The Nobel Prize winners in the Sciences 2017

Dearbhaile Casey looks at the research behind the winners of 2017

Illustration by Lucie Rondeau

This year’s Nobel Prize announcements began on October 2. The Prize in Physiology and Medicine was the first to be announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. This was followed throughout the week by prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Literature and the Peace Prize.

The final award, for Economic Sciences, while not among those originally endowed by the Nobel Foundation awards but introduced later by Sweden’s central bank, is also awarded by the Academy and was announced on Monday October 9.

The Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young, for their work on the circadian rhythm or the body clock. All hailing from the USA, Rosbash and Hall worked together in Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, while Young worked independently on the same project in Rockefeller University in New York. With fruit flies as their model organism, both teams released their papers on the identification of the period gene in 1984.

This gene encodes a protein within the cell during the night time that degrades throughout the day. Rosbash and Hall went on to unravel how levels of the protein fluctuate throughout the day and work in a negative feedback loop. Young complemented their work with the identification of a second gene, timeless that is also critical to the process and works in tandem with period. The mechanism by which light can synchronise with the clock was also unravelled by the teams.

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne split the Nobel Prize in Physics. Their work in the “Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory”, or LIGO, experiment led to the first observations of the anticipated theory that spacetime was in fact malleable. This was hypothesised by Einstein in his theory of relativity in 1916. In February 2016, LIGO made headlines when they observed gravitational waves produced by a merger of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away.

While the work was a culmination of decades of work and thousands of scientists, it was Weiss, Barish, and Thorne’s contributions which were vital in the discovery. Weiss, a physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed a detector that he hypothesised could measure the minute signals produced by gravitational waves.

Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), theorised predictions of what the signal of gravitational waves produced by colliding black holes would present as. Barish, also of Caltech, came to the project at a later stage and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the LIGO experiment and maintenance of its funding and support from the American National Science Foundation.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the development of the cryo-electron microscopy technique by Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson. The high-resolution microscope allows you to visualise biomolecules in their natural dynamic configuration. Henderson, a Scottish researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, began the modifications to the electron microscope involving the use of a weaker beam.

Joachim Frank worked at Columbia University in New York where he developed the mathematical algorithms which lead the way for the visualisation of many more molecules using Henderson’s limited method. Dubochet, of the University of Lausanne, pioneered the method for creating frozen hydrated specimens at cryogenic temperatures. His flash-freezing technique allowed cells to be frozen while retaining their natural shape. The microscope allows scientists to visualise the detailed structure of biomolecules in a film like sequence.

The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy to Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Thaler was a pioneer in the field of behavioural economics. He lead the way for the development of this field to become a mainstream topic in economics. Born in New Jersey in 1945, Thaler is now the Charles R Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioural Science and Economics.

His research documented and analysed the biases in individual’s economic decision making, such as why people borrow money even when they’ve ample savings. He has used this research to develop “nudge theory” which tries to exploit these biases by changing the design of systems to “nudge” people towards better outcomes, like altering the default option to organ donation or a set savings rate, whether in politics or individual companies.

It is noteworthy that this is the second year in a row that no women have been awarded at the ceremony and this was quickly noted by journalists following the announcements. While the prizes were given to deserving candidates the committee faced backlash for the apparent disparity.

The vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation responded by stating that the prizes awarded are from discoveries of earlier decades when sciences had higher rates of sexism. “We have to wait until they have been verified and validated before we can award the prize…There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”