All Nobel laureates announced by Nobel Foundation

by Helen Yang, Aquila Asst. STEM Editor

For many students, working on a single project for three or four years would reflect great dedication. But what kind of drive is required to work on a project for decades? For Dr. Barry Barish, Nobel laureate in Physics, it took patience and a will to make a change.

“We’ve been working on [our research] intently for 23 years. And what keeps you doing that? For scientists, that’s one of the most fundamental questions. It’s the fact that we knew we could come close, if not succeed, in seeing whether [gravitational waves] really existed that motivated us to keep working,” Dr. Barish said. “It’s a noble thing to do, for mankind to understand nature itself and how it works.”

The 2017 Nobel Laureates for physiology, physics, chemistry, peace, literature and economic sciences were announced throughout the past week.

The Nobel Foundation, created by Alfred Nobel in 1901, awards Nobel Prizes annually to recognize the greatest living influential figures around the world for their contributions in several different fields. The Nobel Committee works alongside many other prize-awarding institutions to select the final winners among thousands of nominees.

Dr. Rainer Weiss, Dr. Kip Thorne and Dr. Barish received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Oct. 3. Weiss, a former professor at MIT, shared half of the award with Thorne and Barrish, both former professors at Caltech. The Nobel Foundation credited the scientists for their instrumental roles in designing the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detects gravitational waves generated by black holes down to a thousandth of the size of a proton.

“When you look out at the sky, only four percent of what you see is electromagnetic waves. So what is the other 96 percent, and what does the universe really look like otherwise?” Dr. Barish said. “You can say [our research] is an analogy to what Galileo did in the 1600s, when we looked through the telescope and immediately saw something that had never been seen before.”

After decades of research, LIGO detected its first signal in 2015. Since then, it has found three other signals.

“We built an initial LIGO detector between 1994 and 1999. We had 6 different attempts of running and trying to detect gravitational waves but seeing none, and then making it better, and still seeing none, and making it better, and seeing none, over and over for about ten years,” Dr. Barish said. “Then we used new technologies to rebuild it, and we succeeded. We’re living in a time where technological advances have never been as fast as [they are] now.”

Dr. Jeffrey C. Hall, Dr. Michael Rosbash and Dr. Michael W. Young each received one third of the prize share for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 2 for discovering the molecular mechanisms that control the circadian rhythms through experimentation with  fruit flies.

Dr. Jacques Dubochet, Dr. Joachim Frank and Dr. Richard Henderson won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 4 for the development of cyro-electron microscopy, which advances the quality of biomolecule imaging in biochemistry.

“If you take snapshots of [molecules] in very low doses, you get all the information you need from the molecules from different directions, and one has to put all this information together and find out what the angles are of these projections,” Dr. Frank said. “I’ve been working on this for years to determine the orientations of the molecules to put them together in a three dimensional construction.”

Electron microscopes use electron beams that destroy living material, but cyro-electron microscopy visualizes living biomolecules by freezing them mid-movement. Since reaching the proper atomic resolution in 2013, it has been used profusely in fields ranging from developing pharmaceutical antibiotics to observing the Zika virus.

“We have molecular medicine that is completely educated by knowledge of structure of molecules, thanks to x-ray crystallography. However, there are many many molecules that can never be crystallized,” Dr. Frank said. “By developing this technology, we now have a much more comprehensive way of looking at molecular structure. There was a large gap in knowledge, now the new tech can help do what x-ray crystallography was unable to.”

English author Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 5 for the impact in the literary community that he has created through his first person novels.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-government organizations from over 100 different countries, won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 6 for its efforts in promoting nuclear non-proliferation. ICAN serves as the civil leader in urging countries to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was acceded by 122 UN member states on July 7 this year, as well as the Humanitarian Pledge encouraging cooperation between nations to eliminate nuclear weapons, for which 108 states have expressed commitment.

Dr. Richard H. Thaler received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences on Oct. 9 for his investigations regarding behavioral economics, which challenges the classic assumption in economics that people always make decision based solely on maximizing economic gain. His observations on how limited rationality, social preferences and lack of self-control influence the way people make decisions are instrumental to future changes in economic policy.

The awards ceremonies will take place on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, in Oslo, Norway for the peace prize and in Stockholm, Sweden for all other categories.