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Nobel Prizes 2015: World’s most prestigious awards in the sciences, literature, peace and economics embrace the globe

This year’s Nobel Prizes go to Tunisians, a writer from Belarus, as well as Turkish, Swedish, Chinese, Canadian, American and Japanese researchers – along with a Scottish-American economist. For many of these now very famous people, their focus has been on seemingly 'small' puzzles that have enormous consequences for the world. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Awards like the various Nobel Prizes are not awarded on points like a spelling quiz, of course. No one totes up the scores and announces at the end of class who had the best grade. A big part of the reason, naturally enough, is that the real implications of many scientific advances only become obvious – to the public or even the scientific community – years after the work that led to a particular award was carried out.

More frequently, as other scientists build on that initial work, the importance of what went before becomes clearer and how it has influenced what came later finally comes into crisper view. In other cases, the prizes have gone to scientists who have looked again at something that has been around for a while and found a new inspiration in a seemingly commonplace idea.

In the past week, the science and medicine Nobel Prizes have gone to the creators of two anti-parasite drugs, the discoverers of how cells repair their DNA, and researchers who demonstrated that neutrinos have mass.

Specifically, in the case of the two anti-parasite drugs, it has been far too easy in our own time when scientific advances seemingly flow endlessly from the lab, to forget that less than two centuries ago, most medicines were herbal in nature. Some worked, some didn’t, but they surely did not come from a test tube. Even now, three key therapeutic agents, aspirin, morphine and digitalis, are still derived from plant materials or are based precisely upon their naturally occurring equivalents. As a result, the fact that the newest treatment for malaria, Artemisinin, derives from a plant in use in China for at least two millennia should not be a total surprise. Its earliest guide to preparation, The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, was written in 340 BC, but, in our own era, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou consulted this information for hints on how to extract the active element in the plant.

The resulting drug, Artemisinin, has been central to halving malarial deaths in the past 15 years. Interestingly, she built her newest work on her own earlier efforts that had been designed to keep North Vietnamese soldiers malaria-free back during the Vietnam War. In her prize-winning effort, Artemisinin is now a crucial part of the global pharmacopeia, as existing treatments have become less and less effective as the nasty little malaria parasites have become increasingly resistant to the usual drugs.

The other joint winners of this year’s medicine prize, William Campbell of America and Satoshi Omura of Japan, were recipients for their discovery of the drug Avermectin, used against some particularly nasty parasitic worms. In their case as well, the drug comes from a living thing, the streptomyces bacteria. Omura had actually bred thousands of different strains of this organism some 30 years ago in the process of looking for potentially useful drugs, particularly since an early antibiotic, Streptomycin, comes from that particular bacteria. Campbell built on Omura’s work and discovered one of the compounds isolated by the Japanese scientist killed the worms that caused filariasis as well as river blindness. Now, the refined drug, Ivermectin, is so crucial that the World Health Organisation has put it on its list of essential medicines that even the most rudimentary medical system should have.

Meanwhile, this year’s chemistry prize has gone to three researchers – a Swede, Tomas Lindahl; Paul Modrich, an American; and Aziz Sancar, from Turkey. Between them, they have sorted out the way living organisms keep the genetic information encoded in DNA readable, unscrambled, and largely undamaged. This genetic coding is under assault from a whole array of chemical and physical attacks. Mutated or damaged DNA can cause cancers, appears to be a reason why animals age, and lurks behind the scenes of such inherited diseases as cystic fibrosis and haemophilia. (Mutations, of course, are also the mechanism for evolution as well, so they aren’t all bad.) In trying to ward off damage, cells provide their crucial DNA with various proteins designed to repair genetic coding damage, before it actually leads to problems.

In describing the scientists’ contributions, The Economist explained that Lindahl discovered that DNA is not a chemically stable molecule. “A variety of chemical processes degrade it, including one in which cytosine (which is one of the four bases that encode genetic information) spontaneously transforms into an unwanted chemical called uracil. Having worked out the rate of decay, Dr Lindahl realised that multicellular life ought to be impossible: the DNA in its cells would simply crumble away too quickly. Since multicellular life clearly is possible, some sort of repair mechanism must exist. Working on bacteria, he discovered two proteins designed to fix this sort of damage. A whole suite of such ‘base-excision repair’ proteins is now known to exist, in complex life as well as the single-celled sort.”

Sancar examined how cells repair damage from ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet rays can make neighbour base pairs on the DNA strands form bonds with each other, rather than with their counterparts on the other half of that famous double helix. As The Economist noted, Sancar “helped elucidate the chemical mechanism, called ‘nucleotide-excision repair’, by which the damaged chunk of DNA is cut out and replaced with a fresh, correctly functioning piece”.

Finally, Modrich had been looking at damage that can occur when the DNA strands unwind to create new stands as a key part of cell mitosis in a fertilised egg and embryo, and on into the life of the organism during the zillions of times DNA is replicated in cells. Still, the process, like pretty much anything else, can be imperfect. Modrich, The Economist noted, “helped discover the ‘mismatch repair’ system, which, as the name suggests, fixes mismatches that arise between DNA’s two strands during the process of cell division, reducing the error rate a thousand fold”.

Some research, such as that above, seems to point directly towards the improvement of human wellbeing, part of the larger brief of the Nobel Prizes. Killing off dreadful parasites seems rather directly connected to that goal, just as a better understanding of DNA’s problems and how it is fixed in living tissue can lead to more improved medicines – and lives.

By contrast, this year’s physics prize was for a more rarefied bit of research that may eventually point to an understanding of why the universe is constructed of matter, rather than half matter and half anti-matter. The latter would have led to the virtual annihilation of this universe – not a good thing – and thus a puzzle. The key bit leading to an answer seems to have been confirmation that those extremely tiny subatomic particles actually have mass. Here the winners were Takaaki Kajita of Japan, and Arthur McDonald, a Canadian.

Neutrinos were first offered up as a way to balance the equations of nuclear decay, some 85 years ago. These subatomic bits are everywhere, yet they seem to be perversely reluctant to interact with any of the other particles in the subatomic world, making them hard to describe, and it wasn’t until 1956 that one was actually captured in the lab.

As The Economist explained: “Neutrinos come in three ‘flavours’ — electron, muon and tau — that correspond to the fundamental particles of those names. Originally, they were thought to be massless, but two things were amiss. The first, noticed originally in the 1960s, was that not enough neutrinos were coming from the sun. Theory suggests solar neutrinos, generated by the fusion reactions that power the sun, should all be electron neutrinos, and these were the only sort that early detectors could register. But when, in 2001, Dr McDonald used more sophisticated detection equipment he found that the missing neutrinos were there — they just weren’t electron neutrinos. Dr Kajita, meanwhile, had discovered a second anomaly three years earlier. This was that when cosmic rays smash into the atmosphere they create fewer muon neutrinos than they should. One explanation tied the whole mess together: neutrinos must change flavour as they travel. And for this to happen, theory requires they have some mass.”

Okay, with that issue now explained by the scientists, the prize belonged to the three researchers. But how does this information fit into the larger question of how the universe is kept intact? That is not a trivial question. As the physics argument now goes, the Big Bang, right at the beginning of everything, led to the creation of heavier neutrinos than are around now. They started to decay, but asymmetrically, with a marked preference for particles made of matter as opposed to anti-matter – and that seems to have led to the matter we see around us now. To some of us, that would seem to mean there is still a Nobel Prize or two out there, waiting for the person who explains why or how neutrinos “prefer” to become matter versus anti-matter neutrinos; but now that we have offered that hint, we’ll sit back and let physicists get to work on this one for a while – but you read about it here first.

Now, switch gears from the science prizes and consider the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, the award went to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. This group of organisations had a key role in keeping alive the values and goals that had animated the early, heady days of the Arab Spring – and most crucially – helped bring Tunisia to a position of relative peace as a beacon of hope for the Arab world.

Sadly, for most of the Middle East, the grand hopes of the Arab Spring have been replaced by far too much chaos, bloodshed, and a retreat from the ideals of democracy. Still, one nation has managed to stay on a democratic path, even as the rest of the region has largely gone seriously off the rails. The Quartet, a grouping of civil society bodies, in bringing the public and political leaders behind an unruly constitutional process, was, according to the prize-givers, “an essential factor for the culmination of the revolution in Tunisia in peaceful, democratic elections last autumn”. “The broad-based national dialogue that the quartet succeeded in establishing countered the spread of violence in Tunisia and its function is therefore comparable to that of the peace congresses to which Alfred Nobel refers in his will.”

Beyond recognition for the groups themselves, the award is also a nod towards Tunisia’s progress since the Arab Spring’s earliest days, and it is an expression of hope that other nations might yet follow Tunisia’s lead. Tunisia’s progress could have disintegrated when Islamist and secular forces squared off against one another over how to construct the relationship between religion and the state. As The Economist noted: “When disagreements and political assassinations threatened to plunge Tunisia into chaos in 2013, the quartet stepped in to lower the temperature. The then-ruling Nahda (Awakening) party, an Islamist outfit which itself deserves great credit for its moderation, agreed to relinquish power in 2014. Against the regional trend, voters then handed power to a secularist coalition known as Nidaa Tounes in a relatively peaceful transition. A new, enlightened constitution was also adopted last year.

The four organisations that shared the prize are the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. The trade union, and in particular its leader, Houcine Abassi, played a crucial part in persuading Nahda to step aside and allow fresh elections to take place.”

Despite the difficulties Tunisia faces, such as terrorist attacks, corruption and cronyism in the economy, and the support by some Tunisians for Islamic State, The Economist said: “The country offers a rare example of progress in an otherwise wretched region. It deserves encouragement. And the rest of the Arab world deserves a little cause for hope amid all the anger and bloodshed.” It is precisely for this avowedly pro-democratic stance that the Quartet won out in the mind of the prize committee over such highly public figures whose supporters could stake a claim for such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iran nuclear agreement negotiators John Kerry and Javad Zarif – or Pope Francis.

Finally, from among the original Nobel awards, Belarusian writer/journalist Svetlana Alexievich, a critic of her own nation’s leader as well as a significant voice against Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, copped the prize for literature this year. As Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said, when announcing the award: “Ms Alexievich has offered us new historical material and she has offered us a new genre.” And The Wall Street Journal noted: “The 67-year-old Nobel laureate, whose books have documented life in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet era, has been a prominent voice against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, denouncing Russia’s annexation last year of Crimea as a criminal act and criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an imperialist.

Two books by Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys and Voices from Chernobyl, are available in English. A third, War’s Unwomanly Face, appears to be out of print. After the Nobel announcement Thursday, her US publishers said they were rushing out new print runs of Zinky Boys and Voices from Chernobyl, as well as an e-book edition of Voices from Chernobyl.” Demonstrating that she has a knack for the sound bite, Alexievich had once said on radio with a foreign news station of the problem with Russia’s new nationalism: “It’s not just Putin. It’s the Putin who is in every Russian.”

While the Nobel committee has sometimes used the award to reward or call attention to writers who take a stand against totalitarianism and repression, giving the plaque, the cheque and the recognition to a journalist has been rather less common, in comparison to novelists or playwrights. Still, non-fiction writers like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill have won the prize in the past as well (and Alexander Solzhenitsyn also won, although he was both novelist and a investigative documentary journalist), so Alexievich is not completely alone in that category. However, she is only the 14th woman to gain this ultimate in prizes, since the award began.

The Wall Street Journal, in describing her work, notes Alexievich “interviewed hundreds of women who participated in World War II [for War’s Unwomanly Face]. The fact that a million Soviet women had served at the front lines was a largely unknown chapter in history, Ms Danius [of the Swedish Academy] said. The book was hugely popular in the Soviet Union, selling 2-million copies, she added. For Zinky Boys, the author spent four years gathering material about the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. She travelled throughout Russia talking to the mothers of soldiers killed in the war and spent time in Afghanistan. In Voices from Chernobyl, Ms Alexievich assembled accounts of people who experienced the disaster or participated in the clean-up. Many of them were awaiting their own deaths from radiation exposure. She structured each vignette like a short story, but remained faithful to the individual’s own words.”

When the recipient heard from the committee that she had been selected, Alexievich told a Swedish television station: “It’s an incredibly complex sentiment. On the one side, it’s such a fantastic feeling, but it’s also disturbing.”

The Swedish Academy denied any political motive in naming Alexievich as this year’s winner, despite her on-the-record dislike of Putin. Danius told media: “It has no significance whatsoever. The Nobel Prize in literature is awarded on literary grounds. That’s all. It’s never been a political prize and never will be. You are awarded the prize in spite of your political opinions, but not because of them.”

Nevertheless, perhaps in response to the winner’s on-the-record comments about Putin, Yuri Polyakov, editor of a Russian literary weekly argued: “It’s a purely political act. The Nobel Prize in literature has no relation to literature; it exists as an award of support for oppositional writers. The political component comes increasingly to the fore.” And Alexievich volleyed right back: “When people have fanatical ideas, they search for them everywhere. I write what I think. It’s difficult to be an honest person in our times.” And of her art more generally, the writer has said when she found her voice: “I momentarily appropriated the genre of people’s voices, testaments, evidence and documents of the human heart.”

In describing Alexievich’s art, Belarusian arts critic Galina Shur said: “This documentary type of literature, this attention to the little person is a very Belarusian phenomenon. Soviet literature created large myths, and Belarusian writers and cinematographers worked with the small person, with his experiences.”

The final award was the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, underwritten by the Swedish Central Bank since 1968 in honour of Alfred Nobel and awarded in the same week as the original prizes created in 1895 pursuant to Nobel’s bequest. This year, the prize went to Scottish-American Princeton University professor Angus Deaton. The award committee cited his wide-ranging work on consumption that has helped redefine the way poverty is measured around the world, notably in India, among the reasons for their choice. The committee went on to explain his work has had “immense importance for human welfare, not least in poor countries”.

The secretary of the award committee, Torsten Persson, added that Deaton’s research has “really shown other researchers and international organisations like the World Bank how to go about understanding poverty at the very basic level so that’s perhaps the finest and most important contribution he has made”. Persson went on to say: “We cannot understand the whole without understanding what is happening in the miniature economy of our daily choices.”

In a media conference after his award was announced, Deaton said he expects extreme poverty in the world to continue decreasing, but that he isn’t “blindly optimistic”. He added that there are “tremendous health problems among adults and children in India, where there has been a lot of progress”. Noting that half of India’s children remain malnourished, overall, he said that “for many people in the world, things are very bad indeed”.

The AP, in describing the focus of Deaton’s work, said: “(It) revolves around three central questions: How do consumers distribute their spending among different goods; how much of society’s income is spent and how much is saved; and how do we best measure and analyse welfare and poverty? Committee member Jakob Svensson said Deaton introduced the ‘Almost Ideal Demand System’, which has become a standard tool used by governments to study what effect a change in economic policy — such as an increase in sales taxes on food — will have on different social groups and how large the subsequent gains or losses will be.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also highlighted the model that has become known as the Deaton Paradox, in which he laid bare a contradiction between earlier theory and data on consumer behaviour … Ingvild Almas, associate professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, added: ‘For instance, Deaton found that there were a lot more poor people in rural areas of India than previously thought. In practice, that has affected India’s subsidy system for the poor, which allows them to buy necessities. Households that were not defined as poor before can now be reached with these policies, and that is a direct result of Deaton’s research.’”

Some are already suggesting that the Nobel economics award has tracked a growing interest among economists around the issue of economic inequality in societies, along the lines of Thomas Piketty’s widely heralded research on the nature and persistence of inequality, and last year’s awardee was French economist Jean Tirole, who won for his own research on market power and regulation.

Taken as a whole, it might well be argued that the focus of this year’s awards – except, perhaps, for that work on a pesky neutrino – was on improving the life of the ordinary person, as opposed to some grand discovery that rewrites humankind’s understanding of the universe. Fixing DNA, killing some really bad bugs, building a fledgling democracy one agreement at a time, documenting the lives of so-called ordinary people in extraordinary times, and figuring out how really poor people must make their choices in life are all demonstrations of a focus on the world of some small – but very important – things. Praise to them all. DM

Photo: Alfred Nobel (Wikimedia Commons)

For more, read:

  • The Nobel peace prize celebrates Tunisian progress at The Economist

  • The 2015 Nobel science prizes – Wisdom, ancient and modern at The Economist

  • Giving voice to the voiceless at The Economist

  • Angus Deaton wins Nobel economics prize for work on poverty at the AP

  • Nobel Prize in Literature Awarded to Svetlana Alexievich at The Wall Street Journal

  • Svetlana Alexievich wins 2015 Nobel prize in literature

  • Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, calls Alexeivich an ‘extraordinary’ writer at the Guardian

  • Princeton professor Angus Deaton wins Nobel Prize in economics at the Washington Post

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