Image source | nobelprize.org
Physiology or Medicine: This year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.” Since the planet we inhabit is constantly oscillating between day and night, every 24 hours, numerous organisms including plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria have developed an internal clock driving their behaviour into similar, cyclic patterns over a 24-hour period to mimic their environment. This behavioural rhythm, known as the circadian rhythm, helps to regulate many physiological processes such as sleep patterns, hormone levels, metabolism, and body temperature. The work of these three laureates studied how a particular gene, known as the period gene, is responsible for the functionality of the circadian rhythm. In particular, they showed how this gene encodes a protein that accumulates during the night and degrades during the day, thereby communicating to the cells what stage of the daily cycle they are in. Since the 1980s, when the key research was carried out by these scientists, research pertaining to the circadian rhythm has become a rich and diverse field with far-reaching implications in the study of the behaviour of humans and other organisms.
Physics: The Nobel Prize in Physics is always awarded to individuals who have made great strides in their field. However, from time to time, the prize goes to researchers who have done something, not only of great significance, but of revolutionary magnitude (perhaps you recall the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 that shook the very foundations of modern physics). This year is one such year. The 2017 Physics laureates, Kip Thorne, Barry C. Barish, and Rainer Weiss, were awarded the prize “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” When Einstein formulated his famous theory of general relativity, it was shown that mass curves space-time resulting in the phenomenon of gravity. One consequence of this is that the gravitational force with which we are familiar propagates through space in the form of gravitational waves travelling at the speed of light. These waves cause minute compressions and expansions of space-time in small, localized regions as they propagate through space. For decades, researchers had hoped they would observe these fluctuations, which would confirm the existence of gravitational waves and corroborating general relativity. This year’s laureates designed an experiment known as LIGO (Light Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) to observe these gravitational waves, which was successfully completed in 2015. This experiment observes light over long distances to measure extremely small changes in the shape of space-time. The implications of these results have a significant impact on theoretical physics, as well as experimental astrophysics and cosmology, where gravitational interferometry may lead to many new and exciting discoveries in the future.
Chemistry: This year’s Chemistry laureates, Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson, were awarded the Nobel Prize “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” For more than half a century, electron microscopy has been used to produce images of molecular structures and provide scientists with a better understanding of fundamental chemical processes by bombarding samples in a vacuum with a beam of electrons and observing how they scatter. Similarly, it has been known for many years that a large variety of biological processes occur at the molecular level. However, traditional electron microscopy technologies cannot be used to image these biological phenomena because the high-energy beams of electrons destroy the fragile biological structures that scientists seek to study. This year’s laureates revolutionized this technology by developing a method of electron microscopy that holds samples in rapidly cooled water, thereby preventing the destruction of molecular structures such as proteins under the high-intensity beams of electrons and merging many two-dimensional images of these molecular structures to create high-resolution, three-dimensional models of a wide range of biological molecules such as proteins and viruses. This technology has many applications in a wide range of subjects. Recently, it has been used to image the surface of many viruses including the Zika virus, and study a variety of proteins such as those that cause antibiotic resistance. By enabling experimenters to better visualize their work, these Nobel laureates have created a tool that has vastly shaped the field of modern molecular biology.
Literature: The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Born in Japan in 1954, Ishiguro studied English and Philosophy in the UK before pursuing his distinguished career as a novelist. Ishiguro’s restrained writing style often leads readers to sympathize with the flawed nature of the protagonists, and uses themes such as memory and time to convey powerful messages within his novels. His melancholic writing has dealt with numerous powerful themes such as human self-delusion and dignity. Ishiguro’s most prominent work The Remains of the Day tells the story of a butler of an English aristocratic family in the years leading up to World War II and his master’s pro-German sympathies. Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go was named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 English-language novels since their initial issue in 1923.
Peace: The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” The most political and thus most controversial of the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize, has often been highly polarizing (for example, when it was awarded to Henry Kissinger for his work in ending the Vietnam war, despite allegations of war crimes in Cambodia). However, in a time when both the United States and North Korea have issued threats of war and promises of nuclear retaliation, perhaps this year’s Peace Prize is meant to be taken as a testament to the substantial efforts that have been made towards disarmament and to remind the world that, despite the impending nuclear catastrophe, all is not lost.
Economics: This year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Richard H. Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics.” In the traditional formulation of economic theory, all parties are treated as completely rational beings, and from this assumption, many useful models may be constructed. However, one may readily observe that people are not entirely rational. Thus, despite the wide-range of economic models that may be constructed under the assumption of rationality, they cannot truly describe the world realistically. Hence, there is a need for a more psychologically oriented theory of economic decision-making. By considering numerous aspects of human irrationality, such as social preference and lack of self-control, Thaler demonstrated how such imbalances affect buyer decisions and influence market outcomes, thus making economic theory substantially more applicable to real situations.