The week is over. That first week in October when the world celebrates achievements in certain scientific fields through the awarding of the Nobel prizes. The week when stories of scientists living in the US being awakened by phone calls from Stockholm announcing the prize get their obligatory mention in the US media. The week when esoteric concepts are recognized for their impact on physiology, chemistry, and physics. All those who are not experts in the field nod in understanding, then silently acknowledge with gratitude that at least they didn’t have to really understand the achievements leading to the prizes. And then it is over. The nation’s attention span can morph to considering what the Kardashians are doing, or how the latest football sensation is making a fool of themselves on social media, or how the national political discussions have taken yet another turn towards nastiness.
In 2022, the awards in these areas showed that ongoing trends in diversity are not going to change soon. There was only one woman honored as part of a triumvirate for chemistry. Carolyn Bertozzi joined Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless for their contributions on implementing “click” chemistry. This is a way to create molecules which normally would not exist in nature. Meldal and Sharpless tried to get two types of molecules to react, molecules that act like a loaded spring with much energy to release, and found that using copper as a catalyst would cause the reaction to take place without excessive heat or other reaction conditions. Bertozzi wanted to use the reaction inside of cells, but copper is toxic. So she used a method that cranked up the spring-loading of the molecules further, and enabled reactions to take place inside of a biological cell. The application of this discovery has led to the development of a potential drug for cancer, now in clinical trials. But these discoveries have also led to development of a wide range of materials, including antimicrobials, herbicides, corrosion retardants, and many other potentially useful products. One never knows what will result from a new basic discovery.
The Nobel prize this year in Physiology, or commonly known as Medicine, went to Svante Pāābo. Normally a prize is awarded to multiple recipients, but Svante’s discovery was deemed so consequential that the prize went to him alone. He developed the methods and techniques to allow DNA to be sequenced from ancient fossils. Single-handedly he developed these techniques, ensuring that modern DNA did not contaminate the ancient bones he worked on. Now, you often may read that humans contain certain genes from Neanderthals. It was Svante’s techniques that have allowed for full expression of Neanderthal DNA from the remaining bones discovered in caves and other pre-historic sites. His contributions in this area are used by many researchers today, so eventually, it may be possible to reconstitute ancient animals from limited remains. Jurassic Park, anyone?
The prize in Physics this year went to John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeillinger for their work on quantum entanglement. Let me say that in college, I studied quantum effects. Nevertheless, I share many feelings with Albert Einstein, in that I find it weird that pairs of electrons can be linked at a distance, and determining the condition of one electron automatically determines the state of the second electron. But that is exactly what these physicists determined, quantum effects are real, and can lead to such things as eventual development of a quantum internet. This work spanned the decades between the 1970’s through the 1990’s, based upon the thought experiment developed by John Bell in the 1960’s. If John Bell were still alive, he undoubtedly would have shared in this prize. But the Nobel committee will not honor someone who is already dead. The implications of this work? Still in development, but eventually we will have quantum computers capable of solving problems a digital computer is not able to resolve. Much like fusion energy, quantum applications seem like they are always just around the corner, but this is an area I am confident will remake our lives in the decades to come.
All of the work of the Nobel team, and those who win the prizes, is reliant upon the statistical principles developed in the 19th century. Since Alfred Nobel did not see fit to recognize this field of study when he endowed his awards, it has fallen upon another person to set up an award for statistical methodology. This is a new award, and there were five collaborators who won the prize for this year. Eventually we may see the Rousseeuw prize as significant as a Nobel, but until that time comes, this is a simple shout-out for a new award. Statistical methodology is fundamental in all fields of science, and is used to determine whether observed effects are real, or potentially due to chance. When we say believe the science, it is because the effects were statistically significant.
Sources: Science magazine, 14-Oct. and 7-Oct. issues.