Thursday, September 24, 2015

Two women guessed for the 2015 Chemistry Nobel Prize

The big Nobel prize week won't come next week but it will be the week after that. Reuters shares the predictions of its associated Thomson Reuters unit
Nobel Prize predictions see honors for gene editing technology
with us. Since 2002, they were making "1 guess per prize" based on the so-far-unawarded people with the highest citation counts and 37 scientists in this list have indeed received the Nobel prize even though most of them on a different year than when they were predicted.

These are the most interesting ladies in the predictions for 2015.

In physics, we're being told that the inventors of X-ray lasers have the greatest chance. I should probably not say it because tomorrow, I am giving a hopefully enthusiastic talk about "light and light devices" as one of the most important concepts in physics (it's the United Nations' International Year of Light and Devices Using Light). But I find the number of Nobel prizes for lasers and LEDs and similar things producing light or responding to light of various kinds excessive.

If you asked me whether I consider these Nobel prizes to be at a lower category than those for QCD or the Higgs boson etc., I wouldn't hesitate. Yes, I surely do. But maybe there's nothing more important going on outside the light devices?

It's much worse in economics, of course (and the Nobel-like memorial prize in economics). What is predicted to be rewarded is some work "that helped explain the impact of policy decisions on labor markets and consumer demand." This is a complicated description but it's still very vague and general. Every economist surely thinks that he or she knows something about the impact of policy decisions on labor markets and consumer demand.

Have the predicted winners actually found some new law, something that would really change the situation from "not knowing" to "knowing", from being "controversial and uncertain" to being "unambiguous and certain"? I have doubts about it. Economics is surely the most quantitative and science-like social science but it's still a social science, anyway.

The medicine price is predicted to go a Japanese and a San Francisco guy who showed that the unfolded protein response provides cells with a quality control system. But there are two other possible candidates for the medicine prize.

So I think that among the predictions, the by far most interesting one is Emmanuelle Charpentier of Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Germany (the jolly brunette teenager on the picture, born in 1968, however; yes, be sure that she speaks with a French accent) and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley (the blonde, 1964) who are pictured at the top. They were picked for their development of the CRISPR-Cas9 method for genome editing. Genome editing is obviously a hot topic both at universities and in start-up companies – and a source of deep ethical dilemmas, too. I do feel that this could be a well-deserved prize.

These two babes could substantially improve the women's Nobel prize record in sciences. In physics, only Sklodowska (1903) and Mayer (1963) have won so far. In chemistry, we had Sklodowska (1911), Joliot-Curie (1935), Hodgkin (1964), and Yonath (2009). About 11 female winners have gotten the medicine prize, mostly relatively recently.

The precise definition of the scientific discipline referred to as "chemistry" has been rather bizarre. For example, Marie Curie's 1911 prize was for her discovery of radium and polonium. I am sorry but it's physics. It clearly took some time for the people to be more principled about the boundary of physics and chemistry. Chemistry should be applied atomic physics (electron orbitals) but Curie's prize was about nuclear physics which is simply not the basis of chemistry as we understand it today. There have been several other early "chemistry" Nobel prizes for nuclear physics.

On the other hand, genome editing – even when it comes to a particular method of doing it – is biology, not chemistry, so I would think it's much more sensible to include these things as candidates for the medicine Nobel prize, especially because the possible applications of this invention in medicine are self-evident. I am afraid that the moral controversies that result from genome editing could reduce their chances to win but they shouldn't because 1) this should be a meritocratic award and not something like a Nobel peace prize, and 2) it is yet to be seen whether the technology will bring ethical benefits to the mankind.

But it may be true that if "chemistry" were defined in this strict way, there would be almost no "huge breakthroughs" in chemistry. We were taught that chemistry is divided to organic and inorganic chemistry. Inorganic chemistry seems to be a subject that's been "mostly closed" for centuries, a textbook stuff only. The interesting things only seem to occur in the organic chemistry. But the things usually picked for the Nobel prize in chemistry aren't even "organic chemistry". They're at most "biochemistry" and in most cases, the straight "biology" or "molecular biology" sounds like a more appropriate description. Almost all of these inventions focus on the very complex and very special molecules that we find in the human beings or similar enough objects, namely organisms.

You may vote for your candidates at At least, I found a poll over there. In physics, there are dozens of candidates, including some cool evergreens (Thomson Reuters' recommendations from previous years) like Green-Schwarz-Witten and Guth-Linde-Steinhardt. There's also topological insulator and Harris plus Lene Hau with stopped light. Aharonov-Berry for Berry phase. You also find Penrose for Penrose tilings. ;-)

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