October is a little like Christmas for scientists. Each year, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards three Nobel Prizes in physical sciences (medicine or physiology, physics, and chemistry), as well as prizes for peace, literature, and economics. These prizes are intended to recognize significant contributions to their respective fields, and are the highest honors a scientist can aspire to receive for their work.
This year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology went to Jeffry Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young for their research into circadian rhythms.
The way plants and animals behave during the day / night cycle is easily described on the macro scale, but these scientists dove deep into the underlying molecular mechanisms of those behaviors. Their work broke ground on how complex chemical interactions, protein activation and deactivation, and sensory input affect how organisms react to daily and seasonal cycles.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne for their leadership on the LIGO detector experiment.
This massive physics experiment sought to examine very tiny ripples in spacetime caused by massive objects interacting. While many of the predictions that come out of Einstein’s special and general relativity theory had been tested, gravitational waves had to wait until the construction of LIGO observatories to be verified. These waves caused vibrations a thousandth of the size of a proton, but LIGO was able to unambiguously detect and characterize them.
The Chemistry Prize this year went to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson for their pioneering work in what became known as Cryo-electron microscopy.
This imaging technique allows researchers to see atomic detail in incredibly small structures, like thin films and proteins. Earlier techniques such as X-ray crystallography, while still very useful (and recognized as such with earlier Nobels), require a sample that is crystalline – perfectly arranged subunits in a grid pattern. Proteins can be crystallized in this fashion and imaged, but the technique is hit-or-miss – protein crystallography labs often have thousands of crystal growth experiments running at a time in an attempt to grow even one. CryoEM allows structural biologists to image proteins embedded on a surface, without the time- and labor-intensive crystal growth steps.
Nobel prizes often come with controversy, as most awards do.
In the chemistry world, some are complaining that the CryoEM prize really should be considered in the realm of physics, not chemistry – after all, it involves beams of electrons scattering off magnetic fields. I disagree, though – although the prize winners were likely not thinking of what they were doing as chemistry per se, their work made large contributions to the fields of protein biochemistry and materials science.
The Physics Prize also sparked some controversy this year as well – thousands of researchers worked on the LIGO experiment, but only three were given credit in the Nobel. Since the yearly Nobel Prize in each field is limited to three Laureates, the committee is often forced to recognize only leaders of large teams instead of the team itself. Very little “lone wolf” science is done anymore, so these sorts of complaints are sure to reappear every so often – especially in physics, where many scientific papers have dozens or hundreds of co-authors.
While there is not 100% agreement in the scientific community, there is little doubt that these three sets of scientists did work deserving of a Nobel Prize. For those rooting for a particular breakthrough to be recognized, there’s always next year.
We’ll be covering the Nobel Prizes in science on the next episode of the podcast. Go here to subscribe so you can get an even more in depth analysis.