The pageantry, the celebration, the traditions - what time of year is it? It is Nobel season! In early October, Nobel winners are announced over an entire week. There are always stories of scientists waking up in the middle of the night when the phone rings. Sometimes they do not answer because the caller ID says Sweden. The science Nobels are awarded in a spectacular ceremony in the Gold Room in City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden – see pictures on our website. This takes place in early December. The Peace Prize is awarded separately in Oslo, Norway.
Each year, Nobels are awarded to honor the highest achievements in six areas - physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, literature and peace. Sometimes the prize recognizes a lifetime of work, and in some cases it is one noteworthy discovery.
The science Nobels were created in the will of Alfred Nobel in November 1895. Lore has it that he established the science prizes to personally atone for the development of dynamite and the destruction it caused in the world. The first science prizes were awarded in 1901, and since then, almost 600 prizes have been awarded to nearly 1,000 individuals. Multiple people sharing a Nobel has become more common for the science prizes in the modern era. Earning a Nobel turns a scientist into a rock star. It remains the ultimate recognition for a scientific discovery and it is recognized world-wide.
This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists - Jacques Dubochet from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Joachim Frank from Columbia University in New York and Richard Henderson from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K. for their work in developing a specialized electron microscope that produces 3D images of individual molecules. Henderson was the first to use this specialized microscope to produce an image of a protein molecule. Frank developed the methods to process the images from the microscope, which generated sharp pictures of biomolecules. And Dubochet optimized a method of cooling water surrounding the biomolecules so they would keep their natural shape. The resulting images have provided new understandings of how molecules interact and function. The ability to view biomolecules in their natural state is already helping scientists understand previously unknown molecular structures like in the Zika virus.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was also awarded to three scientists. Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded for their work on the molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythm - also known as your biological clock. The biological clock adapts our body’s functions to the different times of the day. It determines when you sleep, when you get hungry and when to adjust your blood pressure and body temperature. All three scientists studied a gene called Per that produces a protein instrumental in setting the clock and controlling our internal sense of time. This is important in maintaining good health and preventing disease.
These are significant discoveries which have and will continue to reap benefits for years to come. And six scientists have been elevated to the highest level of recognition!