2012 Nobel Prizes

The 2012 Nobel Prizes were recently awarded. The Nobel Prize is an international award that is given every year to individuals who have made a discovery that significantly impacts mankind. The awards are given in the fields of Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Economics, Literature, and Peace. It is the highest honor an individual can receive in each of these fields. The Nobel Prize was started in 1901.

The Nobel Prize in Physics went to Serge Haroche (from France) and David Wineland (from the USA) for their work with extremely teeny tiny particles of light and matter called “quantum particles”. These particles are so small that even the act of measuring or observing them would change their properties. These two scientists developed methods of measuring and controlling them without changing them.  Okay, that’s great, but how does it benefit us? Well, thanks to the work of these two winners, scientists have been able to experiment with these particles and hope to build a super fast computer based on their studies. The study with quantum particles has also led to the creation of very precise clocks.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to John Gurdon (from the UK) (see image) and Shinya Yamanaka (from Japan) for their work in using adult cells to behave like young cells called stem cells. All human beings start as a single cell. The cell divides into two, and then each of those divide and so on until soon there are trillions of cells. These cells are initially not ‘specialized’ and can grow into becoming a part of the brain or the heart or the skin or any of the 200 or so types of cells in a human body. Such unspecialized cells are called stem cells. Most stem cells will become specialized, but adults do have a few stem cells left over. The reason there is a lot of excitement around stem cells is that scientists believe it may be possible to use them to cure diseases (such as heart issues, brain diseases, and bone problems). Since stem cells are not specialized, the thought is that they can be converted into specialized cells to treat a disease. For example, a patient with a heart problem may be given specialized heart stem cells that could help cure the problem.

Gurdon was the first person to use adult cells to clone an animal. All living things are made up of cells. Inside each cell is DNA – think of it as information that makes us who we are. Cloning is a scientific procedure that takes one organism’s DNA and creates another with exactly the same DNA – a true copy.  Fifty years ago, Gurdon created tadpoles using cells from an adult frog.  This was the first time an animal was cloned. Six years ago, Yamanaka figured out a method to convert adult cells into stem cells.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, both from the USA. Our human body is made up of many cells. Most cells in the body are specialized, which means they have a specific job to do. To know what’s going on around them, cells have something called “receptors”. These are like sensors on the surface of the cell that inform the inside of the cell about what’s going on in the outside world. These two scientists have helped us understand a family of receptors called G-protein–coupled receptors (GPCRs). Once the receptors communicate to the inside of the cell, the cell responds by behaving in a certain way. About half the medicines in the world have their effect through these GPCRs.

Mo Yan (from China) won the Nobel Prize in literature. He has written many novels and short stories in Chinese. His stories are often set in China’s countryside. Many of his writings have been translated into English. One of his more famous books is Red Sorghum which even has a movie based on it. Yan’s real name is Guan Moye. “Mo Yan” is his pen name and it means “don’t speak” in Chinese. He adopted this name because when he was little his parents used to tell him not to speak his mind outside the house because of the political situation in the country at the time. His family could have gotten into trouble if he said the wrong thing in front of others.

The European Union (EU) won the Nobel Peace Prize for uniting many countries in Europe and for promoting democracy and human rights in the continent. The EU is a group of 27 European countries that cooperate and work together to improve things such as trade, employment, and environment. In the 1940s, a large part of Europe was at war, and many countries did not get along. The idea of a more unified Europe started in the early 1950s to bring peace and economic stability to European countries. Six European nations got together and unified their coal and steel industries. This was very successful, and so the unification spread to other areas. More countries joined, and in 1992, a treaty creating the EU was signed.

Alvin Roth (from the USA) and Lloyd Shapley (from the USA) won the Nobel Prize for Economics. Their work improves the way supply and demand are matched. For example, let’s say you have a group of students and a bunch of schools. Students have preferences for which schools they want to attend, and schools want to admit certain kinds of students. Roth and Shapley’s work helps students to be matched with schools so that most students and schools are happy with the match. This is also used for critical problems such as matching organ donors with organ recipients. Another popular use of the method is in match making, where men and women are looking for a spouse!

Did you know?

The EU flag (see image) is blue with twelve gold stars in a circle. The number “12” was chosen because the number keeps popping up in the European world – there are 12 inches in a foot, 12 symbols of the zodiac, 12 Olympian gods, 12 hours on a clock, 12 months in a year, 12 days of Christmas, and so on.

Did you know?

John Gurdon’s science teacher in school (when he was 15 years old) had commented on how Gurdon could not be a good scientist since he couldn’t  learn the biology facts that he was told to.

Did you know?

There are twenty-three official languages of the European Union.

Did you know?

The first mammal that was cloned was Dolly, a sheep, in 1996 in the United Kingdom. Since then, there have been many firsts – Snuppy the dog (South Korea), CopyCat the cat (U.S.A.), Ralph the rat (France), Prometea the horse (Italy), Dotcom the pig (U.S.A.), Brandy the cow (Australia), and more!

Funny bone

A man is driving down a country road, when he spots a farmer standing in the middle of a huge field of grass. He pulls the car over to the side of the road and notices that the farmer is just standing there, doing nothing, looking at nothing. The man gets out of the car, walks all the way out to the farmer and asks him, “Excuse me, but what are you doing?”
The farmer replies, “I’m trying to win a Nobel Prize.”
“How?” asks the man, puzzled.
“Well, I heard they give the Nobel Prize to people who are out standing in their field.”


Image Credits: NobelPrize.org for the Nobel Award image; Deryck Chan, courtesy to cameraman Sien Yi Tan, for Gurdon’s image