Nobel Special: the Americans are coming to Stockholm

Monday's announcement of the lucky winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Economics brought to a close the one week of the year when academics knock the academic off the gossip pages. Like reality TV for thinkers the Nobel committee builds up the tension with a drip-by-drip release of information and suddenly, somehow, we all know a little bit more about science and literature.

First to Oslo, where the Norwegian Nobel committee have given the Peace Prize a new dimension this year. For the first time, the prize was awarded to an environmental activist. Professor Wangari Maathai, who is Kenya’s deputy environment minister, was recognised for her work fighting deforestation and educating people about environmental issues.

The Nobel Committee praised Prof Maathi’s ‘contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace’.

But SvD, while pointing out that this was one of the least controversial selections in recent years, still managed a grumble:

“Who could be against giving a prize to an African woman who has fought for the environment, for human rights and for women’s equality? But what has she done for world peace?”

Ole Danbolt Mjos, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee stated to Dagens Nyheter that they hope to widen the concept of peace after this year’s winner.

The Prize for Literature was awarded to the controversial Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek. In keeping with the media’s disproportionate focus on this award, The Local has a full article on the subject.

As usual, the winners of the Chemistry, Physics and Medicine prizes were announced in Stockholm. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be shared by two scientists from Israel, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko and an American, Irwin Rose. They discovered how a substance called ‘Ubiquitin’ labels unwanted proteins in cells, which are later destroyed.

A new drug called Velcade, already available in Sweden, is apparently the first of many that will soon aid cancer and Alzheimer’s patients and those suffering from cystic fibrosis.

Aaron Ciechanover told DN he was very surprised and happy to win the award but it hadn’t been an ambition:

“You don’t dream about the Nobel Prize – you shouldn’t,” he said.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Linda Buck from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Richard Axel from Columbia University, for their discoveries concerning the human sense of smell.

In 1991, they were the first scientists to describe the entire process in detail; from scent particles entering our noses to specialized receptors sending messages to the brain, where 10,000 different smells are identified.

The Nobel Prize for Physics will also be shared between three American scientists: David Politzer, David Gross and Frank Wilczek. The winners were awarded the prize for a discovery, not an invention as Alfred Nobel intended. Inventors will have to wait until next year to see if the Physics committee will carry out Nobel’s will accordingly, said DN’s Karin Bojs.

They discovered that a force that binds quarks (you know, tiny particles that make up protons and neutrons) inside the atom acts like a rubber band; the greater the distance, the stronger the force. This is one of four major forces in nature, the others being gravity, electromagnetism and interaction.

“The telephone is ringing the whole time,” Wilczek told the media. “I haven’t been able to leave the house. Actually I haven’t even had time to put my clothes on.”

Nobel purists will tell you that the Economics prize isn’t a ‘real Nobel Prize’ but Finn Kydland from Norway and Edward Prescott from the USA won’t be worrying about that. They’ve been awarded this year’s ‘Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’ – OK, it’s not so catchy, but then neither is economics – “for their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics”.

Specifically, their work addresses “the time consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business cycles” and, according to Torsten Persson, chairman of the Economics Prize committee and Professor of Economics at Stockholm University, it’s pretty influential stuff.

“Their research has had practical significance,” he said. “An example is the establishment of independent central banks.”

The Nobel ceremony will be held in Stockholm on the 10th of December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Winners will receive 10 million crowns, a diploma and a gold medal from King Carl Gustav.

Readers will notice the preponderance of Americans and absence of Swedes in this year’s roll of honour. While the home team may not have done so well in this particular competition, a couple of Swedish scientists kept the blue and yellow flag flying at the IgNobel Prize ceremony in Boston a couple of weeks ago.

The award is a rather more light-hearted version of the Nobel Prize but the success of Magnus Wahlberg and Håkan Westerberg of the Fisheries Board in winning the Biology prize ensured coverage in the Swedish papers.

Their great discovery was that herring communicate by farting.

According to DN, they began researching the subject while working at the Swedish Defence Research Institiute following reports of strange underwater noises by Sweden’s submarines. In 1993 Wahlberg and Westerberg discovered the source of the noises but it was considered to be top secret information and wasn’t published until July 2003.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, The Nobel Prize

Melissa de Sieni