This past week has been Nobel Prize week, and while none of the winners so far have had a University of Chicago connection (unlike last year’s trio), it’s still good fun for science spectators. Trying to divine a common theme from all of a year’s winners is probably futile – the selection process at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is still pretty mysterious, and doesn’t seem to follow any consistent logic in the laureates it spits out. This year, the Thomson Reuters predictions – considered by many to be the best – have produced an ohfer so far, despite throwing out anywhere from 4-7 names for each of the prizes. The 2010 list is typically scattershot, with a mix of established science and science with yet unrealized potential; the only theme I can pick up is “non-American.”
Medicine: Occasionally, the Nobel committee is accused of waiting too long to award a prize. This year’s award in physiology or medicine, awarded to British scientist Robert G. Edwards for his work on in vitro fertilization, may fit that charge. The first baby produced by IVF procedures developed by Edwards and colleague Patrick Steptoe was born more than 30 years ago, on July 25, 1978. Since then, over 4 million “test tube babies” have been born to parents who would not otherwise have been able to have children. It’s kind of amazing, then, that the leaders of IVF had not previously been awarded the Nobel Prize – and sadly, Steptoe did not live to receive the honors, having died in 1988 (Nobel rules forbid posthumous awards). According to media reports, Edwards himself is in poor health and was unable to grant interviews about winning the award. Of course, the Vatican had its own criticisms of the winners.
Physics: Rather than rewarding a scientific discovery several decades after the fact, this award was given to science that, according to many experts, hasn’t yet ripened. Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were recognized for the development of graphene, an extremely thin and extremely strong material thought to be useful in everything from solar panels to satellites. The emphasis is on “thought to be,” because the material was only discovered in 2004, and has yet to be incorporated into a commercially available product. Interestingly, the main gripe here was that it may have been more appropriate for the chemistry Nobel rather than the physics prize. Geim also notably becomes the first scientist to win both the Nobel Prize and its illegitimate brother, the Ig Nobel Prize, which he won for his research on levitating frogs.
Chemistry: If this were a fairytale, this prize would seem to be not too stale, not too fresh, but just right. Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki each have an organic chemistry reaction that bears their name, and are considered to have laid important early groundwork for the burgeoning field of molecular engineering. The trio invented and refined the art of “palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling,” which finds a way to stick formerly contact-shy carbon atoms together. While the process is not exactly a household name, its impact is felt in medicine cabinets around the world. “Cross-coupling methods are now used in all facets of organic synthesis, but nowhere more so than in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are used on a daily basis by nearly every practicing medicinal chemist,” organic chemist Eric Jacobsen told ScienceNOW.
In the same issue of Archives of General Psychiatry where Daniel Le Grange’s study of family-based anorexia treatment was published, another Medical Center study probed the link between ADHD and teenage suicide. A study of 125 children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder between 4 and 6 years of age were three times as likely to attempt suicide between ages 9 and 18, compared to a control group of non-ADHD children. “The importance of this study is simply that it confirms that ADHD in children is not something to take lightly,” lead author Benjamin Lahey, professor of epidemiology, told WebMD.
Here’s another good example of the “more genes = more complex organism” falsehood: a Japanese flower called Paris japonica is found to have nearly 150 billion base pairs – 50 times the number in the human genome. It is the biggest genome found to date.
It’s a bit of inside baseball, but Martin Robbins painfully accurate satire of science journalism in the Guardian clearly touched a nerve – it was the most-read article on their website last week, and was sent to me by several friends. Tuesday, Robbins followed up with “Why I spoofed science journalism,” an explanation of his motives that raises several excellent points about the state of the field, and what its practitioners can do to break free from the stale formula he identified. My favorite:
One of the biggest failures of science reporting is the media’s belief that a scientific paper or research finding represents a conclusion of some kind. Scientists know that this simply isn’t true. A new paper is the start or continuance of a discussion or debate that will often rumble on for years or even decades.