The best week ever – Nobel Prize week!

nobelLast 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!


7 Fun and Interesting Science Websites

I spend a lot of time on my computer; most of my day at work, a few hours when I get home, and every weekend writing this blog and working. Like everyone else, I have high hopes that I’ll focus and power through the day without surfing the web, but I fail miserably every time.  Besides my go-to fluffy news and fun sites (SlateNot Always Working, Dooce), I try, at the very least, to stay on topic and look at science-related website.  Often this means browsing the Table of Contents for hardcore science journals like Nature, Science or Cell, but more often lately, I’m looking at interesting general science websites with stories posted by my scientist friends on Facebook or Twitter. I realize that you, my readers, may not have hundreds of scientist friends regularly sharing  science posts, links and websites with you over social media, so I’ll share some today. Here are seven fun websites that I think you might enjoy.

IFLScience1. I F**king Love Science (IFLScience)

With 21 million followers on Facebook, I’m guessing you’ve heard of this one, but if not, it deserves a follow.  Although there has been some recent controversy about IFLScience posting inaccurate or misleading stories and then failing to correct them, overall this is a fun site that posts multiple times a day about topics from health to space an everything in between.

Ignobel2. Ig Nobel Awards  

Some people wait all year to find out who gets nominated for the Academy Awards and they throw Oscar parties to see who won.  As stereotypical as it may sound, I have that level of excitement for the Nobel Prize announcements. The Nobel website is great, but since I’m guessing you aren’t as obsessed with this yearly event as I am, I’m going to suggest the Ig Nobel Award website instead! Modeled after the Noble Prizes, these awards highlight improbable research that also makes you think. For example, this year the Ig Nobel for Medicine went to researchers in India for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork (aka bacon). REALLY FUNNY!

radiolab3. Radiolab

Technically Radiolab is a podcast on NPR, but they do have a website with archives of their podcasts. The two hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are amazing storytellers who focus each of their episodes on a single topic like Sleep or Speed or Sperm. What’s so creative is how they use sound throughout their stories to bring the science to life. I saw them speak about science communication at a meeting, and they ended their presentation with a video that was created based on their episode about Death call Moments. Watch it. It’s incredible.

wired4. Wired Science Section

Wired is a magazine for nerds, and since I’m a total nerd, I love it. vWhat I like the most is that they weave an interesting story without forgoing the important details when dealing with complicated scientific topics, for example, the recent article on the genome editing system CRISPR. I know a lot about CRISPR and genome editing, and I didn’t feel like they watered the topic down, but it was still accessible to a non-scientific audience.

scientificamerican5. Scientific American

One of a few popular science magazines, this is the only one that I look at regularly The articles are fun to read plus in every issue they have a profile of a scientist, which I think is a pretty great way to help people get to know who scientists are as people.  Also, in honor of Jon Stewart leaving the Daily Show (*sigh*), they posted the Top 10 list of  best Science Moments from the show. What’s better than that for Daily Show withdrawal?

NYT6. The New York Times

I love the science section of The New York Times. Matt Ridley (who wrote one of my book club choices Genome), Carl Zimmer and Gina Kolata are only three of many fabulous science journalists who take the time to research a story extraordinarily well providing a real depth and understanding in their pieces.

sciencemag7. News sections for Nature and Science

I know that I said that Nature and Science are hardcore science-for-scientists website, but their News sections hit on the top stories of the week and are more accessible than the science articles.  They also compile in-depth special sections, like the recent “Ebola: Did we Learn?” that has articles about the new Ebola vaccine, what we learned from this ebola pandemic, and how we might respond better next time.

Why did I choose these websites and not others?  Mostly because they were the first that came to mind.  There are thousands of others, and many are listed on the sidebar of this blog. I will also post lists like this every so often so you can get more info about some of these sites.  And please share in the comments your favorite science websites!

Book Club: The Double Helix

doublehelixIn case you missed why I’m creating a book club, check out my previous post.

The first book in the book club is The Double Helix written by the Nobel Prize winner James Watson.  He won the Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 by discovering the structure of DNA (learn more about DNA in my earlier post What is DNA?).  This is a provocative book written by a provocative scientist about how he came to discover this structure (a great review of the book can be found here).  Much of it deals with the relationship with Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who created the images that provided Watson with the information that allowed him to determine the structure, and his other colleagues. This book also gives you insight into the mind of a scientist (though please don’t use this book to judge all scientists because his personality really is a unique one). If you’re interested in the original scientific publication, you can find it here – it’s incredibly short, considering its significance.

After my mom read this book, she put it down and asked me “I understand that they solved the structure and all, but why was it so important?” This was so important because this structure indicated that the bases (described here) paired together: A with T and G with C.  This meant that the sequence of either strand could be used as templates to copy the DNA. Copying DNA needs to be done every time a cell divides – and considering that humans (who have 37 trillion cells) come from one original cell (the fertilized egg), that’s a LOT of dividing that needs to be done.

An interesting aside – I’ve met and talking with Jim Watson many times since he was the Chancellor at the graduate school I attended.  He was an interesting character.  His legacy is very much defined by this discovery, but also of his vision for the laboratory that he ran on Long Island, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  My Mom has met him several times as well, and I suppose both of us can legitimately say that we have learned a few things from a Noble Prize winner.

For more Book Club books, click here.