At the Peak – Nobel Prizes 2013

The Nobel Prize that attracted the most attention this year was likely the peace prize, awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (in a contest with women’s education advocate Malala Yousafzai, the youngest nominee in Nobel history) for its work to eliminate chemical munitions like sarin in Syria and other nations. But the three prizes for the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine) recognize equally impressive contributions in their respective fields.

The Nobel Prize medal, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This year’s Nobel Prize laureates in physics were Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who shared the prize for their theoretical analyses of the particle that bears Higgs’s name. The Higgs boson’s importance derives from the way in which it confers mass on other “elementary” particles, such as quarks (the building blocks of protons and neutrons) and electrons. In essence, elementary particles travel through an invisible field of energy, called the Higgs field, which is filled with Higgs bosons; the bosons interact with the other particles, transferring the field’s energy into mass according to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 (which states that energy and mass are equivalent). Although the two scientists predicted the particle in 1964, it wasn’t until the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe that the results of high-energy particle smashing confirmed its existence in early 2013.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was shared among Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel in acknowledgement for their foundational roles in the computer modeling of chemical reactions. Although treated with skepticism when first developed, computer models now allow scientists to determine exactly what happens at each step of a chemical process, which is vitally important for fields such as drug development. The three scientists created models that incorporated both the classical physics necessary to work with large-scale molecules and the quantum mechanics needed to simulate smaller molecules and reactions between compounds. With enough computing power, laureate Levitt predicts that chemists could simulate an entire living organism using a refined version of the models he helped develop.

The physiology or medicine prize was also a joint award, split between James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman
and Thomas C. Südhof for discovering the way in which cells direct the traffic of vesicles. Vesicles can be thought of as miniscule packages created by cells to contain “cargo” such as hormones and enzymes, and they are shipped to locations both inside and outside the cells that construct them. The laureates’ work focused on how vesicles are sent to the right place in the organism at the right time; Schekman’s research concerned the genetics of the process, while Rothman’s work uncovered the proteins that attached vesicles to their destinations and Südhof’s determined the timing of the deliveries. Taken together, their efforts provide major insight into a process that, if disrupted, can lead to diabetes and disorders of the nervous system.

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