly honour makes existence in the world easier…but as an emblem of what I want — it is not capable of being had in my lifetime. I want to live after I die, in that ancient way. And there’s no way of knowing whether that will happen, and there will be no knowing, no matter how many blue ribbons have been plastered to my corpse,” she had said, calling teaching one of the few pure joys of her life.

“For her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”

Economics

  • Paul R Milgrom (72)
  • Robert B Wilson (83), both Stanford University

Auctions are everywhere in today’s economy. They determine how Google sells ads, what price consumers end up paying for electricity, and the way governments sell off the public airwaves.Nobel Novelties

Wilson was once Milgrom’s PhD adviser, and the two also happen to be neighbours. Wilson’s work showed “why rational bidders tend to place bids below their own best estimate of the common value” — which could mean the item goes for less than it’s worth and perhaps not to the buyer who most wants it, neither of which is supposed to happen if the auction is working properly. The winners’ work provides guidance about “how to price and allocate scarce goods — radio spectrum, electricity, financial securities, and many more,’’ said economist Peter Cramton, a former student of Wilson’s.
One problem in auctions is the so-called winner’s curse. If buyers are vying to purchase, say, fishing rights, they have to make bids without knowing what the price of fish will be in the future. They run the risk of winning the auction only by overpaying. To compensate, they tend to shave their bids. A solution, according to them, is for the seller to provide as much information as possible before the bidding begins, perhaps providing an independent appraisal of the item being sold. Solving the problem doesn’t just help the seller get a better price; it helps make sure the item being auctioned goes to the bidder likely to make the most efficient use of it — a key goal of economic policy.

“This prize is about avoiding the winner’s curse”

Physics

  • Roger Penrose (89), Britain
  • Reinhard Genzel (68), Germany
  • Andrea Ghez (55), United StatesNobel Novelties

Black holes fascinate people because “the idea of some monster out there sucking everything up is a pretty weird thing,” says Roger Penrose. Our galaxy and the galaxies near us “will ultimately get swallowed by one utterly huge black hole. This is the fate … but not for an awful long time, so it’s not something to worry too much about.”

Penrose, at the University of Oxford, received half of the prize for proving with mathematics in 1964 that Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted the formation of black holes, even though Einstein himself didn’t think they existed. Genzel, who is at both the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of California, Berkeley, and Ghez, of the University of California, Los Angeles, received the other half of the prize for discovering in the 1990s a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

In the 1990s, Genzel and Ghez, leading separate groups of astronomers, trained their sights on the dust-covered centre of our Milky Way galaxy, a region called Sagittarius A(asterisk), where something strange was going on. It was “an extremely heavy, invisible object that pulls on the jumble of stars, causing them to rush around at dizzying speeds,” according to the Nobel Committee.

It was a black hole. Not just an ordinary black hole, but a supermassive one, 4 million times the mass of our sun. The first image Ghez got was in 1995, using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii. A year later, another image seemed to indicate that the stars near the centre of the Milky Way were circling something. A third image led Ghez and Genzel to think they were really on to something. A fierce competition developed between Ghez and Genzel, whose team was using an array of telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. “Their rivalry elevated them to greater scientific heights,” said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb.

“Discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole”

Medicine

  • Harvey J Alter (85)
  • Charles M Rice (68), US
  • Michael Houghton (69), British

The three scientists were honoured for their work over several decades on an illness that still plagues over 70 million worldwide and kills over 400,000 each year. “For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” said the Nobel Committee.

Now, it’s the only chronic viral infection that can be cured in almost all cases within a few months, using one of roughly half a dozen drugs, said Dr Raymond Chung, liver disease chief at Massachusetts General Hospital. Rice worked on hepatitis at Washington University in St Louis and now is at Rockefeller University in New York. Alter worked for decades at the US National Institutes of Health and remains active there. Houghton was born in Britain and worked on hepatitis at the Chiron Corp in California before moving to the University of Alberta in Canada.

“We have not seen any more cases since 1997” of hepatitis from a transfusion, Alter said. “Currently we can cure virtually anybody who’s identified. With that, it’s possible to maybe even eradicate this disease over the next decade,” as the WHO hopes to do.

Nobel Novelties

Peace

World Food Programme

The choice of the World Food Programme (WFP) is widely seen as supporting the call to global solidarity that the UN and others have stressed as confirmed Covid-19 deaths climb past 1 million, and as famine becomes a danger in several countries. Little symbolises global connectedness more than the WFP, which in responding to the pandemic launched an extraordinary emergency aid delivery service as most global flights were grounded. It involved almost 130 countries, unprecedented in scope.

That’s on top of its usual work feeding millions of hungry people around the world. The Nobel Committee made it clear this year’s award was a plea for unity. “We are sending a signal to every nation (that) raises objections to international cooperation. We are sending a signal to this type of nationalism where the responsibility for global affairs is not being faced,” said committee head Berit Reiss-Andersen.

“…For its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”


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