Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nobel Prizes 2012

Nobel Laureates

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel, born in 1833, for whom the Nobel Prize is named. "In his will he left 31 million SEK (today about 265 million dollars) to fund the prizes," the Nobel site says.

Congratulations to the 2012 Laureates: nine individuals, all men, from five nations, and one entity, the European Union. Here is the full list of the 2012 Nobel Prize winners, in order of their announcement:

Medicine: The first of this year's Nobel Prizes, in medicine, were announced: John Gurdon of Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have been honored "for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells," the CBC reports:
Scientists want to harness the reprogramming to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson's and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory. The prize committee at Stockholm's Karonlinska institute said the discovery has "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Gurdon showed in 1962 that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin or intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. That showed the DNA still had its ability to drive the formation of all cells of the body. More than 40 years later, in 2006, Yamanaka showed that a surprisingly simple recipe could turn mature cells back into primitive cells, which in turn could be prodded into different kinds of mature cells.
Basically, the primitive cells were the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, which had been embroiled in controversy because to get human embryonic cells, human embryos had to be destroyed. Yamanaka's method provided a way to get such primitive cells without destroying embryos.
This is indeed good news on many fronts, and that human embryos do not have to be destroyed to advance science in general and human medicine in particular should please conservative and religious groups. The prize in medicine is the first of five to be announced this week; the prize in economics will be announced on October 15. All prizes will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death (in 1896).

Physics: The Noble Prize in Physics has been given to Serge Haroche of the Collège de France in Paris, France; and David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology physics laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, "for inventing and developing methods for observing tiny quantum particles without destroying them," the CBC reported.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two scientists Tuesday "for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems. "Haroche and Wineland, both 68, work in the field of quantum optics, which deals with the interaction between light and matter.
"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time."
At the heart of their research is a method each physicist developed, independently but effective, to observe (essentially by "trapping") individual quantum particles while not altering their quantum state—an achievement that will have considerable practical benefits in the near future:
The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them. For single particles of light or matter the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over. But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena.
These scientists' discoveries will eventually take the thought experiments of the mind to practical applications in the factory, including building faster and more accurate computer technologies and using the knowledge toward bettering the many types of electronic devices that we now use or will use.

Chemistry: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to two Americans Robert Lefkowitz of Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University in California for discovering the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors, which are gateways to cells that react to chemical messages. An article in Reuters says:
"Around half of all medications act through these receptors, among them beta blockers, antihistamines and various kinds of psychiatric medications," the committee said.Working out better ways to target the receptors, known as GPCRs, is an area of keen focus for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
Lefkowitz told a news conference by telephone that he was asleep when the phone call came from Sweden. "I did not hear it—I must share with you that I wear earplugs to sleep. So my wife gave me an elbow. So there it was, a total shock and surprise," he said.
The release from the Nobel Committee explains in greater detail how and why their work on G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs are important:
The team achieved its next big step during the 1980s. The newly recruited Kobilka accepted the challenge to isolate the gene that codes for the β-adrenergic receptor from the gigantic human genome. His creative approach allowed him to attain his goal. When the researchers analyzed the gene, they discovered that the receptor was similar to one in the eye that captures light. They realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.
Today this family is referred to as G-protein–coupled receptors. About a thousand genes code for such receptors, for example, for light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin. About half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein–coupled receptors. 
The work will lead to the manufacture of better drugs with less side effects. The laureates will receive their prizes at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Literature: The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, the Swedish Academy says, “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”  Mo Yan (which means "don't speak" in Chinese), is a pen name; his given name is Guan Moye. The Guardian writes of the 57-year-old writer, who has thus far managed to escape Chinese censors, perhaps aided by his position of vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers Association:
Mo Yan has published novels, short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors, the Nobel committee noted.The 57-year-old, whose real name is Guan Moye, is perhaps best-known abroad for his 1987 novella "Red Sorghum", a tale of the brutal violence that plagued the eastern China countryside—where he grew up—during the 1920s and 30s. The story was later made into an acclaimed film by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
In a style that has been compared to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mo Yan authored other acclaimed works including "Big Breasts and Wide Hips", "Republic of Wine" and "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out". His latest novel, 2009's "Frog", is considered his most daring yet, due to its searing depiction of China's "one child" population control policy and the local officials who ruthlessly implement it with forced abortions and sterilisations.
The choice of Mo might be an odd one, and not the perfect choice to represent China, his critics point out, given his membership in the Communist Party. Or perhaps Mo is representative of China, pragmatic in his approach: "A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression," Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, the China Daily said. "Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions."

More controversial , however, is his praise of the Communist Revolution and Mao, Reuters writes
A number of rights activists and other writers had said Mo was unworthy of the prize and denounced him for commemorating a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong. Mo, together with other Chinese writers, copied out sections of Mao's speech for a special book to mark the 70th anniversary of the speech. It had said writers who did not integrate their work with the Communist revolution would be punished.
So it is.

Peace: The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its historic role in in uniting the continent over the last six decades, and as the Nobel Committee put it "to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." No doubt, the EU can use some cheering up, and the award is seen as a morale boost at a time when the bloc struggles to resolve its economic crisis. Reuters writes:
The award served that the bloc had largely brought peace to a continent which tore itself apart in two world wars in which tens of millions died.The EU has transformed most of Europe "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the award in Oslo.
"The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU's most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights," he said.
He praised the EU for rebuilding Europe after World War Two and for its role in spreading stability after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.But the debt crisis afflicting the single currency zone has brought economic instability to several member states, and rioting has erupted on the streets of Athens and Madrid as austerity measures have bitten hard.
The Nobel Committee, in giving the award to the EU, has likely bypassed more worthy candidates, including Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio, a frequent critic of the KremlinAs has been the case with the Peace Prize over the years, this year's winner is symbolic if not political, and speaks more about a desire than a reality—in this case preserving the importance of the EU, of which Norway is not a member state.

The same Reuters article notes: "Norway, the home of the peace prize, has voted 'no' twice to joining the EU, in 1972 and 1994. The country has prospered outside the EU, partly thanks to huge oil and gas resources. The five-member committee is appointed by parliament, where parties are deeply split over EU membership. Jagland has long favored EU membership."

Economic Sciences: The Nobel Prize in economics, the sixth and final of the prestigious prizes, was awarded to two Americans: .Alvin E. Roth, 60, of Harvard University and Lloyd S. Shapley, 89, of the University of California, Los Angeles "for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design."

The Noble Committee release  explains the real-world applications of Roth & Shapley's research:
This year's Prize concerns a central economic problem: how to match different agents as well as possible. For example, students have to be matched with schools, and donors of human organs with patients in need of a transplant. How can such matching be accomplished as efficiently as possible? What methods are beneficial to what groups? The prize rewards two scholars who have answered these questions on a journey from abstract theory on stable allocations to practical design of market institutions.
And as the Wall Street Journal notes:
The academy said the researchers worked independently rather than together, but that the "combination of Shapley's basic theory and Roth's empirical investigations, experiments and practical design has generated a flourishing field of research and improved the performance of many markets."
This year's award again confirms the United States' strong leadership in economic sciences. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences was first awarded in 1969; it follows the same rigorous principles of the original five prizes.

The laureates will receive their prizes at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. For more information on the Nobel Prize, see here.