Science & Technology

RSAS announces Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, physics

The Nobel Prize is seen as the most prestigious award anyone can receive. Originally, the Nobel Prizes were only given to one person per area of expertise, but more discoveries worthy of the award are made yearly and, as such, the Nobel Prize has often been given to a group. Such is the case this year in not one, but three areas of study. The 2017 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine have all been awarded to groups of three researchers.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decides who receives the Nobel Prizes each year. This year, the Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to a trio of scientists from around the world who invented and utilized a way to see molecules at a very high resolution. The team included Jacques Dubochet, a Swiss professor at the University of Lausanne; Joachim Frank, a German-born U.S. professor at Columbia University and Dr. Richard Henderson, a Scottish professor at Cambridge University.

The road to their Nobel Prize began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Dubochet figured out how to cool water so fast that crystals would not form. These frozen molecules allow for the best resolution nearest to the living state. This also allowed scientists to see a snapshot of a given biological process while avoiding aberrations in their microscopes’ lines of sight created by crystals. In the coming years, Dubochet refined this system of microscopy, appropriately called cryo-electron microscopy.

Frank took 2-D images of biological processes using Dubochet’s technique, and then turned them into 3-D pictures.

He used this to observe what he called “the coolest molecule,” the ribosome, an organelle that creates proteins. Ribosomes are unbelievably small. The width of a ribosome is less than the wavelength of visible light. Despite this, Frank and his colleagues could use cryo-electron microscopy to observe it.

In the 1990s, Henderson proved that cryo-electron microscopy could be as detailed as X-ray crystallography, a tool used for recognizing the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal. Henderson used cryo-electron microscopy to make an atomic model of a membrane protein found in microorganisms. Cryo-electron microscopes aid in creating antiviral treatments and vaccines. It has been used to study the structure of viruses like the Zika virus. This helps people researching for a cure.

The Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to the geniuses behind LIGO, The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.This trio managed to confirm what Albert Einstein suggested 100 years prior. The team included Dr. Barry Barish and Dr. Kip Thorne from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Dr. Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916 suggested that matter and energy warp the space-time continuum, resulting in the formation of gravitational waves, or “ripples,” in the fabric of space-time. Though this seemed like a plausible and attractive theory, there was no way to prove it within Einstein’s lifetime. Weiss and Dr. Ronald Drever both independently came up with the same idea, using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors in order to detect the gravitational waves Einstein had predicted. Weiss and Thorne stayed up one night to flesh out the possibilities. Thorne went home after their meeting and hired Drever to help his idea come into fruition. Meanwhile, Weiss was doing the same thing at MIT.

The National Science Foundation, which Weiss applied to for funding, eventually combined the efforts of the three scientists. They came up with the idea of placing two L-shaped antennas, one in Washington and another in Louisiana, and bouncing laser light off their arms in vacuum tunnels to monitor the shape of space.

Some internal politics resulted in Drever leaving the project and Barish, an accomplished big science projects leader, coming to direct LIGO. Ultimately, the project thrived under his direction; LIGO performed numerous black hole collisions and detected a “chirp” for a fifth of a second, indicating that gravitational waves had indeed been found. Einstein was proven to be truly a man ahead of his time.

The Nobel Prize for medicine was given to a team of three U.S. scientists for their research on the biological clock. The team consisted of Dr. Jeffrey C. Hall and Dr. Michael Rosbash, professors of biology at Brandeis University,as well as Dr. Michael W. Young, a professor of genetics at Rockefeller University.

The researchers studied a gene called period and the effects of its mutation on fruit flies. All organisms, not only flies, work on 24-hour rhythms as ordained by this gene. Circadian rhythm refers to the biological clock that runs on a 24-hour cycle. It regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. Circadian rhythms trigger a person’s level of wakefulness to increase and drop throughout the day. This rhythm not only controls sleep cycles but also blood pressure, heart rate, alertness, body temperature and reaction time.

In 1984, the scientists isolated this gene and figured out that it activated during sleep and produced a protein. This protein was built up only during hours of sleep and degraded over time as the day progressed, in accordance with the fly’s sleep-wake cycle. The protein, dubbed PER, blocked the function of the period gene, thus creating a 24-hour cycle.

The Nobel Prize committee chose to honor these researchers because of the tremendous impact of circadian rhythm on the daily lives of people. This can be seen in a great amount of detail when looking at the Baruch College library during midterms. Students stay up for nights on end with minimal sleep to cram as much as they can.

However, the Nobel Prize for medicine recipients revealed that is not the healthy way to study. Not only does upsetting one’s circadian rhythm result in mediocre test scores, it also results in long-term upsets in physiology.

Hormone levels, which are especially volatile during this stage of a student’s life, are very vulnerable to sleep deficiency. Purposely disrupting hormones to potentially raise a grade by a miniscule amount affects the student’s well-being. The less a student sleeps, the more sleep pressure they create, until this pressure reaches the point at which their body will force them to sleep.

Ali Hussain

Ali Hussain

Ali Hussain regularly contributes to the Science and Technology section. In his free time, he likes to explore writing prompts on Reddit, read short stories, religious history and books on neuroscience and play "Paladins." Of all the countries on his list of places to go, his No. 1 is Morocco.
Ali Hussain
October 16, 2017

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