What do women, quasicrystals, dendritic cells, an accelerating expanding universe, and apparently every Swede to ever pick up a pen, all share in common?


With the usual fanfare, a smidgeon of controversy, plenty of tragedy, and much interest, the Nobel Prizes for 2011 have just been announced at the Swedish Karolinska Institute.

This article is published in The University Times

Alfred Nobel’s legacy provides 10 million Swedish Kronor per prize to the most outstanding people in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. Just to clarify, that is approximately 1,088,137 euros and 33 cents. Who says Peace doesn’t pay? Of course the Nobel Prize is about more than money though! Bragging rights for the laureates are as eternal as the subsequent lecture tours.

While the prizes for Peace and Literature generally excite the most controversy, prizes for the Sciences are usually more predictable – mainly because the judges want to ensure that the data is not subsequently retracted, but also to ensure that the repercussions of that science are significant in their effect upon humanity. Consequently the prizes are generally given to a bunch of old guys for stuff they did a few decades ago that we already know about. Maybe that’s why they created the Peace prize, just to throw a curve ball into the mix and keep us from glazing over during the ceremony.

What is the field of Peace, I hear you ask. Yes indeed, we are all a little confused after the Obomber won it in 2009. Well the Prize for Peace this year went to the Yemeni and Liberian women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

To Literature and that most viperous of crowds to please, the literati.

With the announcement of this year’s Literature Nobel laureate, some might be muttering “surprize surprize … the Lit Nobel went to another Swede!” The poet Tomas Tranströmer took the cash this year because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” More than a handful of cowboy hat-donning Frowns across the Atlantic have already suggested that his work is of little interest outside Sweden, which is just their way of shrouding their embarrassment of having never heard of the guy. Besides, what Nobel award ceremony would be complete without the critic’s decree of the anti-American Eurocentric nature of the Nobels? Really? That is a criticism? From the very people who invented societal introspection? Come up with your own prize then. How dare you criticise the Nobels! In punishment for your upstart nature we shall give the Lit prize to the Swedes, women can finally have Peace, and you … you New Worlders, well … you can have the rest.

To the rest then …

This year Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess were awarded the Physics prize “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.” The Americans made discoveries that effectively turned our understanding of the state of the universe upside down. We all know that the Big Bang was said to have led to the expansion of our universe. And in the same way that shrapnel slows following an explosion, one must forgive us for thinking that the galactic expansion might be in a state of decay. Alarmingly however, the laureates discovered that the exact opposite was true. Who would have thought that old guy in the pub was right all along when he said that our generation is too fast? We’re going faster than ever before! Apparently the ‘inverse gravitational’ effect of that elusive Dark Energy is the culprit. One major downer of all this pace we are gaining though – ultimately the universe will become very spaced out. One might also expect thereby that the distant future will probably be a little like a Swedish winter, a rather cold and dark affair. Good bye stars! Where’s the sauna? And here I was holding out hopes of intergalactic travel. Fortunately for Star Trek fans however, experts suggest that just because the universe is currently accelerating at an escalating rate, this does not necessarily mean that there will not be a Big Crunch following some kind of rebound effect. As Lister said in Red Dwarf, ‘they’re playing pool with planets.’ In other words, as usual nobody really has any idea what is going to happen over the next few billion years but these guys win the Nobel Prize because at least they can tell us what is happening now … or at least the now that was the past, given the immense period of time required for that supernovae light to reach those Nobel telescopes.

So from the ludicrously large to the stupidly small we go…

This year’s prize for Chemistry goes to Dan Schechtman “for the discovery of quasicrystals”. The Israeli scientist identified the existence of quasicrystals back in 1984. While your stock standard everyday boring old crystal is a material that is structured in a repeating and ordered pattern, the crazy Islamic inspired quasicrystal has an ordered 3D structure that is not periodic, meaning that unlike standard crystals it appears different depending on the lattice point from which it is viewed. Who cares? Well, new kinds of crystals means new kinds of materials. And in this materialistic age new materials means lots more money, especially for Dan Schechtman who was the only scientist this year to take the prize all alone. He did of course have a team of scientists behind him though … maybe he’ll take them out for a celebratory lunch with all his kronor.

And now for that element of tragedy I alluded to earlier …

The slightly archaic designation of prize for Physiology or Medicine, which now encompasses a far wider spectrum of biological sciences, was jointly awarded to two teams this year, both from the long neglected field of Immunology. Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffman were awarded half the prize “for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” Ralph M. Steinman was awarded the other half “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.” Nothing tragic about that …

… Sadly Steve Jobs was not the only man to succumb to pancreatic cancer this month. Ralph Steinman lost his battle with pancreatic cancer just days before he was to be told he had won the prize. There are only two cases of precedence in Nobel history. After the last case in which a nominee died before the prizes were officially announced it was ruled that Nobel nominees must continue living until the October announcement. Seems harsh? Thankfully in this case common sense and decency ruled over rules and in an emergency meeting the committee successfully convinced themselves that they had awarded the prize in good faith that Ralph Steinman was still alive. Committee ethical wrangling aside, the Canadian born researcher is now a deserving and bona fide winner. Reportedly, prior to his death he was quoted as stating that he just wanted to hold out until the Nobel Prizes were announced. Deep down we’d all like to think that he knew he was the winner. Clearly to everybody who knew the man’s accomplishments, Nobel Prize or not, he was certainly a winner. Ralph Steinman’s decades-long contribution to biomedical research was an essential one. It could be argued that without his description of the dendritic cell we would not have witnessed the emergence of the field of Immunology. The dendritic cell is central to the immune system’s recognition of invading microorganisms and the subsequent programming of the adaptive immune response that fights infection. Certainly it is a tragedy that Ralph Steinman did not get to collect his due, but in another sense it is glory only masked by tragedy. One can hope that his family and friends will celebrate this award and use it to honour his life.

So if a good story has tragedy, celebration, controversy, jaded Americans, a peaceful universe and rapidly expanding women … oops … peaceful women and a rapidly expanding universe, then this latest chapter in the Nobel story is a worthy addition to the wonderful legacy of Alfred Nobel.

photo credit: ereneta via photopin cc

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