If you were born some time this side of the Civil War, then you’ve probably heard of the Nobel Prize. To many, the award may conjure up images of Mother Teresa or maybe even some guy convincing the United States and North Korea to be pals (Dennis Rodman anyone?). Indeed the Nobel Peace Prize is the most well-known of awards but Nobel prizes are also given in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and literature. Except for the Peace Prize, which is awarded by Norwegians, the Nobels are awarded by various Swedish organizations. For some completely unjustified reason, I actually trust the Scandinavians 100% to choose the most worthy candidates for these awards.
One more thing to note about the prizes. They are usually the result of several years worth of work, not a singular discovery made at one time. The prize itself is named after a Swedish fellow by the name of Alfred Nobel, who is famous for the invention of dynamite. I guess the lesson here is if you can figure out a way to blow shit up, then you’ll get a famous prize named after you! In any case, here are the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prizes.
This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Basically, the OPCW sends out teams to ensure that countries do not have any chemical weapons, adherent to the 1997 treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Since any molecule is technically a chemical, I was a little confused when I first heard the term “chemical weapons.” If you go to the OPCW’s website, they define a chemical weapon as “any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action.” A metal bullet traveling at speeds of up to 700 mph seems like it could be pretty toxic to me but I guess in order for something to be deemed a “chemical weapon,” the chemical must be inherently toxic. Definitional squabbles aside, in light of the recent news of chemical weapon usage in Syria, this award is more than justified. For those who’ve been in outer space for the last 2 years, a peaceful protest-turned-civil war resulted in the Syrian government’s use of sarin, a nerve gas, against its own people. Sarin basically makes all of your muscles tense up at the same time and can cause death from inability to breathe. Not only is the OPCW sending in a team to investigate the weapons used, but more importantly they helped to prevent the United States from declaring war on Syria. Well, OPCW, we owe you guys a big one.
Oh baby the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics as their independent theories of the Higgs boson and Higgs field, postulated all the way back in 1964, were confirmed in experiments at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. This was done using a device known as the Large Hadron Collider, which blasts particles at each other to try find smaller ones (representation on the right). You may have heard talk of the Higgs boson, often called “the God particle.” The theory attempts to explain why subatomic particles, like electrons and protons, have mass. Like me, you probably thought “there isn’t an ice cube’s chance in hell that I’m going to be able to understand what the Higgs boson is.” However the theory can be explained by a pretty simple analogy. Imagine three things: a swimming pool, an eel, and Aunt Jemima. Obviously, the eel is a much faster swimmer than Aunt Jemima because it is very streamlined and sleek. It hardly interacts with the water and can glide through it seamlessly. Aunt Jemima, on the other hand, doesn’t have great mobility in the water because she is rather round and interacts too strongly with the water in order to move through it quickly. Also remember that water, although it seems like a continuous thing, is made up of tiny little water molecules. Now, back to particle physics. In our analogy, the eel represents an electron and Aunt Jemima represents a proton. The water is the Higgs field, with individual water molecules representing the Higgs boson. So, in summary: an infinite number of Higgs bosons creates a field (swimming pool) with which subatomic particles can interact. It is this interaction with the Higgs bosons, that gives certain particles mass. This is why a proton (Aunt Jemima) is heavier than an electron (eel). Figuring out the nature of universe? Geared.
Physiology or Medicine
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to 3 scientists (James Rothman, Randy Sheckman, and Thomas Sudhorf) who greatly contributed to our knowledge of a cellular process known as “vesicular trafficking” (not to be confused with testicular trafficking). A vesicle basically carries certain contents and can be trafficked to different places within the cell or to the edge of the cell so that its cargo can be dumped outside. It’s pretty remarkable how a lowly cell can get necessary things to the right place at the right time. This is a great example of a Nobel Prize being awarded for an accumulation of research as some of this work had started as early as the 1980s! Talk about staying geared for a long time.
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” Now, what the fuck does that mean? These scientists, over the last 30 years, have contributed to computer modeling of chemical and biological processes. Being able to predict the outcome of, say, the reaction between two chemicals is an incredibly powerful tool. This will greatly expedite the process of scientific discovery and experimentation. As we are able to better model the physical world with computers, the more we will be able to understand it and manipulate it. That, my friends, is geared.
The Canadian author Alice Munro was this year’s recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I am a connoisseur of literature but apparently Munro is quite adept at writing short stories. Unfortunately, she’s getting up there in years (82), and was too sick to accept the award. As Munro is notoriously hard to reach, the Nobel organization couldn’t get a hold of her right away and actually posted the announcement on Twitter before she found out. That’s a picture of her over there on the right and say whatever you want, but I think she’s pretty cute! Good work Alice, I’ll have to let you blow my mind with a short story sometime soon.
The winners of the prize in economics were Robert Shiller, Eugene Fama, and Lars Peter Hansen. Collectively, the work of these economists showed via various statistical methods that predicting the price of an asset in the very short term is near-impossible. The reason for this is because too much information goes into determining a stock price for us to determine it right away. However, they also demonstrated that predictions about the three to five year course of a price can be accurately predicted. Most notably, Shiller warned us about skyrocketing prices of homes as early as the 1990s and specifically before the US housing bubble burst in 2009.
Every year we look forward to find out who’s in line to accept the various Nobel prizes. Although you can make the argument that the committees who choose the winners are biased and that someone else may be deserving, they nonetheless represent spectacular achievements for humanity.