German Klaus Hasselman, Italian Giorgio Parisi, and Japanese-born American Syukuro Manabe won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for the studies of chaotic and apparently random phenomena involved in studying our planet’s climate. It’s the second Nobel awarded this year so far, after the one on physiology or medicine, and more are expected to be announced in the coming days.
Half the prize, worth 10 million Swedish crowns (or $1.15 million), went in equal parts to Manabe and Hasselman for modeling Earth’s climate and reliably predicting global warming in 1960 and 1970. Meanwhile, the other half was for Parisi, who discovered in 1980 “hidden patterns” behind apparently random movements and swirls in gases and liquids.
“The discoveries being recognized this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations. This year’s Laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems,” Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement.
All complex systems have many different interacting parts. Physicists have tried to understand the moving parts in our climate system for decades, which has proven immensely challenging. They are hard to describe mathematically because of the large number of elements that can be (at least partially) governed by chance. These components can be chaotic, with small changes in initial values that can mean big differences at a later stage.
The Earth’s climate is one of many examples of complex systems. The three Nobel winners have added significant value for the world to better understand such systems and their long-term development. Manabe and Hasselmann did work on developing climate models, while Parisi came up with theoretical solutions to a wide array of problems in the theory of complex systems.
In his work, Manabe showed in 1960 how growing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere lead to a higher temperature at the surface of the Earth. He developed physical models of the Earth’s climate and explored the interaction between radiation balance and the vertical transport of air masses. His work was critical to create the currently used climate models.
Ten years later, Hasselmann developed a model that connects weather and climate, crucial to understanding why climate models are reliable despite the weather being unpredictable. He created methods to identify signals or fingerprints that natural factors and human activity have on the Earth’s climate, which was later used to prove that the world’s rising temperature is due to human emissions.
Parisi was able to find previously unseen patterns in disordered complex materials, which turned out to be one of the most significant contributions to the theory of complex systems. His work opened the door to understanding and describing many different complex materials and phenomena in physics and also in other areas, such as mathematics, biology, and neuroscience.
This year’s Nobel’s
This is the second Nobel that has so far been awarded this week, after US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were awarded the prize for Medicine on Monday. They discovered receptors in the skin that sense temperature and touch, which could allow scientists to find new ways to treat pain for many disease conditions.
Created by the Swedish inventor and businessmen Alfred Nobel, the awards have been given since 1901 with just a few interruptions due to the two world wars. This year there was no banquet in Stockholm, Sweden due to Covid-19, just like last year, which means all the winners are receiving their medals and diplomas in their home countries.
The physics Nobel has usually taken a center stage, with awards given to major breakthroughs in the way we understand the universe. Previous winners include the husband-and-wife team of Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and Albert Einstein. Last year, Roger Pensore, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez won for their findings on black holes.
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, two researchers from the United States, have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries on the receptors that allow humans to feel temperature and touch. The findings could unlock new ways of treating pain for a wide range of disease conditions.
Julius used capsaicin, a compound from chili peppers, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat, while Patapoutian used pressure-intensive cells to uncover a new class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and in the organs. This improved our understanding of the link between our senses and the environment.
“The groundbreaking discoveries by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” the Nobel committee said in a statement. “In our daily lives, we take these sensations for granted.”
Cheers and congratulations to our newest medicine laureate David Julius!
Here Julius and his wife Holly Ingraham are celebrating his #NobelPrize with a cup of early morning coffee.
Over the years, researchers have studied the mechanisms underlying our senses, such as how sound waves affect our inner ears and how light is detected by the eyes. In 1944, for example, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser won the Nobel Prize for discovering different types of sensory nerve fibers that react to different stimuli.
Since then, researchers have demonstrated that nerve cells are highly specialized to detect and transduce different types of stimuli, allowing a nuanced perception of our surroundings. But there was still an unsolved question. How are temperature and mechanical stimuli transformed into electrical impulses in the nervous system?
Julius worked with the chemical compound capsaicin, which was already known to activate nerve cells causing pain sensations, but researchers weren’t exactly sure how. He and his team created a library of DNA fragments of the genes expressed in sensory neurons and with time identified a single gene that made cells capsaicin-sensitive.
As the mechanisms for temperature sensation became clearer, there were still open questions regarding how the mechanical stimuli were converted into our senses of touch and pressure. This is where Patapoutian enters the stage. He and his team identified a cell line that produced a measurable electrical signal when individual cells were nudged with a pipette.
They assumed that the receptor activated by mechanical force was an ion channel, identifying 72 candidate genes encoding possible receptors. They inactivated each gene, one by one, to discover the one responsible for mechanosensitivity in the studied cells. They finally identified the single gene whose silencing made the cells insensitive to poking with the pipette.
“Intensive ongoing research originating from this year’s Nobel Prize awarded discoveries focusses on elucidating their functions in a variety of physiological processes. This knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain,” the Nobel committee said.
Founded by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1901. The Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine is often overshadowed by the Nobel’s for literature and peace but medicine has been in the spotlight this year amid the pandemic, with the Covid-19 vaccine creators also seen as top contenders this year.
Patapoutian was born in 1967 in Lebanon and then moved to Los Angeles in his youth. He’s now a professor at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, having previously worked at the University of California in San Francisco. Julius, 65, is a professor at the University of California after previously working at Columbia University in New York.
Both received the award at their own homes, from where they followed the online ceremony with their family, as shared in Twitter. The usual banquet in Stockholm was postponed for a second year in a row due to concerns about Covid-19 and international travel. The two researchers will also get gold medal and $1.14 million in cash.
László Lovász and Avi Wigderson have been awarded the Abel Prize, sometimes referred to as the ‘Nobel of Mathematics’. The two were recognized for groundbreaking contributions in theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, as well as “their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.”
Mathematics can often seem like an occult field of research, thoroughly detached from mundane day-to-day life. But even though we may not realize it, mathematics affects our daily lives in more ways than one.
Take, for instance, the platform I wrote this article on, and your browser or app that allows you to read it. Both are secured by algorithms which we are blissfully unaware of, but without which, it would be impossible to communicate over the internet. As the internet itself takes a more central role in our lives, the unseen algorithms that help it run smoothly also become more important — and some of those algorithms were pioneered by Lovász and Wigderson.
“Lovász and Wigderson have been leading forces in this development over the last decades. Their work interlaces in many ways, and, in particular, they have both made fundamental contributions to understanding randomness in computation and in exploring the boundaries of efficient computation,” says Hans Munthe-Kaas, chair of the Abel committee.
It was at some point in the 1970s that a generation of mathematicians realized that the emerging field of computer science was essentially a new area of application for mathematics. Randomness, for instance, became not only a curiosity of mathematics but an area with direct applications. Randomness is essential for cryptography and plays a fundamental role in the design of many algorithms.
Avi Wigderson was one of the mathematicians who understood the importance of this field. He’s part of a keen type of mathematician able to see links between seemingly unrelated areas. He has published papers with over 100 collaborators, in fields ranging from complexity theory to quantum computation. Wigderson also made contributions to a concept called zero-knowledge proof, in which one party can prove to another party that they know a value, without conveying any information apart from the fact that they know the value — 30 years on, this concept is used in blockchain technology.
Every big problem in complexity theory, Wigderson has had a go at it — often with success. His contribution to this field has been instrumental, and this is owed in part to his approachable, collaborative, and curious nature.
“I consider myself unbelievably lucky to live in this age,” he says. “[Computational complexity] is a young field. It is a very democratic field. It is a very friendly field, it is a field that is very collaborative, that suits my nature. And definitely, it is bursting with intellectual problems and challenges.”
Meanwhile, László Lovász proved himself to be a stellar mathematician from his teenage years. He published his first paper when he was 17, and it wasn’t a coincidence: he published two more in the next two years. By the time he graduated from the Eötvös Loránd University, he was awarded a Candidate Degree of Mathematical Science by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences — a degree higher than a doctorate. University regulations did not allow a student to apply for a Ph.D. until he finished his undergraduate studies, but no such rules existed in the Academy of Science because it was assumed that it wasn’t necessary.
Lovász went on to publish over a dozen papers and hold several talks at prestigious conferences before being awarded any degree, and he never really stopped. His meeting with the famous “nomadic mathematician” Paul Erdös, who was known for his insatiable hunger for mathematical problem-solving, not only inspired Lovász, but set a direction for his working style, which became open and collaborative.
Lovász is interested in connections between discrete mathematics and other branches of mathematics. His work focused especially on combinatorics (the mathematic of patterns) and graph theory (the mathematic of network). For Paul Erdös, these fields were an intellectual curiosity, but Lovász saw that they could be applied practically in the field of computer science. In the 1970s, graph theory became one of the first areas of pure mathematics to impact computer science. As the years went on, Lovász’s work established many ways in which pure mathematics can address fundamental theoretical questions in computer science. He traveled widely, held positions in several countries, and became known for his generosity and openness.
“I was very lucky to experience one of those periods when mathematics was developing completely together with an application area,” he says.
The work of the two pioneers was crucial to a then-nascent and now thriving, but the still-young field of computer science. They laid out the groundwork for the theoretical framework and continued to solve long-standing problems in various fields of mathematics.
But perhaps the most striking trait of the two laureates is their approach to mathematics: collaborative, democratic, and open. There is a lesson that can benefit all of us, regardless of our mathematical ability: mathematics, like science, and like all discovery, works best when it is collaborative.
The 2020 Nobel prize in physics has been jointly awarded to Roger Penrose, Reinhart Genzel, and Andrea Ghez for their contributions to our understanding of black holes — the Universe’s most mysterious and compact objects. Whilst Genzel and Ghez claim their share of the most celebrated prize in physics for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy — an object that we would later come to realize was a supermassive black hole which was later named Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) — Penrose is awarded his share for an arguably more fundamental breakthrough.
The Nobel is awarded to Penrose based on a 1965 paper in which he mathematically demonstrated that black holes arise as a direct consequence of the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Not only this; but for a body of a certain mass, the collapse into a singularity wasn’t just possible, or even probable. If that collapse could not be halted, singularity formation, Penrose argued, is inevitable.
“For the discovery, that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”
The Nobel Commitee awards the 2020 prize in physics to Sir Roger Penrose
The fact that Penrose showed that black holes mathematically emerge from general relativity may seem even more revolutionary when considering that the developer of general relativity — a geometric theory of gravity that suggests mass curves the fabric of spacetime — Albert Einstein did not even believe that black holes actually existed.
It was ten years after Einstein’s death in April 1955 when Penrose showed that singularities form as a result of the mathematics of general relativity and that these singularities act as the ‘heart’ of the black hole. At this central–or gravitational–singularity, Penrose argued, all laws of physics displayed in the outside Universe ceased to apply.
The paper published in January 1965 — just eight years after Penrose earned his Ph.D. from The University of Cambridge — ‘Gravitational Collapse and Spacetime Singularities’ is still widely regarded as the second most important contribution to general relativity after that of Einstein himself.
Yet, Penrose wasn’t the first physicist to mathematically unpick general relativity and discover a singularity. Despite this, his Penrose Singularity Theorem is still considered a watershed moment in the history of general relativity.
Black Holes: A Tale of Two Singularities
“A black hole is to be expected when a large massive body reaches a stage where internal pressure forces are insufficient to hold the body apart against the relentless inward pull of its own gravitational influence.”
Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
Black holes are generally regarded as possessing two singularities; a coordinate singularity and an ‘actual’ gravitational singularity. Penrose’s work concerned the actual singularity, so named because unlike the coordinate singularity, it could not be removed with a clever choice of coordinate measurement.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the coordinate singularity is unimportant or even easy to dismiss. In fact, you may already be very familiar with the coordinate singularity, albeit under a different name — the event horizon. This boundary marks the point where the region of space defined as a black hole begins, delineating the limit at which light can no longer escape.
The discovery of the event horizon occurred shortly after the first publication of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1915. In 1916, whilst serving on the Eastern Front in the First World War astrophysicist Karl Schwarzschild developed the Schwarzschild solution, which described the spacetime geometry of an empty region of space. One of the interesting features of this solution — a coordinate singularity.
The coordinate singularity — also often taking a third more official name as the Schwarzschild radius (Rs) — exists for all massive bodies at r =Rs = 2GM/c². This marks the point where the escape velocity of the body is such that not even light can escape its grasp. For most cosmic bodies the Schwarzschild radius falls well within its own radius (r). For example, the Sun’s Rs occurs at a radius of about 3km from the centre compared to an overall radius of 0.7 million km.
Thus, the Schwarzschild radius or event horizon marks the boundary of a light-trapping surface. A distant observer could see an event taking place at the edge of this surface, but should it pass beyond that boundary — no signal could ever reach our observer. An observer falling with the surface, though, would notice nothing about this boundary.
The passing of Rs would just seem a natural part of the fall to them despite it marking the point of no return. To the distant observer… the surface would freeze and become redder and redder thanks to the phenomena of gravitational redshift — also the reason the event horizon is sometimes referred to as the surface of infinite redshift.
The very definition of a black hole is a massive body whose surface shrinks so much during the gravitational collapse that its surface lies within this boundary. But, what if this collapse continues? When does it reach a central singularity at the heart of the black hole–r= 0 for the mathematically inclined?
Birthing a Black Hole
“We see that the matter continues to collapse inwards through the surface called the event horizon, where the escape velocity indeed becomes the speed of light. Thereafter, no further information from the star itself can reach any outside observer, and a black hole is formed.”
Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
Penrose and other researchers have found that the equations of general relativity open the possibility that a body may undergo a complete gravitational collapse — shrinking to a point of almost infinite density — and become a black hole.
In order for this to happen, however, a series of limits have to be reached and exceeded. For example, planets are unable to undergo this gravitational collapse as the mass they possess is insufficient to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion between their consistent atoms — thus granting them stability.
Likewise, average-sized stars such as the Sun should also be resistant to gravitational collapse. The plasma found at the centre of stars in this solar-mass range is believed to be roughly ten times the density of lead protecting from complete collapse, whilst the thermal pressure arising from nuclear processes and radiation pressure alone would be sufficient to guarantee a star of low to intermediate-mass stability.
For older, more evolved stars in which nuclear reactions have ceased due to a lack of fuel. It’s a different story. Especially if they have a mass ten times greater than the Sun.
It was suggested as early as the 1920s that small, dense stars — white dwarf stars — were supported against collapse by phenomena arising from quantum mechanics called degeneracy.
This ‘degeneracy pressure’ arises from the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that fermions such as electrons are forbidden from occupying the same ‘quantum state’. This led a physicist called Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar to question if there was an upper limit to this protection.
In 1931, Chandrasekhar proposed that above 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, a white dwarf would no longer be protected from gravitational collapse by degeneracy pressure. Beyond this boundary— unsurprisingly termed the Chandrasekhar limit — gravity overwhelms the Pauli exclusion principle and gravitational collapse continues unabated.
The discovery of neutrons — the neutral partner of protons in atomic nuclei — in 1932 led Russian theorist Lev Landau to speculate about the possibility of neutron stars. The outer part of these stars would contain neutron-rich nuclei, whilst the inner sections would be formed from a ‘quantum-fluid’ comprised of mostly neutrons.
Again, neutron stars would be protected against gravitational collapse by degeneracy pressure — this time provided by this neutron fluid. In addition to this, the greater mass of the neutron in comparison to the electron would allow neutron stars to reach a greater density before undergoing collapse.
To put this into perspective, a white dwarf with the mass of the Sun would be expected to have a millionth of our star’s volume — giving it a radius of 5000 km roughly that of the Earth. A neutron star of a similar mass though, that would have a radius of about 20km — roughly the size of a city.
By 1939, Robert Oppenheimer had calculated that the mass-limit for neutron stars would be roughly 3 times the mass of the Sun. Above that limit — again, gravitational collapse wins. Oppenheimer also used general relativity to describe how this collapse appears to a distant observer. They would consider the collapse to take an infinitely long time, the process appearing to slow and freeze as the star’s surface shrinks towards the Schwarzschild radius.
Straight to the Heart: The Inevitability of the cental singularity
“So long as Einstein’s picture of classical spacetime can be maintained, acting in accordance with Einstein’s equation then a singularity will be encountered within a black hole. The expectation is that Einstein’s equation will tell us that this singularity cannot be avoided by any matter in the hole…”
Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
For Penrose, the mathematical proof of a physical singularity at the heart of a black hole arising from this complete collapse was not enough. He wanted to demonstrate the singularity and the effects on a spacetime that would arise there. He did so with the use of ‘light cones’ travelling down a geodesic — an unerringly straight line. In the process, he unveiled the anatomy of the black hole.
A light cone is most simply described as the path that a flash of light created by a single event and travelling in all directions would take through spacetime. Light cones can be especially useful when it comes to physicists calculating which events can be causally linked. If a line can’t be drawn between the two events that fits in the light cone, one cannot have caused the other.
We call a line emerging from a lightcone a ‘world-line’–these move from the central event out through the top of the cone–the future part of the diagram. The worldline shows the possible path of a particle or signal created by the event at the origin of the lightcone. Throwing a light cone at a black hole demonstrates why passing the event horizon means a merger with the central singularity is inevitable.
Penrose considered what would happen to a light cone as it approached and passed the event horizon of what is known as a ‘Kerr black hole.’ This is a black hole that is non-charged and rotating. Its angular momentum drags spacetime along with it in an effect researchers call frame dragging.
Far from the black hole, light is free to travel with equal ease in any direction. The lightcones here have a traditionally symmetrical appearance which represents this.
However, towards the static limit — the point at which the black hole starts to drag spacetime around with it — the lightcones begin to tip towards the singularity and in the direction of rotation and narrow. Thus the static limit represents the point at which light is no longer free to travel in any direction. It must move in a direction that doesn’t oppose the rotation of the black hole. Particles at this limit can no longer sit still — hence the name static limit.
Yet, despite the fact the dragging effect is so strong, here that not even light can resist it, signals can escape this region — it isn’t the event horizon — but they can only do so by travelling in the direction of the rotation.
Interestingly, Penrose suggests that particles entering the static limit and decaying to two separate particles may result in energy leaching from the black hole in what is known as the Penrose process, but that’s a discussion for another time.
So as our light cone moves toward the event horizon, it begins to narrow and tip. But, something extraordinary happens when it passes this boundary. As long as one is using so-called Swartzchild coordinates, once ‘inside the black hole’ proper, the lightcone flips on its side, with the ‘future end’ of the cone pointed towards the singularity.
This can mean only one thing for the worldline of that event, it points to the central singularity signalling that an encounter with that singularity is evitable.
The Anatomy of a Black Hole
“It is generally believed that the spacetime singularities of gravitational collapse will necessarily always lie within an event horizon, to that whatever happens to be the extraordinary physical effects at such a singularity, these will be hidden from the view of any external observer.”
Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
Black holes aren’t particularly complex in construction and posses only three properties –mass, electric charge, and angular momentum–but physicists working with light cones were able to determine the layers of their anatomy–and crucially, the bounded surfaces that exist within them. This is what was revolutionary about Penrose’s concepts, they introduced the concept of bounded surfaces to black holes.
Looking back on this from an era in which a black hole has been imaged for the first time and gravitational waves are beginning to be routinely measured from the mergers of such objects, it’s important to not underestimate the importance of Penrose’s findings.
Before any practical developments surround black holes could even be dreamed of, Roger Penrose provided the mathematical basis to not just suggest the existence of black holes, but also laying the groundwork for their anatomy, and the effect they have on their immediate environment.
Thus, what Penrose’s Nobel award can really be seen as a recognition of moving these objects — or more accurately, spacetime events — from the realm of speculation to scientific theory.
Original research and further reading
Penrose. R., ‘Gravitational Collapse and Space-Time Singularities,’ Physical Review Letters, vol. 14, Issue 3, pp. 57-59, 
Penrose. R., ‘The Road to Reality,’ Random House, 2004
Senovilla. J. M. M., Garfinkle. G., ‘The 1965 Penrose Singularity Theorem,’ Classical and Quantum Gravity, .
Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology, Robert J. Lambourne, Cambridge Press, 2010.
Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology: A basic introduction, Ta-Pei Cheng, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice have been awarded for the discovery of hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to tests and cures for the dangerous disease.
“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” the Nobel Committee said in announcing the prize in Stockholm.
Scientists had long known about the hepatitis A and B viruses, but they were poking in the dark trying to find the hepatitis (hep) C virus. It took decades of work from Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton to make that breakthrough.
As is often the case, the Nobel Prize was awarded to breakthroughs that made a practical difference in the world — and this certainly fit the bill. Identifying the hepatitis C virus has led to efficient screens for the virus, making blood supplied for transfusions much safer than it was in the past. Up until the 1960s, medics were gravely concerned about a number of people receiving blood transfusions containing a mysterious infectious agent. That turned out to be the hep C virus.
“We take it for granted that if you get a transfusion, you’re not going to get sick from that transfusion. That was not the case before but is certainly the case now,” Rice said in an interview with AP. Before the tests, the risk of contracting the disease from a transfusion was about 1 in 10, now it’s closer to 1 in a million.
The discovery paved the way for treatments to save thousands every year. This is currently the only chronic viral infection that can be reliably cured, using one of several potent drugs. Without treatment, the virus can cause liver scars, cancer, or even damage requiring a liver transplant.
However, despite remarkable progress, the disease still affects over 70 million people every year, killing 400,000. We have the technology to save these people, it’s all about making the drugs cheaper and more available.
“What we need is the political will to eradicate it” and to make the drugs affordable enough to do it, Alter said.
The award comes at a very important time for the medical community around the world. In a statement, the Nobel Assembly said the isolation of Hepatitis C had marked a “landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases”.
“It takes time before it’s fully apparent how beneficial a discovery is,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee.
This serves as a stark reminder that dealing with COVID-19 isn’t something that will happen overnight — even for a disease that’s been studied for decades and for which treatment exists, making it really go away with treatment alone is turning to be a massive challenge.
“To control an epidemic, you need to have a vaccine,” Houghton said. For “diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, we’ve had cheap drugs available for decades, and yet we still have big epidemics of those diseases.”
As for the three new laureates, they weren’t exactly hugging the phone in expectation. Perlmann struggled to reach Alter and Rice by phone.
“I had to call a couple of times before they answered,” Perlmann said. “They seemed very surprised and very, very happy.”
The Nobel Prize for Medicine is pretty much the highest recognition you can obtain in the field. The prize honors great minds that made breakthrough discoveries that better the world, with an emphasis on science that paved the way for practical applications. The prize also comes with 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.1 million), as was requested by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, 124 years ago.
The Nobel Physics Prize 2019 has been jointly awarded to James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. Peebles received half of the prize “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”, while the other half was jointly awarded to Mayor and Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
It was a fitting award in the field of cosmology, which has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent decades.
“This year’s Laureates have transformed our ideas about the cosmos,” the Assembly wrote in a release accompanying the Prize’s announcement. “While James Peebles’ theoretical discoveries contributed to our understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz explored our cosmic neighbourhoods on the hunt for unknown planets. Their discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world.”
James Peebles is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading theoretical cosmologists, being a major figure in the field ever since the 1970s. He made numerous contributions to the Big Bang model, particularly explaining what happened in the universe in the instances after the Big Bang took place. Along with several cosmologists, he successfully predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation. He was working in the field of physical cosmology long before it was regarded as a “serious” branch of physics and did much to change this unwarranted perception. Peebles also contributed to the establishment of the dark matter concept, and also worked on dark energy.
Meanwhile, Mayor and Queloz were the first to discover an exoplanet around a main-sequence star, in a solar system fairly similar to our own. In 1995 Queloz was a Ph.D. student at the University of Geneva, and Mayor was his advisor. Together, they used Doppler spectroscopy (an indirect velocity measurement using the Doppler shift) to discover 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet which lies around 50 light-years away from Earth. 51 Pegasi b is the prototype for a class of planets called “hot Jupiters” — planets which look like Jupiter, but orbit much closer to their star and are very hot. The star marked a breakthrough in astronomical research and is still actively studied today (in 2017, traces of water were detected in its atmosphere). The exoplanet’s discovery was announced on October 6, 1995, in the journal Nature.
Today, the field of cosmology is well established, and we have discovered thousands of exoplanets — but these three were true trailblazers for their respective fields. It’s a remarkable testament to how far we’ve come and how influential their work was.
Herein also lies one of the beauties and the curses of the Nobel Prize: because it’s often awarded decades after the discovery was made, it serves as a lifetime achievement award, but it often feels non-contemporary.
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on molecular mechanisms controlling circadian systems.
It’s my favorite kind of research: sleep research. Circadian rhythms control when we’re at our best, our worst, and when we sleep. For everything we do that messes up this rhythm, we pay a price. Fly to a different time zone? Jet lag. Midnight snack? Mess up your metabolism. All nighter? Feel like crap the next day. The circadian rhythm affects everything from energy levels to metabolism, mood, and even fertility. But how is our body so good at keeping time, and how do all the individual parts of our body keep the same rhythm?
“The circadian system has its tentacles around everything,” Rosbash said in an interview with the HMI Bulletin in 2014. “It’s ticking away in almost every tissue in the human body.” It’s also in plants, including major food crops, the article noted, and appears to be tied to “disease susceptibility, growth rate, and fruit size.”
This is where the research steps in. The field of science emerged in the 1970s when geneticist Seymour Benzer and his student Ron Konopka managed to track down the genes that encode biological timing in fruit flies. Hall, Rosbash and Young also studied fruit flies, using them as a model organism. They showed that many genetical abnormalities and serious diseases are correlated with irregular circadian rhythms. A genetic mutation has already been found in some people who have a chronic sleeping problem, Young said. Among others, Alzheimer’s, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), heart disease, obesity and diabetes and other metabolic issues are all included.
They suspected that because the effects are virtually ubiquitous inside the body, the brain likely uses one element to keep track of time. It wasn’t easy, but they managed to isolate a gene that is responsible for a protein that accumulates in the night but is degraded in the day. This was one of the key cogs in the mechanism, and paved the way for their later groundbreaking research.
“Before you’ve got the genes, everything is a black box,” Michael Hastings of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, said. “Once you’ve got the genes, everything is possible.”
At the moment, the discovery didn’t generate the excitement it probably deserved. Even though researchers explained that it could one day enable us to understand sleep and the circadian rhythm, it just didn’t cause a big stir. It took years and years before the doors their research opened became obvious.
Hall, who is now retired, said he got the notice call at 5 a.m. — but due to age-related changes in his own circadian rhythms, he was already awake. He added that he would love to reinvest some of the money into his research… but unfortunately, he retired from that years ago.Here’s his awesome and unconventional speech:
Rosbash, a 73-year-old professor at Brandeis, talked more about their research. He told the AP that he and his two colleagues worked to understand “the watch … that keeps time in our brains.”
“You recognize circadian rhythms by the fact that you get sleepy at 10 or 11 at night, you wake up automatically at 7 in the morning, you have a dip in your alertness in the midday, maybe at 3 or 4 in the afternoon when you need a cup of coffee, so that is the clock,” he explained.
“The fact that you go to the bathroom at a particular time of day, the fact if you travel over multiple time zones your body is screwed up for several days until you readjust — all that is a manifestation of your circadian clock.”
The Nobel Prize in Physics was also awarded earlier today. I won’t give any spoilers, but the gravity of the situation should not be underestimated.
Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for helping uncover one of the biggest mysteries in modern physics: Gravitational Waves.
Black hole mergers are among the few phenomena which create observable gravitational waves. Credits: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart.
The Nobel Prize
The prize was awarded “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” the committee said in a press release, with representative Göran K. Hansson adding that the discovery “shook the world.”
Indeed, who gets the Nobel Physics award is usually anybody’s guess, but this year, all the rumors leaned heavily towards gravitational waves. As much as good science is being done every year, it’s hard to rival something as groundbreaking as gravitational waves. However, since over a thousand scientists, researchers and technicians worked at the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, it wasn’t exactly clear which people will receive the prize. Half of the prize will go to Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The other half will be split by Barish and Thorne, both working at the California Institute of Technology.
The three were among the architects and founders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, along with the late Ron Drever, who unfortunately passed away this year. Many believe that had he lived, Drever would have also been awarded the prize.
Gravitational waves were first proposed by Einstein more than a century ago but had never been directly seen. At some point, Einstein himself started doubting their existence, but one of his assistants convinced him that mathematically, they should exist. But actually seeing them… that was a whole new ball game.
Finding gravitational waves
The Nobel prize winners weren’t the first people who thought of using interferometry (a group of techniques in which electromagnetic waves are superimposed, causing the phenomenon of interference, in order to extract information) to detect gravitational waves. It all started with U.S. physicist Robert Forward building a small interferometer in the 1960s. But it was Weiss, who once flunked out of college, who analyzed the technique thoroughly. He realized that you need a much bigger setup and kilometers-long interferometers. He also figured out what were the main sources of noise and how they could be best eliminated. That report became the foundation of LIGO, even though it was never officially published.
From left to right: Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. Credits: Science / Caltech.
Though not without difficulty, Weiss managed to convince Thorne, who greatly pushed the project forward, especially when he hired Drever in 1979. But the difficulties were still immense. A typical gravitational wave would change the distance between two mirrors placed kilometers away by an incredibly small amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Weiss recalls that when he first presented the experiment to potential funders at the National Science Foundation (NSF), everyone thought they were out of his mind. But the project did, ultimately, receive funding — at least for a while. In 1994, the NSF was thinking of canceling the entire thing, when Barish stepped in. He made a significant design tweak and assumed leadership of the project until he stepped down in 2005.
“LIGO wouldn’t have happened without his leadership,” says Stanley Whitcomb, a physicist at Caltech and an original member of LIGO. “It was something that Rai[ner] and Kip couldn’t do.”
It was only in 2015 that LIGO first picked up evidence of gravitational wave. The culmination of so many decades of work was starting to shape up. Since then, gravitational waves have been spotted four times — the last time just a couple of months ago, a discovery confirmed by two separate detectors, LIGO and Virgo. It’s not every day that we manage to open a new window into the universe, but this is exactly what their research has done.
So it all started decades ago, but it finally came true. Weiss set out the plan. Thorne did the theory. Barish made it all come true in a moment when it seemed to go south. A thoroughly deserved Nobel Prize.
A gracious response
But the three researchers emphasized that over a thousand people have worked at LIGO over the years. Barish says it’s bittersweet that for such a complex project, only three people are honored.
“I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about the recognition of individuals when so much of this was a team effort,” he says.
Weiss says it’s strange to receive money for something you love doing.
“Receiving money for something that was a pleasure to begin with is a little outrageous,” he says. “The best way I can think of it is we’re symbols for the much bigger group of people who made [LIGO] happen.”
Weiss also said he will donate the prize money to MIT to help support students.
Arguably the sexiest man in physics, Richard Feynman is one of the most well known scientific personalities. Along with two other physicists, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles” — specifically for the development of “Feynman diagrams.”
There are many physicists who have made remarkable contributions to science, yet what made Feynman so special was his uncanny ability to communicate his findings and physics in general. Feynman was at times called “The Great Explainer” because of his skill at making complex subjects accessible to students, and while still a professor at Caltech he released his now famous Feynman Lectures on Physics. The three-volume collection has since become the most popular physics text book. Now, the whole collection is available for free, online for your personal consideration.
If you’ve ever been discouraged by physics classes, but would still like to dabble, look no further. Study these notes with care and patience and you’ll be amazed how easy it is to understand physics, be it classical thermodynamics or spooky quantum mechanics. Seriously, you’ll be surprised!
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel won the 2013 Nobel Prize For Chemistry on Wednesday “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”
Chemists used to create atomic models using balls and sticks. Some 40 years ago, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel laid the foundation for the powerful programs that are used to understand and predict chemical processes. Because chemical reactions occur so incredibly fast (in a fraction
of a millisecond, electrons jump from one atomic nucleus to the other) traditional chemistry has had an incredibly hard time keeping up. But the work of the trio went a long way to bridging that gap. Aided by the methods now awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, scientists let computers unveil chemical processes.
Furthermore, the work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel allowed chemists to use both Newton’s classical
physics work and the fundamentally different the fundamentally different quantum physics.
“In short what we developed is a way which requires computers to look, to take the structure of the protein and then to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does,” Warshel said.
The July 2012 discovery of the particle in the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, has been billed as one of the biggest scientific achievements of the last 50 years. The Higgs boson, also sometimes referred to as the God particle, is thought to be the elementary particle responsible for granting all matter with mass. It’s become obvious now how monumental this discovery is.
But why not last year? In 2012 everybody was expecting Englert and Higgs to win the physics prize, but instead the award went to two scientists (Haroche and Wineland ) for their work with light and matter, which may lead the way to superfast quantum computing and the most precise clocks ever seen. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences often steers away from scientific premiers and chooses to opt for more mature research. This year, however, it was clear than Englert and Higgs shouldn’t be missed.
Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel created the prizes in 1895 to honor work in physics, chemistry, literature and peace. Since 1901, the committee has handed out the Nobel Prize in physics 106 times. The youngest recipient was Lawrence Bragg, who won in 1915 at the age of 25. For the 2013 awards, so far the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been announced: James E Rothman, Randy W Schekman and Thomas C Südhof for their work on the mechanism that controls the transport of membrane-bound parcels or ‘vesicles’ through cells.
Has it already been a year? It’s Nobel Prize season once again, and the first award has been given in “Physiology or Medicine“. James E Rothman, Randy W Schekman and Thomas C Südhof took the prize for their work on the mechanism that controls the transport of membrane-bound parcels or ‘vesicles’ through cells.
The American trio solved one of medicine’s biggest mysteries – how a cell transports crucial cargo—such as hormones—to the right place at the right time.
“The significance of the work [relates to] how cells talk to each other,” said Mike Cousin, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This discovery has underpinned a lot of cell-biology research over the past 20 years.”
Besides the tremendous scientific value of their research, the practical value is also huge; any disturbance in this transport mechanism can cause a range of ailments, from neurological diseases to diabetes and even immune disorders. For example, certain bacteria mess up the transport machinery and cause tetanus, a disease that kills thousands of newborns each year. A similar thing happens in many cases of schizophrenia. Several labs are now working on this transport mechanism in an attempt to find treatments for such maladies – all thanks to the three researchers work.
Dr. Schekman came up with the idea of studying the problem in yeast; many researchers frowned upon this idea, believing that findings on a single-celled creature couldn’t possibly apply to organisms as complicated as our own, and because they also thought yeast doesn’t have a complex excretion system. But Dr. Schekman persevered. He compared normal yeast cells to some in which he had disrupted the normal behavior, and was thus able to identify which genes are responsible the transport to different compartments and to the cell surface.
“It’s not intuitive, but when you cripple the process, you gain a lot of information” about how the transportation process works, said Dr. Schekman, at a press conference in Berkeley on Monday.
Meanwhile, through a series of ingenious experiments, discovered specific proteins on the vesicle membrane that fuse or “dock” with matching proteins, just as if they were two sides of a zipper – but why this happened was still unclear. Dr. Südhof discovered that when the vesicle’s molecular machinery senses calcium ions, it triggers the docking process – thus explaining how the magic happens.
Samuel Yin, a Taiwanese businessman, has recently announced during a press conference in Taipei the founding of the Tang Prize, a foundation that aims to reward major achievements in the fields of science in a similar manner to the European Nobel Prize, only with bigger cash prizes, while also supporting research.
With an estimated personal wealth of around $3 billion, Yin made a fortune in real estate, finance, and retail investments. So far, he has set some $102 million for the foundations in hope of stimulating and rewarding important advancements in science. Academia Sinica, which oversees Taiwan’s premier research labs, will be responsible for nominating and judging prize recipients worth $1.36 million in each of four fields – sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law – with an additional $341,000 assigned to support recipient-proposed plans for research and talent development in related fields for 5 years. This amounts to $1.7 million for each prize, well over the Nobel Prize, which for 2012 was about $1.2 million.
“I hope that the prize will encourage more research that is beneficial to the world and humankind, promote Chinese culture, and make the world a better place,” Yin said.
The Tang Prize is named after the famous Tang Chinese dynasty that ruled the ancient Chinese empire for 1,000 years and is synonymous to national cultural and scientific landmarks. Yin admires the dynasty and considers it to be the golden age for Chinese civilization, hence his tribute. This is the latest in a slew of efforts made by Yin to consolidate science and education in China, following heavy investments.
The first prize announcement is slated for July 2014. The Tang Prize, however, isn’t the singular science philanthropic event. For instance, the Shaw Prize, which annually confers $1 million for work in astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences was established in Hong Kong in 2002. In Japan, there are three other major science prizes (Kyoto Prize, Japan Prize, Blue Planet Prize), that hand out about $550,000 to each winner annually.
The Nobel Prize has been awarded to a single scientist, which is less common than you might think, for the discovery of the structure of quasicrystals.
When this new structure was first proposed, to say that it stirred controversy would be putting it light; at first, the idea was so outside of the general consensus, that his own research group kicked him out. Daniel Shechtman, from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa received the top award that can be awarded in chemistry, thus cleaning his name and making up for the years in which he was disconsidered and even ridiculed by his own peers. As mister Shechtman recalls, pretty much nobody from the scientific communitiy believed in him:
“The head of my lab came to me smiling sheepishly, and put a book on my desk and said: ‘Danny, why don’t you read this and see that it is impossible what you are saying,'”
Still, he published the results, and it was only after that that all hell broke loose. He was told he was a disgrace for his research group and asked to leave.
However, time proved him right, and quasicrystals sparkled quite a lot of interest, and Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry called them ‘quite beautiful’. He also added:
“Quasicrystals are a fascinating aspect of chemical and material science – crystals that break all the rules of being a crystal at all.”
Quasicrystals are structural forms that are ordered but not periodic. They form patterns that fill all the space though they lack translational symmetry.
In other Nobel news, Tuesday’s award for physics went to Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess of the US and Brian Schmidt of Australia, who will divide the prize for their discovery that our Universe’s expansion is accelerating.
In a slapp across Beijing’s face, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to imprisoned Chinese scholar Liu Xiaobo, for “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. The decision of the Nobel jury goes totally against the Chinese government, who claims Liu Xiaobo is nothing more than a criminal. The Nobel Committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland spoke his mind about this decision.
“China has become a big power in economic terms as well as political terms, and it is normal that big powers should be under criticism”
What’s even more interesting is that during the time he made this statement the broadcast on the BBC and CNN went black; also, there have been reports that text messages containing “Liu Xiaobo” were blocked and not being sent, which is probably the work of the Chinese government – who has also taken an angry official stance, as you could easily guess:
“To give the Peace Prize to such a person is completely contrary to the purpose of the award and a blasphemy of the Peace Prize”.
They also said this will probably damage the relationship between China and Norway. As for his wife, who is supposed to be free, her house was surrounded by police cars and she wasn’t allowed to meet reporters, giving statements via text messages. She added that she will give the good news to her husband on Saturday, because theoretically he doesn’t have any way of finding out (but I seriously doubt he hasn’t already).
“I am grateful to the Nobel Committee for selecting my husband, Liu Xiaobo, to be the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a true honor for him and one for which I know he would say he is not worthy … I hope that the international community will take this opportunity to call on the Chinese government to press for my husband’s release.”
A literary critic, Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned several times for protesting against the Beijing regime. Last year he was convicted just on Christmas day, when pretty much every foreign reporter was away, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. The evidence against him was a series of essays he wrote; he is currently held in a prison cell with five ordinary criminals.
In January, a group including Vaclav Havel and Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama co-signed an article saying Liu deserved the price without a doubt, for “his bravery and clarity of thought about China’s future”. While it is not uncommon for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to someone who has been previously incarcerated (take Nelson Mandela for the most famous example), it is indeed very rare for it to be given to someone currently in jail. Only German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi can claim this distinction.
What’s ironic is that this is the first time a Chinese who hasn’t left the country gets the awards; physicists Frank Yang and Lee Tsung-Dao and novelist Gao Xingjian won the prize for work they did outside China. The bad news is that this will probably infuriate Beijing even more and we may very well see more human rights or pro democracy activists being arrested. Imagine that; human rights, democracy… who knows what they’ll think of next ?