Last week was one of my favorite weeks of the year – Nobel Prize week. Some people wait for the Emmys or the Superbowl or Christmas. I wait for the Nobels. To be fair, I care most about the science Nobels – Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine, though one cannot ignore the amazing accomplishments of the winners in Literature, Peace, and Economics. Every year, I try to guess who may win – though Thomson Reuters and others are far more scientific about their guesses than I am. And each morning of Nobel Week, first thing I do is check the news on my phone to see who won, what for and whether or not I know them (this year – no). Let’s talk about who won the science awards this year and what amazing discoveries they won for.
Physiology or Medicine. A lot of attention has been given to infectious diseases this year with the huge Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Although tens of thousands of people were infected and died, other infectious diseases are even more widespread and affect millions of people a year. Malaria is a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes that 3.4 billion people are at risk of contracting and that kills over 450,000 people per year. Parasitic worms are also rampant in the third world, can affect up to a third of the human population, and cause such diseases as river blindness. This is the second most common cause of blindness by infection, with 17 million people infected and 0.8 million blinded by the disease. The three winners of the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine this year discovered novel treatments for these parasitic diseases. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for roundworm parasites and Youyou Tu for malaria, saving hundreds of thousands of lives each year.
Chemistry. This is by far my favorite award this year because it is directly related to how humans safeguard their DNA, but also why when this safeguard does work, that we get cancer. Awarded to Tomas Lindahl (UK), Paul Modrich (USA), and Aziz Sancar (USA), this Nobel celebrates the discovery of the mechanism of DNA repair. I’ve discussed in this blog how UV and other environmental factors can cause mutations in DNA, and with too many mutations, people can develop cancer or other diseases. However, the genome doesn’t mutate out of control because cell contain the machinery that is always working to fix any DNA damage using DNA repair mechanisms. It’s like a NASCAR race, where the car is always being monitored, wheels replaced, and minor problems fixed by the pit crew. DNA repair is the genome’s pit crew and these three scientists figured out three different ways that the cells monitors and fixes the DNA depending on the type of damage that has occurred.
Physics. We all know I’m not a physicist, but I’ll try my best. The Physics Nobel was awarded to Takaaki Kajita of Japan and Arthur B. McDonald of Canada for discovering that neutrinos have mass. You may remember from high school that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. However, scientists now know that there are even tinier parts of an atom called subatomic particles that include the neutrino, fermions and bosons (and others). Other than photons, which are the particles of light, neutrinos are the most numerous subatomic particle in the entire cosmos, so understanding how they work is incredibly important. These researchers found that the three different types of neutrinos can convert from one to the other. It was predicted by the Standard Model of Physics that these neutrinos wouldn’t have mass, but these scientists also proved that they did. Their studies help to better understand matter and the universe. My favorite reporting of this award was by NPR.
So until next year Nobel Prizes. I will be waiting with baited breath!