Nobel Prize Week:  What We Learned

By Shlomo Maital

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian: Nobel – Medicine

David List and David MacMillan: Nobel – Chemistry

Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi: Nobel – Physics

  The first week in October is Nobel week – when the prize is awarded, in physiology and medicine; chemistry; and physics.  This year, the scientific breakthroughs that won the Prize are quite easy to explain, and are closely related to things we encounter every day.  The Economist as always supplies crystal-clear write-ups.

    David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian: Nobel – Medicine: These two won for discovering which proteins inside the body are responsible for responding to the heat and mechanical stimulation in a person’s environment. That is: How our sense of touch works.   Touch and temperature are distributed around the body.  Finding the key proteins took very long hard bench work, based on genetics  and molecular biology.  Its benefit to humanity?  For one – helping relieve chronic pain, without addictive destructive drugs.  Julius is from U. of California (San Francisco), Patapoutian is from Scripps, La Jolla.

     David List and David MacMillan: Nobel – Chemistry:   This prize focused on catalysts: materials that speed up chemical reactions and in our bodies known as enzymes.  MacMillan of Princeton University and   List from the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany (coal research??)  independently found how to use organic molecules as catalysts.  This is extremely helpful, for everything from making pharmaceutical drugs to solar panels.

  Klaus Hasselmann, Syukuro Manabe, and Giorgio Parisi: Nobel – Physics:   This year’s physics prize was the first for understanding the Earth’s climate.     Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University (hey – second one this year for Princeton, my alma mater! and Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, in Hamburg, studied the way in which the Earth’s atmosphere behaves over time. Their simulation models led to breakthroughs in forecasting how global warming impacts the earth.    

       Giorgio Parisi,  Sapienza University, in Rome, found the mathematical patterns in seemingly random systems. He studied “spin glass”, in which iron atoms are randomly distributed within a grid of copper atoms.  Why anyone would care about such a weird material.  Well – surprise!  His ideas are useful in climate modelling and can also explain the patterns seen in the murmuration of thousands of starlings.  Another incredible lesson in how seemingly esoteric science and research can yield powerful breakthroughs that benefit humanity.

    My grumble – hey, no women this year.  Just as with Watson and Crick: I bet there are women scientists back there in the guys’ labs, grinding out the work.