Science Interviews


Sun, 9th Oct 2011

The Nobel Prizes 2011

Victoria Gill, BBC Science Correspondent

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This week has seen the announcment of the 2011 Nobel Prizes, so we invited BBC science correspondent Victoria Gill to walk us through who got what, where and when, and why...

Victoria -   Let’s do it in the order that they were announced.  It’s always a fun week on the science desk when the Nobel Prizes are announced because we actually get to cover a breaking story rather than perusing all the literature and then trying to pitch science stories to all the editors.  They want stuff from us so it’s really exciting!

Alfred nobelThe first one, the Nobel Prize of Physiology and Medicine was shared between three researchers.  Half of the (almost) million-pound prize went to Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman, and this whole Prize was to do with the immune system.  So, what Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman did was figure out the gene that's responsible for your innate immune system, and that just means the gene that gets switched on so that your immune system figures out that there's a nasty microorganism, something foreign in your body, and tries to get rid of it.  But there's another part in your immune system that's really important, your adaptive immune system, which you kind of might be more familiar with from being vaccinated.  Kids get jabs to trigger antibodies and that's how your body adapts to be able to retain a memory of something nasty that caused an infection before, so it can get rid of it.  Ralph Steinman discovered the gatekeepers to the adaptive immune system because, obviously, you don't want your body turning on some organism or cell that's already in your body that's doing no harm at all.  You want it to be recognising foreign stuff that's going to cause a problem.  These are called dendritic cells, and they can switch on your T-cells which are part of your adaptive immune system and create that memory.  So, really remarkable stuff!

Chris -   There was a controversy that raged around Ralph Steinman, wasn’t there?

Victoria -   There was indeed.  Tragically, he died three days before the award was announced and the Nobel committee hadn’t realised.  There is actually a strict rule that a person who is deceased will not be considered for the Prize but they didn’t know and he’s been allowed to – it’s a bit of a historic moment - to keep that Prize posthumously, so I think that's very fitting.

Chris -   Didn’t he also experiment on himself?

Victoria -   Yes, he did.  He died of pancreatic cancer and there's an amazing story on the BBC website about how he took research to a whole new personal level because he was actually testing pieces of his own cancer to see if he could raise an immune response to them, so really remarkable stuff.

Chris -   Okay, well let’s go from Earth out into space because the Physics Prize went to a clutch of scientists who were looking at the expanding universe, and we’ve actually interviewed a couple of them on the Naked Scientists.

Victoria -   Yes, indeed.  A remarkable bunch of guys and in really, really keen competition which is I think is why they managed to turn the tables on what we believed about what the universe is doing so quickly.  Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for figuring out that the universe’s expansion is not slowing down, it’s actually speeding up.  The interesting postscript of that is that there must be some force counteracting gravity to allow that to happen.  So, it seems like a huge amount of our universe is made up by this mysterious force called Dark Energy.  There's an amazing comment from the Nobel committee that said, “Now we know this, everything is possible” which I just think is a wonderful statement about just how little we know about the universe and how much more there is to find out and they've sort of opened that door.

Chris -   Well let’s go to chemistry because that's the 3rd Prize, isn't it?  So what was given away for chemistry and to whom and for what?

Victoria -   It is indeed.  Dan Shechtman from the Israel Institute of Technology won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals and my reaction to this was, “What on Earth is a quasicrystal!?” I'm ashamed to say that as a former Chemistry World reporter, but I've been doing some reading around it and it’s a really remarkable story.  He basically discovered this when he looked at a very rapidly cooled metal alloy to see what the structure was.  Now this shouldn’t have been a crystalline structure at all; very, very rapidly cooling a liquid should just throw all of those atoms into disorder.  But it was a crystal, which is not too unusual - lots of crystals form in nature, but it was very, very weird.  It had this 10-fold symmetry.  What he was seeing was concentric circles of 10 points, and what that meant was you couldn’t really create a crystal out of what he was looking at.  He actually said, “Such a creature cannot exist” because if you imagine, it’d be like trying to make spherical football out of just 6 pointed polygons.  It just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t fit together and it’s taken mathematicians and even artists to figure out what these quasicrystals are and that they can form.  So he really turned everything around in terms of what we thought of how matter can be structured, and he was thrown out of his research institute for that.  So a really brave guy, kind of standing up for his research.

Chris -   Has he got his job back?

Victoria -   He’s got a new job now and a Nobel Prize, so I think he’ll be laughing now!

Chris -   So the good guys won in the end?

Victoria -   Indeed.


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