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Nobel Prizes 2021

This is the time of the year again when the Nobel prizes are announced, mankind’s highest awards given to one of their best contributors. I have been fascinated by the prizes since my teenage years. Particularly after reading “The Prize” by Irving Wallace, which is a plot based on Nobel prizes. Wallace did a lot of research to come up with this knowledge based thriller.

I am not necessarily ranking the prize winners like I did last year. But just putting them in order of my understanding of their importance. I gather information from nobelprizes.org, the official website which has some more information than just the press releases which the journalists pick up. I take copious notes and summarize them in the blog. And add my two cents.

The Physics prize went to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasslemann for their work in developing climate models which led to definitive detailed studies in global warming. Global warming is a major issue today impacting the lives of millions with destructive weather. Only the Covid 19 pandemic garners more attention because of its impact in the short term. Mathematical models (which are basically a set of mathematical equations) are often built by scientists to get a deeper understanding of a complex phenomena. And the results are verified with physical measurements. We are in a much better situation today because of the dire warnings resulting from such studies and the steps humanity is taking to prevent complete self destruction. Though still a long way to go.

The Peace prize went to two journalists in two different autocratic countries. More importantly, the prize committee wanted to send a message to dictators all around the world. That stifling the freedom of the press is a nefarious act. Dmitry Muratov in Russia and Maria Ressa in the Philippines were the symbolic winners in defending the assaults on the press. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines were not happy campers but at the same time could not condemn their citizens for winning the prize.

The Chemistry prize went to Benjamin List and David MacMillan. They came up with a new type of catalyst. A catalyst is used to speed up a chemical reaction. In which two chemicals combine to form a third one. Typical known catalysts are metals. And in living beings, the biochemical reactions are all catalyzed by enzymes, which are basically proteins consisting of hundreds of amino acids, but only a few of them are involved in any reaction. Catalysts more often than not help in producing two types of final products, which are mirror images of each other. In almost all cases, we want only one of the final products, the other one being a waste. Small organic molecules were used by the prize winners as catalysts to produce only the desired final products. Leading to the sophisticated term “asymmetric organocatalysis”. Asymmetric because it produces only one of the two final products. Organic because they are formed from simpler organic molecules (compared to enzymes which are very complex ones). These catalysts make chemical reactions more efficient in terms of resource usage in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals etc.

The medicine prize goes to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. They discovered the genetic basis for transmission of temperature and touch signals to the brain. Our brains perceive the conditions from the external world through sensors all over the body and the signals from the sensors end up in the brain. Helping us to avoid destruction by the elements. Whether it is a pungent smell or bad odor or hot environment or a friendly touch, the brain knows and helps. Basically, proteins on the surface of the cells help in such a detection and signalling the brain. Called receptors, TRPV1 is such a receptor to detect temperature. Similarly, Piezo1 and Piezo2 receptors detect touch. Proteins are synthesized, one amino acid at a time, using the information stored in a gene.

The Literature prize goes to  novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. He was born in Zanzibar (present day Tanzania) and migrated to England as a refugee during a civil war in his homeland. He portrayed the picture of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents. He wrote ten novels including “Paradise”, “Memory of departure”,  and “Pilgrim’s way”.

The Economics prize goes to David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens. Card did natural experiments to determine the impact of increasing minimum wages on unemployment. The natural experiments are conducted in situations which occur by themselves, not the ones  forced like the testing of a vaccination on a subset of the population. Card found that unemployment and wages in Miami did not change when Fidel Castro let Cubans migrate to the US in 1980. Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens showed what conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from natural experiments. Results of such experiments may not be palatable to political parties of all hues !

We are better off understanding the significant work done by the prize winners towards the benefit of mankind. 

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Prasad Ganti

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Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi(@bakshink)
1 month ago

Hello Prasad Ji- First of all I must thank you for regularly posting articles on this site. I wish, I am striving and I hope that one day, I will be able to provide a good viewership to your posts, though personally I believe that the pleasure of writing lies in writing itself but we are all human beings. Coming to the subject, every year, you post your article after great research and that needs to be appreciated. I believe that the Selection Committee must be working hard but they too must not be above board.They must be having their own biases too. Same is true of every committee. I must read Irving Wallace’s “The Prize” but the writers too for making their novels pot boilers go for a lot of embellishment and hyperbole and same I think is true of what the western media calls as “bold Journalism”. All said and done. Thanks for patronizing this site and let me put Abdul Razzak Gunrah’s work in the queue. 🙂

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