Nobel Science Prizes 2021: Research On Sense Of Heat And Touch, Earth’s Climate, Molecule Building Rewarded
Here is a quick look at the new Nobel laureates in the sciences and the work that earned them the prestigious prize.
It’s been a week of recognition for scientists, a writer, and two peacemakers for their life’s work.
The Nobel prizes are being given out in the week of 4-11 October. All but the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded so far. The economics Nobel will be announced on 11 October.
Zeroing in on one category of prizes, here’s a quick survey of the winners in the sciences and the research work that earned them the coveted prize.
2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian
Scientists who expanded the human understanding of how we sense our environment have received the medicine Nobel honour this year.
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have been awarded the Nobel prize for discovering receptors for temperature and touch.
The work concerns the underpinnings of our perception and interpretation of our surroundings — for example, how our feet feel when walking barefoot on grass, as opposed to a pavement, or how we experience the warmth, or a lack of it, of the sun upon our skin.
“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates,” the Nobel Assembly said.
Julius studied the burning sensation we feel if we are courageous enough to eat a chili pepper. The compound inducing the sensation, called capsaicin, led him to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that feels the heat.
The discovery of a heat-sensing receptor further took Julius and colleagues to identify additional temperature-sensing receptors.
It was "the breakthrough that," according to the Nobel committee, "allowed us to understand how differences in temperature can induce electrical signals in the nervous system."
Patapoutian, on the other hand, was conducting experiments that led to the discovery of a different type of receptor that came into play upon the application of mechanical force or touch.
The Piezo2 ion channel discovered by Patapoutian and collaborators gives us the sense of touch and the ability to feel where our body parts are and how they are moving.
Knowledge resulting from the work of Julius and Patapoutian may hold the key to treatments against many diseases, including chronic pain.
New York-born Julius is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, where he has been working since 1989.
Patapoutian is a professor at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. He hails from Beirut in Lebanon.
2021 Nobel Prize in Physics — Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi
Important work on climate change in particular and complex physical systems in general was recognised with a physics Nobel this year.
Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi won the prize, , “for groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems”.
The Earth’s climate is an example of such systems.
Manabe and Hasselmann share one-half of the prize for their efforts to lay the groundwork for understanding the Earth’s climate and global warming better, while Parisi receives the other half of the prize for helping make sense of systems characterised by randomness and disorder.
Manabe’s research explained the link between higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and higher temperatures at the Earth’s surface. The climate models of today have roots in research work carried out by Manabe over many years, starting from the 1960s.
Japan-born Manabe is a senior meteorologist at Princeton University in the US.
Hasselmann’s work connecting climate and weather showed why climate models can be reliable. He also devised ways to identify human and natural causes of climate change, which helped discern the human hand — through carbon dioxide emissions — in the changing climate.
Hasselmann is a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany.
Parisi was able to see patterns in systems where superficially none seemed to exist. By doing that through his research, he was able to help provide space for some sort of description or explanation for these apparently random and chaotic systems.
According to the Nobel committee, “His discoveries are among the most important contributions to the theory of complex systems” and their applications extend beyond physics, to areas of mathematics, biology, and machine learning, to name a few.
Parisi is a professor at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.
Interestingly, climate change research has earned Nobel recognition not long before it becomes the basis for discussion and charting a course of action at a meeting of world leaders. The United Nations climate conference, known as COP26, gets underway in Glasgow, Scotland, next month.
Both Hasselmann and Parisi referenced our climate situation after winning the prize.
"We've been warning against climate change for about 50 years or so,” Hasselmann told Adam Smith in an interview for the Nobel Prize website.
At the Nobel press conference, Parisi said, “It’s clear that for the future generation, we have to act now in a very fast way.”
2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — Benjamin List and David W C MacMillan
The chemistry Nobel this year went to two scientists who have developed a new and ingenious tool for the ever-useful purpose of building molecules.
Benjamin List and David MacMillan came up with the process of “organocatalysis” — referring to the use of organic molecules for catalysis — independent of each other. It gave rise to a third type of catalyst beyond the traditionally known metals and enzymes.
A catalyst is a substance used to speed up a chemical reaction. “For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life,” the Nobel committee .
According to MacMillan, catalysis is "what really drives almost everything in modern-day life, and what’s amazing is that most people don’t know it”.
The catalysts produced from organocatalysis go easy on the environment and are cheap to make. Besides making chemistry greener, they come in handy to drive chemical reactions that can help make new medicines.
This is because pharmaceutical research frequently requires asymmetric catalysis. Otherwise, the resulting drugs contain both mirror images of a molecule, with one presenting the possibility of unwanted effects or harm.
With organocatalysis, it is possible to make various asymmetric molecules in large quantities and with less hassle.
"Think about the medicines you take — now we have an alternative way to make them which is less harmful for the environment," Peter Somfai of the Nobel committee said after the chemistry prize announcement.
List is the director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany, and MacMillan, a Scot by birth, is a professor at Princeton University in the US.
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