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Real Science

2017 Nobel Prizes In Science

Michael Rosenthal

(11/2017) It’s Nobel Prize time again. Three scientists are sharing The Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year for inventing new ways to see and understand molecular structure. I became fascinated with chemistry in high school in the realization that scientists could determine the structure of substances – understanding how atoms and molecules are arranged and relate to one another. This fascination led me to my study of chemistry and eventually my career as a college chemistry professor. In retirement, the novelty has not worn off.

The three Nobel winners in chemistry are Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson, awarded the prize "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution." This spectroscopic method allows scientists to visualize proteins and other biological molecules at the atomic level and thus understand their structure.

When I was growing up, biologists, chemists, and physicists lived in somewhat different scientific worlds. Now the divisions of science are much more unified, recognizing that the laws of nature apply uniformly to all scientific endeavors.

The international flavor of the prizes is recognized here: Dubochet is a professor in Switzerland, Frank, born in Germany, is a professor at Columbia University in New York, and Henderson is Scottish and works at Cambridge University in Great Britain.

Cryo-electron microscopy flash-freezes a sample to create a layer of ice over a layer of liquid where the molecules can retain their natural shape. This technique, first developed by Dubochet in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was first rejected for publication by skeptical colleagues – they did not believe that water could be manipulated this way. Over a period of 25 years, the technique was refined and became accepted by the scientific community.

In the 1990s, Henderson applied the technique to large biological and molecular assemblies at atomic resolution.

An important recent practical application of this technique is the determination of the shape of the Zika virus, a cause of serious birth defects, and from this study, we have achieved a better understanding of how it infects host cells.

We wrote earlier on gravitational waves. Now three scientists involved in this discovery have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne are members of the team that detected gravitational waves, formed when two supermassive black holes collide. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in his 1915 General Theory of Relativity stating that distortions in gravity would travel through space-time like a shock wave. Weiss, born in Berlin, is now a U.S. citizen and a physics professor at M.I.T. Barish and Thorne work at the California Institute of Technology. The first detection was the result of two black holes, more than a billion light-years away, colliding and converting a mass equivalent to three suns into energy. The first "cosmic chirp" was discovered at the twin LIGO detectors in Louisiana and Washington State. The collaboration team that studied this phenomenon consisted of more than 1,000 scientists, researchers, and technicians. The Nobel rules restrict the prize award in each field to no more than three people. LIGO, funded by the National Science Foundation, began the hunt for the cosmic ripples in 2002, and cost over a billion dollars. Previous winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics include Einstein, Marie Curie, and Niels Bohr. Three Americas are the winners of the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine are Jeffrey C. Hall of the University of Maine, and Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University, for their discovery about circadian rhythms. The research was conducted at Brandeis University. The researchers, working with fruit flies, they isolated a gene that is responsible for a protein that accumulates in the night but degrades during the day. Misalignments in this clock may play a role in medical conditions, and it explains the temporary disorientation of jet lag from travelers when crisscrossing time zones. The research began in 1984 at Brandeis and Rockefeller University in the isolation of the relevant gene, known as the "period" gene, which controls the circadian rhythm of fruit flies. The president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Erin O’Shea, said that people have observed for centuries that plants and animals change their behavior in sync with the light present in the natural environment. The team figured out how this happened.

Along with the Nobel Prizes, we have the 2017 Ig Nobel Prizes! The IgNobel prizes "honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think."

The IgNobel Fluid Dynamics Prize was awarded to Jiwon Han, a high school student at the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy when he studied the dynamics of liquid sloshing. His goal was to find out exactly what happens when a person walks backward while carrying a cup of coffee. From this experimentation, he noted that walking backward "drastically increases the chances of tripping on a stone or crashing into a passing-by colleague who may also be walking backwards", both of which would lead to spillage.

The Nutrition Prize went to Enrico Bernard and co-workers at the Federal University of Pernambuco, who identified DNA fragments associated with human blood in the feces of hairy-legged vampire bats. They concluded that the bats appear to have developed a taste for people in the absence of avian prey.

A team at Queensland University, Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, won the Ig Noble prize in Economics for their experiments assessing people’s willingness to gamble after holding a meter-long crocodile. They found that people who had negative feelings after holding the croc tended to bet less than the non-croc holding control group, while people who had no negative impacts from croc handling placed higher bets.

The Medicine Prize went to a team led by the University of Lyon’s Jean-Pierre Royet "for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

The Cognition Prize was won by Matteo Martini and co-workers at The University of Rome for their discovery that most identical twins aren’t very good at differentiating themselves from their twins in photographs.

The full IgNobel ceremony including other prizes can be viewed at research, and a public radio airing is scheduled for "Science Friday" on the day after Thanksgiving.

To close, here is some good news in the energy world, for those of us who support heading toward Clean Power.

In spite of governmental efforts to revive the coal industry, coal continues to fall out of favor, because more utilities are switching to natural gas, which has become much cheaper in recent years. The worldwide average cost of wind and solar power has fallen sharply over the last three years, according to a recent report of the International Energy Agency. Currently 15 percent of electricity generated in the United States and 24 percent worldwide come from these sources. Technical advances are making renewable energy sources more productive and more reliable. The cost of batteries for energy storage has become much cheaper. The average cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen 73% between 2010 and 2016.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal