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The Nobel Prizes 2015

ECONOMICS

By Nina Kirk

 

Angus Deaton, deserving winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, was born in Edinburgh, educated at Cambridge University and has been Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University since 1983.

The broad topics on which he would base his lifework were first laid out in his 1980 paper, An Almost Ideal Demand System. This hugely influential work was the first to accurately capture real world demand patterns.  The paper combined the fields of micro- and macroeconomics by examining the income and consumption of individuals and linking this to aggregate data in order to provide more accurate numbers relating to whole economies.  Not only did this greatly impact the academic world, but it is still used today as a basis for practical policymaking.

In the later years of his career, his research in the area of development economics focused on inequality, consumption and poverty. He also tackled topics such as malnutrition, gender discrimination, welfare and foreign aid, of which he is a vehement opponent.

A humble man, he expressed his gratitude to the people that aided his work, and his happiness at winning not only for himself but also, given the focus of his research, for others around the world.  His work on human welfare and his concern for the poor of the world is, indeed, inspiring. During an interview given after the initial announcement, he spoke of the need to tackle political instability and global poverty. He described the impact that unequal development has on current issues such as climate change, child undernourishment and the migrant crisis.  He remains, however, an optimist. Indeed, he foresees further reductions in extreme poverty as well as improvements in the living standards of the world’s poorest communities in the years to come.  To use the Nobel Laureates own words, “Things are getting better, but there is still a lot to be done.”

PHYSICS

By Alina Brüls

 

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to two scientists studying the same phenomenon. Despite approaching it from two different perspectives, both stumbled across the same discovery. Takaaki Kajita from Japan and Arthur B. McDonald from Canada both dedicated their research to neutrinos and were rewarded for their discovery of neutrino oscillations. The metamorphosis implies that, contrary to former belief, neutrinos indeed have mass.

Billions of neutrinos are streaming through our bodies and cosmos, and are only exceeded in number by photons, particles of light. Mostly created in nuclear reactions in the Sun, neutrinos are electrically neutral particles, passing matter without difficulty. They are thus hard to detect. Hence they are also known as ghost particles. It was only in 1956 that they were discovered. One of the biggest puzzles concerning neutrinos was the fact that measurements on Earth only detected a third of the amount estimated to be produced.

In 1998 Kajita proved with his Super-Kamiokande detector that neutrinos were able to change identities, and can either be tau, electron or myon. On the other side of the world, McDonald discovered, at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, that the remaining two-thirds of the neutrinos did not get lost, but instead changed identities on their way to Earth.

According to the rules of particle and quantum physics, neutrinos can only change their identity if the different types have different masses. Thus, the experiments of the laureates did not just lead to the discovery of neutrino oscillations but also lead to the conclusion that neutrinos must have mass. Their research challenges the Standard Model of matter since it is based on the assumption that neutrinos are massless. It might thus contribute fundamentally to our understanding of matter and the universe.

McDonald felt honoured to receive the award, but emphasized that it was also the fruit of a collective effort by his research group, and he is happy to be contributing to the “world’s knowledge at a very fundamental level”.

Despite this fundamental discovery for particle physics, a lot of questions about neutrinos still remain to be answered. However, they might be subject for future Nobel Prize laureates.

CHEMISTRY

By Jessica de Loma Olson

 

“If I were to pull out the DNA from a human body and place it in one row, it would cover the distance from the Earth to the Sun and back 250 times” said Sara Snogerup Linse, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, just a few minutes after announcing this year’s winners. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded this prize to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar “for mechanistic studies of DNA repair”. These scientists are pioneers in unravelling the mysteries behind the DNA repair mechanisms at a molecular level.

Genetic material plays a critical role when maintaining life as we know it. Due to this, DNA was clearly thought to be stable; until Tomas Lindahl demonstrated the opposite in the 1970s. DNA was shown to be constantly attacked by reactive metabolites naturally produced in our organism. And as if this was not enough, external hazards such as radiation and chemicals are also always lurking.

Lindahl’s work, carried out here at Karolinska Institutet, demonstrated that cytosine could spontaneously be converted into uracil. Whilst these are both nucleotides found in our genetic material having uracil in our DNA is not quite suitable.  There had to be some way to reverse this mistake.

Base excision repair was then shown to be able to fix this and many other oxidative lesions. But this was not the only repair mechanism reported. Sancar, in 1963, already described, at a molecular level, the nucleotide excision repair. Also known as “dark repair” (when compared to photoreactivation which was the first light-dependent form of DNA repair described), this mechanism is in charge of fixing UV-induced thymine dimers.

But what about damage generated from the inside? Replication is an efficient but not perfect process. When a wrong nucleotide is introduced while copying our genetic material, the DNA helix is distorted. Then, mismatch repair comes into play and, in 1989 Modrich defined all the necessary ingredients for this mechanism. However, these are just some of the intrinsic and complicated mechanisms in charge of keeping our genetic material safe. Yet high jacking the systems we now know could come in handy – just imagine promoting DNA damage to avoid the proliferation of cancer cells.

LITERATURE

By María López Quiroga

 

The Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich is the latest recipient of the Literature Nobel Prize, being the 14th woman to receive the award. Born in 1948 to a Ukrainian father and Belarusian mother, Alexievich quickly realized that she wanted to write. She studied journalism at Minsk University and worked in various media centers afterwards. Between 2006 and 2008, Alexievich was a guest writer for International Cities of Refugee Network (ICORN). Currently, she resettled and continues to write from Belarus’ capital.

Sara Danius – Swedish academic – announced during the award ceremony that Alexievich received the prize “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. It is a fact that the Belarusian writer interviewed thousands of people throughout her career, making us listen to their – often desperate – voices. In 1989, Tsinkovye Malchiki (Zinky boys) was published, enlightening experiences of the war in Afghanistan. To precisely reflect on people’s tragedies, Alexievich visited the war-torn country to interview mothers whose sons died during battles. Later on, in 1993, Zacharovannye Smertyu (Enchanted with Death) was printed, telling the story of those who committed a suicide, being unable to reconcile the thought of the socialist ideology failure. Despite her previous successful pieces, her most famous book Chernobylskaya molitva (Voices of Chernobyl) was released in 1997, which gives an account of the nuclear disaster that happened in the titular city.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is somewhat extraordinary since it is very uncommon to award non-fiction writers.  We can, however, speculate that an arduous work describing the cry of suffering people and exercising limits of human endurance were the factors that captured the Nobel Committee members. By magistral use of the language, Alexievich emphasized life unreality of the humble and unfortunate people.

 

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