Science Diet: Nobel Edition


Science Diet is a weekly selection of five science/technology stories that are timely and relevant, fascinating and inspiring, and certain to stimulate your mind.  

1. The cellular transportation system

Three Americans  James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof  shared the Medicine Nobel for discovering different aspects of how “cargo” is transported within and between cells in our body. This cargo, which could be hormones in your blood or neurotransmitters in your brain, is delivered to the right place at the right time with exquisite precision. While Schekman discovered the genetic basis of this transport system, Rothman discovered proteins which bind only in specific combinations which ensures that the cargo is delivered to the right location, and Südhof worked on how nerve cells communicate, figuring out, in the process, how the cargo is delivered at the right time.

2. Higgsteria

Peter Higgs of the UK and Francois Englert of Belgium may have been awarded the Physics Nobel, but that’s not even half the story. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s self-imposed rule-of-three meant that others were left out of the spotlight. And Higgs himself proved as elusive as his eponymous particle when the prize was announced. And if all the rubbish you read in the newspapers about the Higgs particle leaves you feeling confused, you could do worse than read this explanation from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about  if you have more than five minutes to spare. If that doesn’t work for you, here’s the story behind the story of the particle-hunt.

But why is it called the “god particle”, you ask? Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate, tried to distance himself from the title of the book he authored by claiming he had intended it to be “the goddamn particle”, because it was so difficult to detect. The story goes that his publisher, clever as they usually are at marketing, realized that “god” was one of the two three-letter words that really sell, to the utter dismay and everlasting frustration of high-energy physicists worldwide.

3. Computational chemistry

Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, Arieh Warshel shared the Chemistry Nobel for computational modeling of chemical processes. While computing using the classical laws of physics was quick and worked well for the overall behaviour of large molecules, quantum mechanics was required to simulate actual reactions. But that was computationally intensive. So the trio introduced methods which used both classical and quantum mechanics, the former to simulate large-scale movement of molecules and the latter for the atoms at the specific sites where the interactions happen. Be sure to check out the cartoon on page 3.

4. Nobel lands

It’s no surprise that the USA leads the table by far when you count how many Nobels (in science) have been awarded to people of various countries. It’s also where most of the prize-winning work has taken place. But in over 100 years, only 16 women are in the list of science awardees.

5. Not quite the Nobel yet

He hasn’t been awarded the Peace Nobel, but it can’t be far off. Bill and Melinda Gates were awarded the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for the inspiring work they do with their Foundation, especially with vaccines, which is chronicled here. Here’s a brief interview, and a longer one here.

Click here for previous editions of Science Diet.

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