What surprises came at the Nobel Prizes in a year

What surprises came at the Nobel Prizes in a year

This year’s Nobel Prizes have delighted and disappointed both. Important research work has been rewarded, but this year’s awards also committed a major omission.

Scientists often refer elliptically to winning the Nobel Prize as “the road to Stockholm.” Not this year, the awards ceremonies and the after party being, as in 2020, canceled. Which, of course, is not the case with British economists, says The Economist.

The Nobel Prize in Physics went to three researchers who studied complex, chaotic, seemingly disordered systems and developed ways to anticipate their long-term behavior, with implications ranging from studying the climate to exploiting exotic materials.

Half of the $ 1.1 million prize was shared between Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University in the United States and Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, and the other half went to Giorgio Parisi of Hamburg. Sapienza University of Rome.

Manabe and Hasselmann have laid the groundwork for a model of global climate analysis that quantifies variability and accurately predicts global warming, according to public information from the Nobel Committee on Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Paris was rewarded for discovering “the interaction between disorders and fluctuations in physical systems, from the atomic scale to the planetary scale.”

Global warming

In the 1960s, Manabe, an atmospheric researcher, was able to create a model for understanding the dynamics and thermodynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere – he obtained the first credible prediction that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide would lead to global warming. His work has made a decisive contribution to articulating the current climate models.

At the same time, scientists like Edward Lorenz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have begun to describe weather as a chaotic system – something that includes many interacting components – temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, so that even the smallest variations of the initial conditions later lead to huge differences. Based on this pattern, the weather changes rapidly and becomes unpredictable even a few days before the prediction date.

In the 1970s, Hasselmann developed models that show that the weather, although chaotic and unpredictable in the short term, provides clues on the basis of which models can be created to anticipate the Earth’s climate change over longer periods. To make it easier to understand, he resorted to a comparison – the Brownian motion (the 1827 discovery of the botanist Robert Brown). After 80 years, Albert Einstein stated that the slow zigzag of pollen threads is explained by the fact that they are continuously bombarded by smaller and faster water molecules. Similarly, the global climate can be explained as a consequence of many much smaller events.

In the 1980s, Paris discovered several rules governing seemingly unrelated phenomena. Applying mathematical analysis models, Paris was able to explain some of the complex systems of the Earth’s climate as described by his two colleagues with whom he shared the Nobel. The same models explain seemingly random phenomena in other areas as well – animal behavior, neuroscience or machine learning.

The Nobel Prize in Physics awarded this year is a first – the first such award for understanding the Earth’s climate. Asked if the choice was a subtle message to world leaders ahead of the Glasgow climate meeting (scheduled for November 26, no.), Members of the Nobel Committee said the scientific discoveries themselves were celebrated. However, they added that these findings prove that the notion of global warming is based on solid scientific data. People can no longer say that they did not know how and why the Earth is warming.

Sense and Sensibility

The second Nobel Prize in which the analysis of The Economist magazine stops is the one awarded in the field of medicine. The idea of ​​the five senses was first expressed philosophically by Aristotle. But it’s not entirely true. We obviously have four senses, each associated with an organ – sight with the eyes, hearing with the ears, the taste with the tongue, and the smell with the nose. The fifth sense – the tactile sense – is distributed over the entire surface of the human body, even if it is somehow concentrated in the navel of the fingers. Moreover, the touch is the only sense with such a distribution. We consciously feel pain, heat, cold, but also unconscious, which is known as proprioception – the receptors of movement and balance of the human body.

Well, this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for discovering the molecular mechanisms underlying two of these senses – temperature and mechanical stimulation.

The winners – David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian of the Scripps Biomedical Research Institute in San Diego – worked independently in the first phase. Julius made temperature discoveries for the first time, and Patapoutian focused on mechanical stimulation.

Julius’ research began in the late 1990’s and focused on capsaicin – the active ingredient in hot peppers. By a chemical coincidence (previously suspected, now confirmed), capsaicin reacts and stimulates one of the body’s heat receptors – a certain protein, and Julius decided to identify it. He selected millions of fragments of genetic material for proteins that were known to be active in heat receptors. He introduced those fragments into other cells and stimulated them to produce the relevant protein fragments. He then tested the modified cells for sensitivity to capsaicin.

Sensitive fragments have been shown to be part of a protein called trpv1 – it belongs to the class of ion channels (ion channels are membrane proteins with pores that allow the migration of ions through cell membranes, no) with different charges in the body. As expected, trpv1 turned out to be sensitive to heat. When the temperature exceeds 43 degrees Celsius, the channel opens, allowing calcium and sodium ions to pass through. This chemical signal stimulates a nerve that informs the brain about the change in temperature.

Trpv1 is one of the temperature-sensitive ion channels, some heat-sensitive, some cold-sensitive (cold-sensitive trpm8 was discovered simultaneously by the two researchers).

Patapoutian shifted his research to tactile sense. In the context of advances in molecular biology, he was able to work with protein genes in their entirety. He identified 72 proteins and tested them one at a time. Of the 72 proteins, only one turned out to be the one he was looking for. He named it piezo1. In nature, piezo1 is not found in sensory neurons, but in organs such as the bladder, where pressure sensors are important. Patapoutian also discovered a similar channel, piezo2, which this time is right at the nerve endings and is responsible for tactile sense and self-reception.

Therefore, a fascinating and at the same time important research work, because through the senses and only through the senses people can perceive the world around them, the British magazine reminds us.

However, the Nobel Prize in Medicine remains the big surprise of this year’s awards. In a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone expected the Nobel Prize in Medicine to reach the inventors of messenger RNA technology. But like God, members of the Nobel Prize jury seem to be working on mysterious ways.

The other winners

The series of announcements for this year’s award winners ended on October 11th.

Literature. The Nobel Prize for Literature was won by Zanzibar writer Abdulrazak Gurnah for his “uncompromising and compassionate approach to the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in the chasm between cultures and continents.” Peace. The Nobel Peace Prize was won in 2021 by Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov for “their courageous fight to defend freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia.” Chemistry. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the German Benjamin List and the American of Scottish origin David William Cross MacMillan, for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis. Economy. The names of this year’s Nobel laureates in economics were also announced on October 11th. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to give half of the prize money to David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, and the other half to Joshua D. Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. to Guido W. Imbens of Stanford University. The jury’s motivation was that “they gave us new perspectives on the labor market and showed what conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from natural experiments. Their approach has expanded into other areas and revolutionized empirical research. ”

This article appeared in issue 126 of . magazine

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