Posts about nobel laureate

Nobel Prize Winner Criticizes Role of Popular Science Journals in the Scientific Process

Randy Schekman, 2013 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine has written another critique of the mainstream, closed-science journals. How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science

Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.

Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.

Very well said. The closed access journal culture is damaging science in numerous ways. We need to stop supporting those organizations and instead support organizations focused more on promoting great scientific work for the good of society.

Related: Fields Medalist Tim Gowers Takes Action To Stop Cooperating with Anti-Open Science CartelScience Journal Publishers Stay StupidHarvard Steps Up Defense Against Abusive Journal PublishersThe Future of Scholarly Publication (2005)The Trouble with Incentives: They WorkWhen Performance-related Pay BackfiresRewarding Risky Behavior

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 for Reprogramming Cells to be Pluripotent

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 was awarded “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.” The prize goes jointly to Sir John B. Gurdon, Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK and Shinya Yamanaka, Kyoto University (he is also a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes in the USA).

The Nobel Prize recognizes two scientists who discovered that mature, specialised cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. Their findings have revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.

John B. Gurdon discovered (in 1962) that the specialisation of cells is reversible. In a classic experiment, he replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. This modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole. The DNA of the mature cell still had all the information needed to develop all cells in the frog.

Shinya Yamanaka discovered more than 40 years later, in 2006, how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. Surprisingly, by introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, i.e. immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body.

These groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.

All of us developed from fertilized egg cells. During the first days after conception, the embryo consists of immature cells, each of which is capable of developing into all the cell types that form the adult organism. Such cells are called pluripotent stem cells. With further development of the embryo, these cells give rise to nerve cells, muscle cells, liver cells and all other cell types – each of them specialised to carry out a specific task in the adult body. This journey from immature to specialised cell was previously considered to be unidirectional. It was thought that the cell changes in such a way during maturation that it would no longer be possible for it to return to an immature, pluripotent stage.

Related: 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or MedicineNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 20082012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka

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2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2012 to

  • Robert J. Lefkowitz, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA
  • and Brian K. Kobilka, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA

for studies of G-protein–coupled receptors.

Your body is a fine-tuned system of interactions between billions of cells. Each cell has tiny receptors that enable it to sense its environment, so it can adapt to new situtations. Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka are awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for groundbreaking discoveries that reveal the inner workings of an important family of such receptors: G-protein–coupled receptors.

For a long time, it remained a mystery how cells could sense their environment. Scientists knew that hormones such as adrenalin had powerful effects: increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster. They suspected that cell surfaces contained some kind of recipient for hormones. But what these receptors actually consisted of and how they worked remained obscured for most of the 20th Century.

Lefkowitz started to use radioactivity in 1968 in order to trace cells’ receptors. He attached an iodine isotope to various hormones, and thanks to the radiation, he managed to unveil several receptors, among those a receptor for adrenalin: β-adrenergic receptor. His team of researchers extracted the receptor from its hiding place in the cell wall and gained an initial understanding of how it works.

The team achieved its next big step during the 1980s. The newly recruited Kobilka accepted the challenge to isolate the gene that codes for the β-adrenergic receptor from the gigantic human genome. His creative approach allowed him to attain his goal. When the researchers analyzed the gene, they discovered that the receptor was similar to one in the eye that captures light. They realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.

Today this family is referred to as G-protein–coupled receptors. About a thousand genes code for such receptors, for example, for light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin. About half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein–coupled receptors.

The studies by Lefkowitz and Kobilka are crucial for understanding how G-protein–coupled receptors function. Furthermore, in 2011, Kobilka achieved another break-through; he and his research team captured an image of the β-adrenergic receptor at the exact moment that it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. This image is a molecular masterpiece – the result of decades of research.

Related: More details on the research2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: the Structure and Function of the RibosomeThe Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

photo of Dan Shechtman

Dan Shechtman, Israel Institute of Technology, 2011 Nobel Laurette in Chemistry

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2011 to Dan Shechtman, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel for the discovery of quasicrystals.

In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns that never repeat themselves. However, the configuration found in quasicrystals was considered impossible, and Dan Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011 has fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter.

On the morning of 8 April 1982, an image counter to the laws of nature appeared in Dan Shechtman’s electron microscope. In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal.

Shechtman’s image, however, showed that the atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated. Such a pattern was considered just as impossible as creating a football using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons. His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.

Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular – they follow mathematical rules – but they never repeat themselves.

When scientists describe Shechtman’s quasicrystals, they use a concept that comes from mathematics and art: the golden ratio. This number had already caught the interest of mathematicians in Ancient Greece, as it often appeared in geometry. In quasicrystals, for instance, the ratio of various distances between atoms is related to the golden mean.

Following Shechtman’s discovery, scientists have produced other kinds of quasicrystals in the lab and discovered naturally occurring quasicrystals in mineral samples from a Russian river. A Swedish company has also found quasicrystals in a certain form of steel, where the crystals reinforce the material like armor. Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasicrystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines.

Related: 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: the Structure and Function of the RibosomeThe Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2006)

Read more on the science he has worked on. Our understanding of science is built on the discoveries of our predecessors and on the discoveries that counter what we thought we knew.
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2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

Photos of the 2011 Physics Nobel Prize Winners: Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess.

Photos of the 2011 Physics Nobel Prize Winners.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011 with one half to

Saul Perlmutter
The Supernova Cosmology Project, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

and the other half jointly to

Brian P. Schmidt
The High-z Supernova Search Team, Australian National University, Weston Creek, Australia

and

Adam G. Riess
The High-z Supernova Search Team, Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD, USA

“for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”

Once again the USA dominates the physics category, Brian Schmidt is a USA and Australian citizen. It will be interesting to see if this starts to change in the next decade. I believe it will at some point fairly soon, the question is at what point.

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, 1920

What will be the final destiny of the Universe? Probably it will end in ice, if we are to believe this year’s Nobel Laureates in Physics. They have studied several dozen exploding stars, called supernovae, and discovered that the Universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate. The discovery came as a complete surprise even to the Laureates themselves.

In 1998, cosmology was shaken at its foundations as two research teams presented their findings. Headed by Saul Perlmutter, one of the teams had set to work in 1988. Brian Schmidt headed another team, launched at the end of 1994, where Adam Riess was to play a crucial role.

The research teams raced to map the Universe by locating the most distant supernovae. More sophisticated telescopes on the ground and in space, as well as more powerful computers and new digital imaging sensors (CCD, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009), opened the possibility in the 1990s to add more pieces to the cosmological puzzle.

The teams used a particular kind of supernova, called type Ia supernova. It is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. A single such supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy. All in all, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected – this was a sign that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. The potential pitfalls had been numerous, and the scientists found reassurance in the fact that both groups had reached the same astonishing conclusion.

For almost a century, the Universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However, the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the Universe will end in ice.

The acceleration is thought to be driven by dark energy, but what that dark energy is remains an enigma – perhaps the greatest in physics today. What is known is that dark energy constitutes about three quarters of the Universe. Therefore the findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science. And everything is possible again.

As usually the Nobel committee does a great job of providing the public open scientific information. Others that claim to promote science can learn from them. They do a great job of making the science understandable to a lay person.

The discovery came as a complete surprise even to the Nobel Laureates themselves. What they saw would be like throwing a ball up in the air, and instead of having it come back down, watching as it disappears more and more rapidly into the sky, as if gravity could not manage to reverse the ball’s trajectory. Something similar seemed to be happening across the entire Universe.

The growing rate of the expansion implies that the Universe is being pushed apart by an unknown form of energy embedded in the fabric of space. This dark energy makes up a large part of the Universe, more than 70 %, and it is an enigma, perhaps the greatest in physics today. No wonder, then, that cosmology was shaken at its foundations when two different research groups presented similar results in 1998.

Related: The Nobel Prize in Physics 20092006 Nobel Prize in Physics2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or MedicineIs Dark Matter an Illusion?5% of the Universe is Normal Matter, What About the Other 95%?
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Bronx High School of Nobel Prize for Physics Laureates

Bronx physics

Bronx Science owes its historic status to the fact that seven future Nobel-prize-winning physicists went through its doors – more than any other high school in the world and more than most countries have ever achieved. The school, which opened in 1938, was founded by the educator Morris Meister, who believed that if a school put bright students together, it would kindle ill-defined but valuable learning processes. The school seems to have proved him right: according to the Bronx laureates, their physics learning took place mainly outside the classroom.

Leon Cooper, who shared the 1972 prize for work on superconductivity, recalls physics lessons as boring, and was far more enchanted by his biology classes, which lured him to stay late after school designing and running experiments “until they threw me out”. Indeed, the school’s basic-physics textbook was written by a certain Charles E Dull, whose work, though widely used in US high schools, lived up to his name. The future particle physicist Melvin Schwartz, who shared the 1988 Nobel gong, once told me his classmates’ excited discussions – not his teacher – were what first awakened his interest in physics.

[today] the school’s most fearsome physics module – Advanced Placement Physics C – is tougher than most college-physics courses. Its dynamic instructor is Ghada Nehmeh, who was born in Lebanon and studied nuclear physics. Diminutive – smaller than most of her students – and scarf-clad, she jumps rapidly from lab table to lab table, helping piece together equipment and analyse results. Famous for being ruthlessly demanding, she tests the students on their first day by assigning them 40 calculus problems, due back the next day. “I’d never seen derivatives before,” says Kezi Cheng, a senior interested in theoretical physics. So Cheng did what most Bronx Science students do – she asked her classmates to give her a crash course on the subject. “They’re always willing to help.”

Sounds like a great place to go to school. The article also has some good anecdotes about how these students learned by seeking knowledge themselves not passively sitting and being lectured to.

Related: Science Education in the 21st CenturyFeynman “is a second Dirac, only this time human”The Nobel Prize in Physics 2009Letting Children Learn, Hole in the Wall Computers

Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

cover of Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer is an excellent book. It is full of fascinating information and as usual Carl Zimmer’s writing is engaging and makes complex topics clear.

E-coli keep the level of oxygen low in the gut making the resident microbes comfortable. At any time a person will have as many as 30 strains of E. coli in their gut and it is very rare for someone ever to be free of E. coli. [page 53]

In 1943, Luria and Delbruck published the results that won them the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in which they showed that bacteria and viruses pass down their traits using genes (though it took quite some time for the scientific community at large to accept this). [page 70]

during a crisis E coli’s mutation rates could soar a hundred – or even a thousandfold… Normally, natural selection favors low mutation rates, since most mutations are harmful. But in times of stress extra mutations may raise the odds that organisms will hit on a way out of their crisis… [alternatively, perhaps] In times of stress, E coli. may not be able to afford the luxury of accurate DNA repair. Instead, it turns to the cheaper lo-fi polymerases. While they may do a sloppier job, E coli. comes out ahead [page 106]
Hybridization is not the only way foreign DNA got into our cells. Some 3 billion years ago our single-celled ancestors engulfed oxygen-breathing bacteria, which became the mitochondria on which we depend. And, like E. coli, our genomes have taken in virus upon virus. Scientists have identified more than 98,000 viruses in the human genome, along with our mutant vestiges of 150,00 others… If we were to strip out all our transgenic DNA, we would become extinct.

I highly recommend Microcosm, just as I highly recommend Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer.

Related: Bacteriophages: The Most Common Life-Like Form on EarthForeign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesAmazing Designs of LifeAmazing Science: RetrovirusesOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’s

Protein Synthesis: 1971 Video

The above webcast shows protein synthesis, from a 1971 Stanford University video with Paul Berg (Nobel Laureate – 1980 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and National Medal of Science in 1983). The film does not exactly present the traditional scientist stereotype. It does pretty much present the typical California 1970′s hippie stereotype though.

Related: Friday Fun – CERN VersionRoger Tsien Lecture On Green Florescent Protein

Feynman “is a second Dirac, only this time human”

Oppenheimer recommendation of Feynman, page 1

Great quotes from Oppenheimer’s recommendation of Richard Feynman

“He is by all odds the most brilliant young physicist here, and everyone knows this. He is a man of thoroughly engaging character and personality, extremely clear, extremely normal in all respects, and an excellent teacher with a warm feeling for physics in all its aspects. He has the best possible relations both with the theoretical people of whom he is one, and with the experimental people with whom he works in very close harmony.”

Bethe has said that he would rather lose any two other men than Feynman from this present job, and Wigner said, ‘He is a second Dirac, only this time human.”

Oppenheimer recommendation of Feynman, page 2

Images of letter from Oppenheimer to the University of California – Berkeley Recommending Richard Feynman for a position, November 4, 1943 (from Big Science at Berkeley).

via: He is a second Dirac, only this time human.

Related: Vega Science Lectures: Feynman and MoreThe Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard P. Feynman and Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands – posts on physics

Energy Secretary Steve Chu Speaks On Funding Science Research

Energy Secretary Steve Chu (and Nobel Laureate) speaks with Google CEO Eric Schmidt about science research. One of the things Steve Chu is doing is funding high risk experiments that have great potential. This is something that is often said should be done but then people resort to safe investments in research. Taking these risks is a very good idea.

This is another example the remarkable way Google operates. The CEO actually understands science and the public good. Google also provides a huge amount of great material online in the form of webcasts of those speaking at Google. Google behaves like a company run by engineers. Other companies have engineers in positions of power but behave like companies run by any MBAs (whether they are lawyers, accountants, marketers or engineers).

Related: President’s Council of Advisors on Science and TechnologyScientists and Engineers in CongressEric Schmidt on Google, Education and EconomicsLarry Page on How to Change the WorldDiplomacy and Science ResearchGoogle Investing Huge Sums in Renewable Energy and is Hiring

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics honors three scientists, who have had important roles in shaping modern information technology, with one half to Charles Kuen Kao and with Willard Sterling Boyle and George Elwood Smith sharing the other half. Kao’s discoveries have paved the way for optical fiber technology, which today is used for almost all telephony and data communication. Boyle and Smith have invented a digital image sensor – CCD, or charge-coupled device – which today has become an electronic eye in almost all areas of photography. The Nobel prize site includes great information on the science behind the research that has been honored:

The first ideas of applications of light guiding in glass fibers (i.e. small glass rods) date from the late 1920′s. They were all about image transmission through a bundle of fibers. The motivation was medicine (gastroscope), defense (flexible periscope, image scrambler) and even early television. Bare glass fibers were, however, quite leaky and did not transmit much light. Each time the fibers were touching each other, or when the surface of the fibers was scratched, light was led away from the fibers. A breakthrough happened in the beginning of the 1950′s with the idea and demonstration that cladding the fibers would help light transmission, by facilitating total internal reflection.

Optical communication of today has reached its present status thanks to a number of breakthroughs. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) and especially diode lasers, first based on GaAs (800-900 nm) and later on InGaAsP (1-1.7 m), have been essential. The optical communication window has evolved from 870 nm to 1.3 m and, finally, to 1.55 m where fiber losses are lowest. Gradient-index fibers were used in the first optical communication lines. However, when moving towards longer wavelengths and longer communication distances, single-mode fibers have become more advantageous.

Nowadays, long-distance optical communication uses single mode fibers almost exclusively, following Kao’s vision. The first such systems used frequent electronic repeaters to compensate for the remaining losses. Most of these repeaters have now been replaced by optical amplifiers, in particular erbium-doped fiber amplifiers. Optical communication uses wavelength division multiplexing with different wavelengths to carry different signals in the same fiber, thus multiplying the transmission rate. The first non-experimental optical fiber links were installed in 1975 in UK, and soon after in the US and in Japan. The first transatlantic fiber-optic cable was installed in 1988.

Related: How telephone echoes lead to digital cameras2007 Nobel Prize in Physics2006 Nobel Prize in Physicsposts on Nobel laureates

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