2011 Nobel Prize Recap

It’s that time! Time to go over this year’s science Nobel Prize winners. Keep in mind that a maximum of 3 people are awarded a prize, whereas there can be a large number of other contributing individuals who aren’t recognized. Science is generally and increasingly a very collaborative business.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffman and Ralph Steinman, for their discoveries about the immune system. The first two discovered the Toll system, an integral part of the innate immune system (which I discussed earlier). Without the Toll protein or its receptor, “organisms are extremely vulnerable to infection.” Ralph Steinman, who sadly passed away a few days before receiving the prize, discovered the important role of a type of cell called dendritic cells in transmitting information between the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system, allowing it to “remember” invaders.

Nobel Prize in Physics: Adam Riess, Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter, for discovering that the expansion of the universe was speeding up. This was a huge revolution in our understanding of the universe; until then, it was assumed that the expansion of the universe was slowing due to the force of gravity. To explain it, a mysterious “dark energy” was hypothesized to be working against the force of gravity, I guess in line with the nomenclature of “dark matter” to explain the mysterious source of gravity in the universe not attributable to regular matter. 

Interestingly, just a few days ago another possible explanation to replace dark energy was published, called “dark flow“. It posits that the movement of our own galaxy is skewing our measurements of the rest of the universe’s acceleration, and that the accelerating expansion is actually illusory. It doesn’t seem to be as strong of an explanation as dark energy yet, but maybe it will be eventually. 

Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Daniel Schechtman, for the discovery of quasicrystals, “materials that have ordered but not periodic structures”. He found that molecules could be organized in ways previously thought impossible, and there was a ton of resistance against his discoveries that he had to painfully overcome; notably, he won the award individually, since it seems like no one else would touch his research. You should read this Physics World article on it, it’s pretty interesting. 

Well! There we have it, for this year. Apparently every year there’s controversy about the Nobel Prizes; about the 3-person cap on awards, about the outdated categories… I actually was surprised at the categories myself. Science has changed a lot in the last 116 years; the most prominent awards in science should try to keep up.


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