December 10, 2008

Nobel season '08: The ceremony

I've been working a lot lately and I haven't really been in the mood to write so I haven't updated the blog in some time. But today is Nobel day and I'm home sick preparing a lecture for next week and watching the prize ceremony on TV, so why not put down a few observations of what's going on in Stockholm today? I'm not much for all the stuffy ceremonial stuff, but the speeches are usually quite good. The ones I understand at least. The Nobel lectures here in Uppsala are this Saturday, but they're all at the same time so I haven't decided which one I want to go to yet.

OK, it's starting.

Almost first thing the commentators mention the controversy with the medicine prize. As you might know one of the persons involved in the story of HIV/AIDS, Robert Gallo, is not included among the Nobel laureates. Instead the Nobel committee chose to award those who first isolated the immunodeficiency retrovirus, which they first called LAV, from an AIDS patient. The commentators are speculating if the Nobel committee is premiating the "underdogs" in the story, but I don't know about that.

The opening speaker is Marcus Storch, the president of the Nobel foundation. He talks about the role of the Nobel prize and the role that universities play as the main sources of knowledge. I particularly like that he very deliberately emphasizes basic science - science "without predetermined objective" as he puts it. Of course he points out that basic and applied research are prerequisites for each other, but he basically says that those who underestimate the value of research without predetermined objective only need to look back at the list of Nobel laureates. He goes on saying that letting the commercial sector steer the direction of research shows a lack of knowledge in the potential of basic science and the needs of society. Nicely done.

***

First off is the physics prize. If I knew anything about it, I'd probably have something to say. It's something about symmetry, or the lack of symmetry. Hearing the Swedish speaker address the Japanese laureates in Japanese and calling them "sensei" is pretty damn awesome.

On to the presentation of the chemistry prize. This I can comment. There have been some grumbling comments from those who feel that the Nobel prize should premiate discoveries and not technologies. In a way, the presentation of the prize addresses this. Before the discovery of the green fluorescent protein molecular biology, genetics in particular, studied only DNA and DNA sequences. GFP and its application gave us dimensionality, the ability to locate ourselves in space and time when it comes to the products of genes. A wonderful and clear perspective of why the prize is merited. In my opinion the discoveries around GFP are in themselves worth the prize - the discovery of this kind of protein and how it's able to emit light and most of all the discovery that it could be introduced into any organism's genome and made to function. Of course the creativity involved in developing these discoveries into the technical applications we enjoy today are what give the prize particular weight, but it's not the technology itself that gets it.

***

Humanity's history has been marked by plagues and epidemics and our best cure against them has always been knowledge. It's a wonderful way to introduce this year's Nobel prize in medicine, a prize that goes to the discovery that viruses can cause the plagues that trouble our society today, cancer and AIDS. Both HPV and HIV introduce their genes into the genomes of their hosts cells, in the case of the former, making the cells divide uncontrollably forming a tumor, and in the case of the latter, killing immune cells and causing immunodeficiency.

The presenter speaks about the context in which the discoveries around HIV/AIDS were made. From the first alarming reports in the beginning of the 80s, calling it an "enigmatic" epidemic that penetrated all of society. It's interesting that he does seem to take a position on the Gallo issue, stressing that the prize goes to the initial discoveries that made all subsequent research possible, the research that paved the way for the fight against the disease.

***

Now on to litterature and economics, but I'm going to take the opportunity to have dinner. Le Cl├ęziou seems like a genuinely interesting writer, I think I would be able to relate to his internationality.

>>Update December 12

It was a nice award ceremony, all in all. Marcus Storch's excellent opening address is now available at the Nobel website, but the one you should really read is Roger Tsien's banquet speech. It was really outstanding and even a bit touching. He didn't only mention how important basic research is but especially basic research on "obscure organisms" and the debt we owe to the weird and wonderful critters we study. Studies that cannot be matched by something we can construct in a lab. We have to be naturalists, still. As someone working mostly with fish and obscure early chordate/vertebrate genomes from within a medical faculty, I appreciate the big-up massively.

Funding was difficult at times to obtain for basic research on obscure organisms like the jellyfish that was the source of GFP. We hope this prize reinforces recognition of the importance of basic science as the foundation for practical benefits to our health and economies. Furthermore, over the last ten years, observed numbers of jellyfish in their Pacific Northwest habitat have declined by over a thousandfold. Local marine biologists believe this crash is most likely due to polluted runoff from increased population and industrial development. Specimen collection by biochemists is not to blame, because only one or two species were harvested back in the 1960s-1980s, but all 75 or so jellyfish species are now suffering. Fortunately, the crucial early research on GFP was done before the population collapse, but what other potential scientific breakthroughs may never happen because of man-made pollution and global warming?

While environmentally friendly or so-called "green" chemistry has become all the rage in the chemical community, no human chemist can yet match what a single jellyfish gene directs: 238 ordered condensations + 1 cyclization + 1 oxidation, all done in a few minutes in aerated water with no protecting groups, only one slightly toxic byproduct, and essentially 100% yield of an extremely useful product that literally glows green. Corals produce yellow and red fluorescent proteins with the same chemistry plus one extra oxidation. Yet coral reefs are also under world-wide jeopardy, due to acidification and warming of the oceans. So my final thanks are to both the jellyfish and corals: long may they have intact habitats in which to shine!

I think I've decided to go to the chemistry lecture tomorrow.

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2 comments:

  1. I saw it as well, and as a memeber of the female gender, I am pleased that a woman got one of the prizes, sure, the one in literature whent to a woman last year, but in science it is nice for once :) And I could not understand a word of the physics prize....

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  2. Of course it's nice when a woman wins one of the science prizes, but it's even better that she was one of the people that really were sitting in the lab day and night doing the work, and not sort of directing it from above.

    Speaking of women laureates, wasn't it just typical that the first thing the reporter asked her after the ceremony was if she had any advice to young female scientists who wanted to reach as far as she did. I remember Linda Buck got the same question a few years back. I wonder if anyone thinks of asking it to the male laureates. She handled it well though. She just said that if they had the drive and motivation already they were very likely to do it no matter what advice she could give.

    In general I was a bit annoyed with the reporters. One of them commented that he wondered if the laureates were any fun to sit with at the banquet, if they weren't just "fackidioter" who were so into their work that they couldn't talk about anything else. Jerk. Then they had a section comparing which countries had the most laureates and which discoveries had resulted in most economic gain... talk about missing the point completely.

    Then of course all the brainless talk about the dresses and the flowers... bah.

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