The Politics, Rivalries, and Sweet Science Behind the Nobel Prize Decisions

The state of the universe.
Oct. 10 2013 8:14 AM

Who Will Win a Nobel Prize?

Everything you need to know about the contenders, rivalries, scandals, and politics of the famous awards.

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Personally, I am rooting for Vera Rubin for cold dark matter, based on Fritz Zwicky's 1933 assertion that individual galaxies were moving so quickly that they should be able to escape from a galaxy cluster if visible mass was the only thing contributing to the cluster's gravitational pull. He proposed the existence of dark matter to account for the observational data. Rubin was one of the first to directly observe Zwicky's predicted effects in the rotation of spiral galaxies, and she'd likely share the prize with Marc Davis and Joel Primack. I would love to see Rubin get some recognition for this work; only two women have won the physics prize, Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. 

Who's going to actually win? It's always a bit of a crap shoot. But last year's was for the accelerating universe, and the year before that was for graphene (materials). So some of the more esoteric contenders in quantum information or quantum teleportation might be due.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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Sam Lord, postdoctoral chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and blogger at Everyday Scientist:

The line between chemistry and other fields (especially biology) is often blurred, and that's a wonderful thing; but this fact sometimes results in a chemistry Nobel Prize being awarded for a decidedly biological discovery (like the 2009 prize for the structure of the ribosome). This may be exacerbated by the fact that the physiology or medicine prize tends to go to things directly related to health, and the chemistry prize often is used to cover the more basic biological science feats. Personally, I think it is a testament to the central position the field of chemistry holds in the Venn diagram of science.

My top prediction is for single-molecule spectroscopy. In 1989, W.E. Moerner at IBM (now at Stanford) was the first to use light (lasers) to perform measurements on single molecules. Before this, millions or trillions of molecules or more were measured together to detect an average signal. His amazingly difficult feat required ultrasensitive detection techniques, perfect samples, and temperatures just above absolute zero! A year later, Michel Orrit in France observed the fluorescent photons from a single molecule. With those early experiments, Moerner and others laid the experimental groundwork for imaging single molecules.

Single-molecule spectroscopy and imaging has become a subfield unto itself. I performed my Ph.D. research in the Moerner lab, and I know firsthand that the technique reveals events that would otherwise be hidden in averages of "bulk" measurements. Biophysics, the field of understanding how cells and biomolecules operate on a physical level, is particularly aided because rare events can have major effects in biology. (Think of a single cell mutating and then dividing into a tumor.) For example, Sunney Xie at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (now at Harvard) performed the early work on how individual enzymes experience multiple states, which otherwise would be averaged away in a bulk experiment. More recently, imaging single molecules has been instrumental in novel "super-resolution" techniques that reveal structures in cells at tenfold higher resolution than ever available before. Several companies (Pacific Biosciences, Helicos, Illumina, Life Technologies) have either released or are developing products that use single-molecule imaging to sequence individual strands of DNA. My prediction is bolstered by others along the same vein. In 2008, Moerner won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, which is often considered a harbinger for the Nobel. More importantly, The Simpsons were betting on Moerner in 2010. Of course, that was Milhouse's prediction, and maybe it's more reasonable to go with Lisa.

My other prediction is for biomolecular motors (aka molecular motors). These are proteins in cells that move important cargo around, and on a more practical level, make muscles contract. Ron Vale (now at University of California, San Francisco) and Michael Sheetz (now at Columbia) discovered kinesin, a protein that walks along tiny tubes and pulls cargo to different parts of the cell. This is supremely important because it would take far too long (months in some cases) for diffusion alone to bring nutrients and signaling molecules to all parts of the cell. (Interestingly, kinesin was discovered from the neurons of squids because they are extraordinarily long cells!) Jim Spudich (at Stanford), Sheetz, Vale, and others have developed many important techniques for studying the actions of these tiny machines. Spudich shared this year’s Lasker Award, which many see portending a Nobel, with Vale and Sheetz.

It's hard not to allow hope to creep into almost anything we humans do, and I have clearly failed to prevent my own desires from influencing my predictions: I would be thrilled to see either of the above discoveries—or any that I list on my blog—win a prize. But there are many, many deserving scientists who have discovered amazing things and helped millions of people. Unfortunately, only a handful of these amazing individuals will be awarded the ultimate recognition in science. So it goes.

Paul Bracher, a postdoctoral chemist at Caltech and blogger at ChemBark:

Predicting a Nobel Prize in any given year is like trying to predict which film would win a super-Oscar for best picture over the last three decades: There’s a limited number of legitimate contenders, but any of them have a relatively small shot of winning. I arrive at my detailed set of odds using a complex, time-tested formula that is two-thirds educated guesswork, one-third gut instinct, and 100 percent likely to displease everyone with an opinion.

If I were forced to make a single pick for this year’s prize in chemistry, I’d choose Pierre Chambon, Ronald Evans, and Elwood Jensen for their discovery and investigation of nuclear hormone receptors. These scientists were the leaders in figuring out how hormones such as estrogen can serve as chemical messengers to tweak our biochemistry by turning specific genes on and off. They discovered a superfamily of proteins that recognize the presence of hormones and accompany them to the nucleus of the cell, where genes are regulated. In this way, hormones can issue orders like “STORE MORE FAT!” to a cell, and we can alter the receptors or fool them with synthetic molecules to countermand these orders. How hormones turn genes on and off has profound implications for the treatment of diseases such as breast cancer, so these scientists could easily snag the Nobel in medicine rather than chemistry. The discovery has already been recognized by a number of pre-Nobel prizes, including a Lasker Award in 2004 and a Wolf Prize in 2012.