Science Nobels awarded
This year’s sciences Nobel Prizes were shared between eight scientists with discoveries ranging from how cells organise their transport systems to complex chemical systems and, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the proposers of the Higgs boson
Although many had predicted it, there was still an hour delay before the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for the theory of how particles acquire mass. In 1964, they proposed the theory independently of each other (Englert together with his now deceased colleague Robert Brout), and in July 2012, their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of the so-called Higgs particle at CERN.
“I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy,” Higgs said. “I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle and to thank my family, friends and colleagues for their support. I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics. It explains how the force responsible for beta decay is much weaker than electromagnetism, but is better known as the mechanism that gives fundamental particles mass. The theory depends on the existence of the Higgs particle, which originates from an invisible field that fills up all space. Even when the universe seems empty this field is present and without it we would not exist, because it is from contact with the field that particles acquire mass.
“I’m thrilled that this year’s Nobel Prize has gone to particle physics,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year, which validates the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world.”
Physiology or Medicine
The prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof who solved the mystery of how cells organise their transport system.
In the 1970s, Schekman discovered three classes of genes that control different facets of the cell´s transport system, providing new insights into the tightly regulated machinery that mediates vesicle transport in the cell. Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo in the 1980s and 90s, while Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.
Through their discoveries, the trio revealed the precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo, disturbances in which have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders.
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshal shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems. In the 1970s, the trio laid the foundation for powerful pictograms that are used to understand and predict chemical processes – computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most chemical advances today.
Their work was ground-breaking in that they managed to make classical physics work side-by-side with quantum physics. Previously chemists had to use one or the other: calculations were relatively simple and modelled large molecules, but unable to simulate chemical reactions – or calculations required enormous computing power and could only work for small molecules. The trio took the best from both worlds and devised a method to use both classical and quantum physics.
“Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “Simulations are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments.”