Want to know what got them Nobel?

Here’s a peek into this year's Nobel laureates and their work.

By Author   |   Published: 14th Oct 2017   10:59 pm Updated: 14th Oct 2017   11:21 pm

Despite controversies, the Nobel Prizes continue to be gold standard for recognising the finest human achievements.

It is the most prestigious and coveted prize in the world for over hundred years now.

Declared every October and presented on December 10, as willed by the father of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, the prizes “goes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” 

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, Kip Thorne (for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves)

New way to observe cosmos

 For decades astronomers tried to prove Albert Einstein right by doing what Einstein thought was impossible: detecting the faint ripples in the universe called gravitational waves. They failed repeatedly until two years ago when they finally spotted one. Then another. And another. And another.

Three American scientists — including one who initially flunked out of MIT — won the Nobel Prize in physics that launched a whole new way to observe the cosmos. Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences cited the combination of highly advanced theory and ingenious equipment design in awarding Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology.

The trio was part of a team of more than 1,000 astronomers who first observed gravitational waves in September 2015. When the discovery was announced several months later, it was a sensation not only among scientists but the general public. These are waves that go through everything — including us — but carry information on them that astronomer could not get otherwise.

“The best comparison is when Galileo discovered the telescope, which allowed us to see that Jupiter had moons. And all of a sudden, we discovered that the universe was much vaster than we used to think about,” Ariel Goobar of the Swedish academy said.

Weiss said he hopes that eventually gravitational waves will help science learn about “the very moment when the universe came out of nothingness.”Gravitational waves were first theorised a century ago by Einstein, but he didn’t think technology would ever be able to detect the tiny wobbles, smaller than a piece of an atom.

The waves are like “a storm in the fabric of space-time that is produced when two black holes collide,” Thorne said. The first detection came from a crash 1.3 billion light-years away. A light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles. The prize is “a win for Einstein, and a very big one,” Barish said.

The German-born Weiss, 85, who initially spearheaded the research effort, was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize amount. Thorne, 77, a theorist, and Barish, 81, who was a project director, will split the other half.Weiss also overcame failure. After flunking out of MIT, he didn’t have anything to do so he offered himself as an electronics technician to a lab at MIT and learned how to solder and deal with people. He returned to school, got his bachelor’s and doctorate at MIT and ended up as a professor there.

In a moment of poetry aimed at making the distant and infinitesimal phenomenon understandable to non-experts, the academy announcement said gravitational waves “are always created when a mass accelerates, like when an ice-skater pirouettes or a pair of black holes rotate around each other.”

“The best part is that this is just the beginning of a new roller-coaster exploration of the universe,” said Professor Alberto Vecchio from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy

– AP

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, Briton Richard Henderson (for developing cyro-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination biomolecules in solution)

Google Earth for molecules

Three researchers won the Chemistry Nobel for developing a microscope technique that lets scientists see exquisite details of the molecules that drive life — basically providing a front-row seat to study these tiny performers in their biological dance.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said molecules can be captured down to the level of their atoms, and snapshots can catch them in mid-movement. That can help reveal how they interact.

“This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,” the academy said in awarding its chemistry prize to Switzerland’s Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, German-born US citizen Joachim Frank at New York’s Columbia University, and Briton Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

“This is a technique that is just starting to find its way into the research community,” said Allison A Campbell, president of the American Chemical Society. It was recently used to reveal the structure of the Zika virus.

The method is called cryo-electron microscopy. It’s like “Google Earth for molecules,” Campbell said, because it “allows the scientist to zoom in down to the fine detail (giving) that fine resolution that you want to have.”

Other methods have been used before to determine structures of some biological molecules, but they run up against fundamental limitations.

The three adapted another technique, electron microscopy, which uses a beam of electrons rather than ordinary light to inspect samples.

Between 1975 and 1986, Frank developed mathematical models to turn fuzzy two-dimensional images into sharp, three-dimensional ones. Henderson, in 1990, was able to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atom-level resolution, showing the technology’s potential, the Nobel committee said.

Dubochet, in the early 1980s, found a way to cool the water in a biological sample so quickly that it solidified without forming the ice crystals that can disrupt the electron beam. Those early advances were followed by others that have greatly improved the technique.

“It’s the first time that we can see biological molecules in their natural environment and how they actually work together down to the individual atoms,” said Nobel chemistry committee member Heiner Linke.

– AP

The Nobel Prize in Medicine

Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, Michael Young (for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm)

Living with your clock

Circadian rhythms control when we’re at our peak performance physically and mentally each day, keeping our lives ticking in time with Earth’s day/night cycle. This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three American scientists, Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University and Michael Young of Rockefeller University, for shedding light on how time is measured each day in biological systems, including our own bodies.

From Darwin’s finches on the Galápagos Islands to modern city dwellers, organisms adapt to their environment. Regular 24-hour cycles of day and night on Earth led to the evolution of biological clocks that reside within our cells. These clocks help us unconsciously pick the best time to rest, search for food, or anticipate danger or predation.

The field of modern circadian biology got its start in the 1970s, when geneticist Seymour Benzer and his student Ron Konopka undertook a revolutionary study to track down the genes that encode biological timing in fruit flies. With that gene in their sights, the labs of Hall, Rosbash and Young ushered in the molecular era of circadian biology as they untangled the molecular mechanisms of biological timekeeping.

In 1984, two teams finally identified this so-called clock gene period in flies: the labs of Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash working in close collaboration at Brandeis, and Michael Young’s lab at Rockefeller.

With the gene in hand, these groups then aimed to figure out how period fit into a biological clock. The first clue came when Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash discovered that the protein encoded by this gene (called PER) increased during the night and decreased during the day, suggesting that levels of the protein might somehow communicate time information to the rest of the cell.

Fitting with molecular clocks

Work over the last two decades has rounded out a much deeper understanding of circadian rhythms to show how most organisms have clocks based on feedback loops similar to Drosophila. Rosbash’s lab identified part of the PER protein known as the PAS domains that we now find in many clock proteins from fungi and plants to humans.

By comparing differences in the structures of PER PAS domains of Drosophila and mice, scientists are now beginning to learn how the protein “cogs” of the molecular clock fit together to tell time. Understanding circadian rhythms at atomic resolution like this allows us to explain how newly identified mutations in PER lead to changes in clock timing and open the door to therapeutics that could harness the power of circadian rhythms to improve human health.

– Carrie L Partch 

(The author is at the University of California, Santa Cruz. theconversation.com)

The Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro (who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world)

The inevitable sadness

On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he ‘auditions’ his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction.

Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning. In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.

When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel ‘Never Let Me Go,’ his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. “There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.” He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world].”

Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves.

The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, ‘A Pale View of Hills,’ ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ and ‘The Remains of the Day,’ reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.

The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (‘The Unconsoled’), a London detective (‘When We Were Orphans’) and a roving hospice-type worker (‘Never Let Me Go’). Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.

Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.” In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity.

– Cynthia F Wong

(The author is at the University of Colorado – Denver. Theconversation.com)

The Nobel Peace Prize

ICAN (for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons)

Anti-nuke advocate

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

Headquartered in Geneva, ICAN is an international non-governmental coalition aiming to promote implementation and adherence of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Founded in 2007, it comprises 468 partner organisations in 100 countries and focuses on the threat to humanity posed by nuclear arms.

The group — International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War — which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, created ICAN in 2006, formally launching it a year later.

ICAN’s Work

ICAN works on building global support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. While that goal is far off, it campaigned actively for the treaty creating the framework for that result — the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted by the United Nations on July 7. In previous years, it supported a UN committee resolution to launch negotiations on the treaty and preparations leading up to these talks.

It also organised events globally in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversaries of the US atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised ICAN in 2012 for “working with such commitment and creativity in pursuit of our shared goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.”

Abolishing Atomic Arms

The treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading toward their total elimination. But achieving that lofty goal is elusive. It only comes into force after ratification by at least 50 nations and as of now, only three have done so. Additionally, it faces opposition by all nuclear weapons states as well as many countries which believe that they are best protected by the nuclear capacities of their allies.

ICAN director Beatrice Fihn says the award “sends a message to all nuclear-armed states and all states that continue to rely on nuclear weapons for security that it is unacceptable behaviour.”

– AP

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel

Richard Thaler (for his contribution to behavioral economics)

Human touch again

The 2017 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler for his work in behavioral economics, which is the integration of economics with psychology.

The award highlights the growing importance of incorporating how humans actually behave into economic thinking. It marks the second time a pioneer in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics – which hardly existed a few decades ago – has won a Nobel, the first being psychologist Daniel Kahneman in 2002.

So who is Thaler and what’s so important about his work? Richard Thaler studied at Case Western and the University of Rochester, where he earned a PhD in economics in 1974.

Thaler may be best known for the bestselling book ‘Nudge,’ which he co-wrote with Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. The authors argue that people should not be forced to do things with bans or laws. Instead, small interventions, or nudges, that make the right choice easier are the best way to go. They offer examples such as putting healthy food where people can see and reach it easily while relegating unhealthy options to out-of-the-way spots. Since people usually make the easy choice, moving food around will result in less junk food being eaten.

Another example is making automatic retirement contributions the default choice when someone begins a new job. This means new employees will have to fill out paperwork to stop contributions instead of to start them. As a result, more people save for retirement.

More specifically, he was selected for his work in three areas: limited rationality, social preferences and lack of self-control.

Limits of our Reason

Thaler pointed out that because people often can’t solve many problems in their economic lives, they simplify and use rules of thumb. These simplifications, however, lead to strange and sometimes bad choices. Mental accounting is one area of strange choices that Thaler was the first to identify with. Because our financial lives are complex, we mentally put money in separate buckets and spend only the money available in that bucket.

For example, Thaler describes a couple who receives $300 in cash compensation from an airline for lost baggage. The couple takes the $300 and spends it on a fancy dinner. They splurged for the dinner only because, in their heads, they classified $300 as a windfall. But if their salaries had simply increased by a total of $300, they would likely not have splurged on eating out but instead mentally classified the extra money as spending for rent and other bills.

Emotion to Economics

Thaler, with co-authors Kahneman and Canadian economist Jack Knetsch, showed in 1986 how customers don’t expect companies to maximize profits in all situations. For example, when there’s a blizzard, people don’t expect stores to raise the price of shovels, even though demand will naturally soar as the snow piles up. Thaler and his co-authors showed that customers will tend to punish businesses that do.

This work has relevance today for understanding consumers’ reactions to drug companies pushing prescription drug prices ever higher and to businesses price-gouging after hurricanes. Thaler points out that emotions, like feelings about fairness, are an important but overlooked area of economics.

Paying for Self-control

Thaler and economist Hersh Shefrin noted that people spend money to avoid making poor choices or to avoid engaging in the wrong kinds of behaviors.

Thaler’s work on self-control is becoming more important as the internet and almost instant delivery make more of the world’s temptations easier to access without waiting. Understanding how people actually operate results in better public policies that can achieve the same results without costing people money.

-Jay L Zagorsky

(The author is at The Ohio State University. theconversation.com)