One of the conventions about the Nobel Prize is that it’s not awarded posthumously. That was broken, or stretched if you prefer, by the 2011 award for medicine. The rules bar posthumous awards with the rider that a laureate keeps the prize if death occurs between announcement and the award ceremony.
By the time, the Medicine award was announced, one of the three recipients had been dead for three days. Ralph Steinman, 68, had succumbed to pancreatic cancer (the same thing that killed Steve Jobs) after a four-year battle, where his own discoveries helped prolong his life. Poignantly, he had joked that he wanted to stick around till the award was announced.
The Awards Committee learnt about Steinman’s death only after it had announced he would get half the 2011 Award. The only previous posthumous awards have been given to Erik Axel Karlfeldt, (Literature, 1931) and UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, (1961, Peace).
Steinman would have shared with Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman, who divide the other half of the $1.5 million cash. Canadian-born, Steinman worked at New York’s Rockefeller University, where he discovered dendritic-cells in the 1970s. Those cells are the second-line of defence when the body is attacked by infections or tumours.
Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman worked on the first line of immune defence, receptor cells, in the early 1990s. Beutler is with the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California while the Luxembourg-born Hoffmann is based at Strasbourg, France.
Together, the trio’s research forms the basis for novel cancer vaccines that stimulate the immune system and attack tumours. Their research was responsible for the 2010 release of Dendreon’s Provenge, a vaccine that treats advanced prostate cancer. Their discoveries may also offer ways to tackle antibiotic-resistant microbes.
The Chemistry Nobel went to a single person, rare for the sciences. The 70-year-old Daniel Shechtman teaches at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Shectman discovered and encoded the properties of quasi-crystals, during a sabbatical in John Hopkins in the early 1980s.
Quasicrystals, or more properly quasi-periodic crystals, possess structures that are ordered, but not periodically repeated. Classic crystals possess an order that is symmetrically repeated and hence, periodic. Periodic crystals can be rotated and still look identical but a quasi-periodic crystal will not be identical, if rotated.
Mathematicians like Penrose demonstrated that non-periodic ordering was theoretically possible in the 1960s. Indeed, some mediaeval Islamic architecture demonstrates tiling of this variety and various packing problems in maths rely on these peculiarities.
Shechtman was the first to develop a material that actually displayed quasi-periodic order. This was reckoned impossible in 1983, when he developed an Aluminium-Manganese alloy that displayed non-periodic order. Since then, hundreds of other quasi-crystal structures, including at least one naturally available mineral, have been discovered.
In 1992, the International Union of Crystallography rewrote its definitions as a result of Shectman’s work. There’s a whole range of applications and potential applications. Quasi-crystals have unusual electrical and thermal properties, often being semi-conductors, despite being alloys of highly-conductive metals.
The Nobel for Physics went to a trio, who discovered that the universe was not only expanding, the rate of expansion was accelerating. Saul Perlmutter , Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess are all US-born. Schmidt is an Australian citizen, who works out of the Australian National University in Weston Creek while Perlmutter is based in Berkeley.
Perlmutter receives half the award while Reiss and Schmidt share the other half. The three were involved in two separate research teams in the 1990s with Schmidt heading one that included Reiss at ANU, while Perlmutter headed the other team in California. The two teams studied the strength of light emanating from various supernovae of a specific type. Type ia supernova are exploding white dwarfs — stars that are very small in volume but extremely dense. Typically, a Type ia will be about the same size as the Earth but contain as much mass as the Sun.
The results of the two teams were similar. Both sets of data confirmed each other, while contradicting earlier hypotheses that the universe expands at a constant rate (or expansion was decelerating). The teams showed the light from 50 distant Type ia supernovae was weaker than expected.
That showed the stars were moving away faster than predicted in any model of the time. That acceleration had to be driven by some energy that could not otherwise be detected. In a burst of inspiration, the mysterious energy was dubbed “dark energy”.
Subsequently, researchers have discovered that roughly three quarters of the energy in the universe is “dark”, which has led to a paradigm shift in cosmology. The implications have driven research through the past 15 years.
While there is always noise and controversy surrounding the Peace and Literature Awards, the Nobel science prizes are usually unexceptionable and uncontroversial. The Swedish Academy is understandably cautious about confirming the worth of scientific discoveries. Scientists usually wait decades for this accolade. However, given the bar on posthumous awards, and what occurred this year, a somewhat less cautious approach may be appreciated by elderly or infirm scientists.