Akira Suzuki, Ei-ichi Negishi, and Richard Heck.
These three scientists won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this morning for their discoveries that made it easier and cheaper to build long carbon chains in the lab, and use those chains to develop new drugs, build electronics, and more.
Despite the ubiquity of carbon chains in nature, they’re hard to make in the lab at room temperature. The three chemists independently created essentially the same way to skirt this problem, using palladium to link carbon atoms through a process called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. The palladium is a go-between, bonding to carbon to bring its atoms closer to one another than they could go on their own. The carbons then break their attachment to palladium and bond together in chains.
The wonder material snagged the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics today, bringing the award to Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov who work at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Novoselov and Geim didn’t discover graphene, which is made of sheets of carbon just one atom thick. Physicists had known about it for years, but these two showed the way to produce it quickly and easily.
Novoselov was a postdoctoral fellow working in Geim’s lab in 2004 when the researchers discovered that they could make atomically thin slabs of carbon by repeatedly cleaving graphite—essentially pencil lead—with adhesive tape. Their 2004 Science paper describing the material and its the electrical properties has already been cited more than 3,000 times, according to Thomson Web of Science. [Scientific American]
Robert G. Edwards.
Edwards’ work creating in vitro fertilization led to the birth of four million babies, and now it has garnered him the Nobel Prize.
Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, spent more than 20 years solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. [Patrick] Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother. Dr. Steptoe, who presumably would otherwise have shared the prize, died in 1988. [The New York Times]
We’ve heard (and written) plenty on the struggle of women to reach equal footing with men in the sciences. Now, two of the more prominent women in American science are talking up the issue before they accept their Nobel Prizes next week.
Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, along with a third American, Jack W. Szostak, won this year’s award in medicine for showing how chromosomes protect themselves as cells divide. Speaking in Sweden in advance of the award ceremony, Blackburn said the setup of scientific careers prevents more women from reaching the upper echelon. “The career structure is very much a career structure that has worked for men. But many women, at the stage when they have done their training really want to think about family . . . and they just are very daunted by the career structure. Not by the science, in which they are doing really well” [AP].
Two American men and an Israeli woman have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for work that probed the structure of the ribosome, the cell’s protein factory. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath worked separately to understand one of life’s core processes: the method by which ribosomes translate genetic code into proteins, the building blocks of all organisms.
Their work revealed what ribosomes, which produce proteins that control the chemistry in all living organisms, look like and how they function at the atomic level. The Laureates also created three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome, research that has been used to develop new anti-infective medicines [Bloomberg].
Three scientists who mastered light through technology have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for physics, for breakthroughs that the prize committee said “helped to shape the foundations of today’s networked societies.” Half of the $1.4 million prize goes to Charles Kao (pictured), for his work on fiber optics, while the other half will be divided between Willard Boyle and George Smith, two retired researchers from Bell Labs who invented the first imaging technology using a digital sensor instead of film, paving the way for the creation of digital cameras.
Kao’s discovery in fiber optics set the stage for the technological revolution that underpins today’s global communication systems, powering broadband internet connections and carrying data transmissions around the world. In 1966, he figured out how to transmit light for more than 100 kilometers using optical glass fibers, five times the length of the most advanced fibers then available [Bloomberg]. Fiber optics have become ubiquitous in today’s wired, networked world; the Nobel committee noted that if all the optical cables in use today were unraveled, it would equal a single thread more than a billion kilometers long, enough to circle the globe 25,000 times.
The Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded to three U.S. researchers who probed the mechanism of cellular division, and whose work opened new avenues both in the fight against cancer and attempts to slow aging. The prize will be shared by Australia-born Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and London-born Jack Szostak.
The three researchers solved the mystery of how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide. The Nobel citation said the laureates found the solution in the ends of the chromosomes — features called telomeres that are often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoe laces that keep those laces from unraveling [AP].
Experiments conducted on squid brains in the early days of neuroscience created misunderstandings about the workings of the human brain that have persisted for 70 years, according to a new study. While the squid experiments did shed light on how messages are transmitted between brain cells with electrochemical signals (and led to a Nobel Prize for the experimenters), researchers are just now realizing that the results gave scientists a confused idea about the efficiency of neurons.
The story begins seventy years ago when a pair of British physiologists, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, took the first stab at figuring out how neurons transmit electrical signals, known as action potentials. Because most neurons are small–in humans, a cubic millimeter of gray matter can contain 40,000 neurons–the duo turned to squid, which contain a giant axon, the long thin part of a neuron through which action potentials travel [ScienceNOW Daily News]. Those early experiments found that transmitting the action potential along the axon was a very inefficient process that used a great deal of energy, and neuroscientists ever since have assumed that mammal brains had the same inefficient wiring.
Researcher Henrik Alle, lead author of the new study published in Science, decided to reexamine the old assumptions. “I saw this old work,” says Alle. “I thought I cannot believe personally that nature would waste such energy.” Alle figured that nature would have made the process more efficient in mammals, whose brains send a huge number of messages [NPR News].
Norman E. Borlaug, a world-renowned American botanist, died this past Saturday at his home in Dallas from complications due to cancer. Borlaug, who was 95, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the “Green Revolution” that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation [Washington Post]. Borlaug pioneered high-yield agricultural techniques, using cross-bred crops and nitrogen fertilizers, which helped India, Mexico, and other nations combat hunger and become self-sufficient producers of grains.
“Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply,” said Borlaug during his Nobel Lecture in 1970. “Yet food is something that is taken for granted by most world leaders despite the fact that more than half of the population of the world is hungry. Man seems to insist on ignoring the lessons available from history.”
Trying to assess the importance of particular scientific papers has long been a tricky task. The current system relies on counting the number of times a paper is cited by others to determine how large an effect it has had on subsequent research, but this number can be misleading, a new study notes. Simply counting citations favors disciplines such as biology, where papers tend to be cited more, over fields such as mathematics, where citations are less frequent. In addition, a citation from a relatively marginal paper counts just the same as a citation from a leading researcher publishing in a marquee journal [Scientific American].
To try to get around these problems, a pair of researchers decided on a different tactic: They took the algorithm that Google uses to determine how to rank the Web pages turned up in a search result, and used it to rank the importance of scientific articles. The Google PageRank algorithm checks the number of times each Web page is linked to in order to determine its importance, which is equivalent to counting citations. But it has several other aspects that were very useful when applied to ranking scientific papers. The algorithm gives greater weight to citations from papers that list only a few references, and also to citations from papers that are themselves often cited. “Because of these attributes, PageRank readily identifies a large number of scientific ‘gems’–modestly cited articles that contain ground-breaking results” [arXiv], the researchers write. Among those gems turned up in the researchers first experiment were nine papers written by future Nobel Prize winners.