Nobel in focus 2020

Review Article

Aditya Dwarkesh, Arunita Banerjee, Debjyoti Ghosh, Shrestha Chowdhury, Subhayu Bagchi

  The Nobel Prize, one of the most prestigious honours in the world, recognizes contributions which have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. Here’s a simplified sneak-peak into the Nobel Prizes 2020.

  Various questions present themselves to us laymen when the topic of the Nobel Prize arises. What was so great about this man, Alfred Nobel, that he has a prize named after him which is of such prestige that many of the greatest intellectuals and artists of all time consider themselves fortunate to have been awarded it? Does the Prize give its winners their prestige, or have the winners given the prize its prestige? And why, precisely, is this particular award and no other considered to be the most eminent one there is?

  Apart from the Prizes, Alfred Nobel is best known for inventing dynamite. It is widely held that the Prizes themselves were initially just Nobel’s way of rehabilitating his reputation and legacy from the “merchant of death” he became known as, thanks to his invention.

  And certainly, Alfred Nobel was not a greater man than all those who have been given his award. At the same time, there is a very good reason that it is this Prize and no other which has risen to such importance.

  A crippling problem many men of science and art struggled with back in the 19th century was funding. Alfred Nobel was a rich man. Back in the day, the monetary award associated with one Prize was worth nearly 20 years of an academic salary! In addition to this, the judging panel had a shrewd way of selecting awardees who were either already notable in their own fields or were bound to be shortly.

  With this, we have more or less made explicit the historical trajectory of the Prizes, making them what they are now: To the question, “Does the Prize give its winners their prestige, or have the winners given the prize its prestige?”, one may answer that when it first began, the Prize was given prestige by the apt selections made for awardees; and that subsequently, once it became eminent enough, it was the Prize which began giving prestige to its winners.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry 2020 has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing”
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the development of a method for genome editing
  This year, for the first time, two women scientists jointly have been awarded the Nobel Prize in the field of Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna shared the prize money for inventing the revolutionary precision technique of genome editing.

French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and professor Jennifer Doudna of the U.S. pose for the media during a visit to a painting exhibition by children about the genome, at the San Francisco park in Oviedo [Photograph: Reuters]
French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and professor Jennifer Doudna of the U.S. pose for the media during a visit to a painting exhibition by children about the genome, at the San Francisco park in Oviedo [Photograph: Reuters]
  All life processes are encoded in instruction manuals called genes. A minute change in the genetic layout can bring about profound impact on an organism such as even death. Scientists observed a pattern of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), in the genome, that played a crucial role in governing the defence of bacterial cells against viral infections. Viruses inject their genetic material i.e. DNA into the bodies of the bacteria during an invasion. The foreign genetic sequence of the virus when stored in a unique location called the CRISPR sequence of the bacteria, helps to recognise the strains of the invading virus and cuts them for defence against further infection.

An artist's rendition of CRISPR   Charpentier and Doudna devised a method to use this system for targeting a gene of interest instead of the viral gene and brought about the technology to manipulate the genetic tailoring of organisms. This revolutionary technology is now used all over the world. Scientists are working to understand the cause of the genetic diseases like sickle cell anaemia and congenital blindness etc. Drought resistant crops are also being produced out of this technology.

Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 is a shared award. One half has been awarded to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” The other half has been awarded jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2020
  One of the curious wonders of the physical universe -- black holes -- has captured the imagination of the world once again with this year’s Nobel Prize in physics recognizing both theoretical and observational aspects of this burgeoning field. The final life stage of massive stars (more than 1.4 times Solar masses), the physics of black holes have occupied the greatest minds of the last century, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking (Left) and Roger Penrose (Right) [Photograph: IAI TV]
Stephen Hawking (Left) and Roger Penrose (Right) [Photograph: IAI TV]
  First posed as a solution of Einstein’s famous Field Equations of General Relativity by Karl Schwarzschild, while serving in a trench during World War I, black hole solutions (name popularized by Prof. John Wheeler), were initially dismissed as unphysical and merely a mathematical curiosity by many including Einstein himself. They represent the pinching off of spacetime, under the influence of gravity, into points of infinite curvature and densities, called ‘singularities’. A black hole Even though it had been shown that spherical collapse of dust matter under gravity could lead to such a physical solution (Oppehneimer-Snyder, Finkelstein), it was considered to be too special a case to be of any significance. This is where Prof. Penrose comes in. Working with new mathematical techniques of topology and differential geometry, he showed, along with the late Dr. Stephen Hawking, in a series of papers, now famous as the ‘singularity theorems’, that the formation of a singularity is not an anomaly but the unavoidable consequence of Einstein’s Field Equations even in a general setting. In this work, tools crucial to their analysis had been developed earlier by noted Indian Astrophysicist Prof. Amal Raychaudhari (Raychaudhari Equation) and Russian physicist Prof. Lev Landau.

Nobel Laureate Reinhard Genzel snapped after he discovered he had been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Nobel Laureate Reinhard Genzel snapped after he discovered he had been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.
  Yet existence on paper does not guarantee proof of existence, especially in physics. But black holes, so aptly named, are notorious for being -- well, black -- no light can escape their gravitational field. How do you see what cannot be ‘seen’? Imagine you come across a bottomless, dark well. You want to find out how deep the well goes, but you cannot see. What do you do? You pick up a small stone, and chuck it in, and listen for the sound when the stone splashes on the surface of the water. This is similar to how scientists figured out if black holes really exist. It was well-known since the 1970’s that there were some curious sources of radio-waves in the night sky, called quasars. These rapidly-rotating sources of signals acted as lighthouses of the universe. It was theorized that such quasars were actually supermassive black holes surrounded by super-hot, radiation emitting plasma. It was even posed that our very own Milky Way galaxy hosted such a black hole at its center.

Andrea Ghez has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2020. [Photograph: Twitter, Heising-Simons Foundation]
Andrea Ghez has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2020. [Photograph: Twitter, Heising-Simons Foundation]
So in the 1990’s two groups of astronomers, one from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany, led by Reinhard Genzel and another at the University of California, Los Angeles, led by Andrea Ghez, began to observe the skies close to the galactic center for tell-tale signs of the gravitational effects of the black hole (named Sagittarius-A* or Sgr A* for short). They concentrated on the orbital motion of secondary stars orbiting around the centre to figure out the mass and radius of the central body. They were helped by the development of new techniques, called adaptive optics, that have since become standard in the field. Finally, the confirmation for this effort came in 2008. It is in recognition for this work that they were jointly awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020 has been jointly awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus.”
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2020
  ‘Hepatitis’ is the medical term for a viral infection of the liver. The causal virus - Hepatitis C, is a blood-borne virus and is known to be a global health hazard, by causing fatal cases of liver cancer and cirrhosis. The transmission from an infected individual to a healthy individual occurs through exposure to infected blood - sharing contaminated needles during drug abuse, non-sterilized medical equipment, the transfusion of blood, organ-transplants or from infected mother to child.

Harvey Alter, Charles Rice and Michael Houghton (left to right) won the 2020 Nobel prize in medicine for their research on the hepatitis C virus.[ Photographs: NIH History Office, John Abbott/The Rockefeller University, Richard Siemens/University of Alberta]
Harvey Alter, Charles Rice and Michael Houghton (left to right) won the 2020 Nobel prize in medicine for their research on the hepatitis C virus.[ Photographs: NIH History Office, John Abbott/The Rockefeller University, Richard Siemens/University of Alberta]
  Scientists had become aware of this virus by mid-1970s, as a unique agent, which caused 80% of post-blood-transfusion hepatitis cases and Harvey Alter published his findings about this ‘non-A non-B Hepatitis virus (NANBHV)’ in 1975. Over the next few decades Michael Houghton and Charles Rice successfully identified and named it as Hepatitis C virus and made seminal contributions in devising methods to grow this virus in laboratory conditions, make multiple copies of it and study the virus for its properties.

An artist's rendition of Hepatitis C   In absence of a preventive vaccine, chronic infections of Hepatitis C virus often lead to mortality and accounted for an estimated 4,00,000 deaths annually, from the 72 million global infection cases, till 2015. The pioneering work of Alter, Houghton and Rice opened up avenues for drug-designing and testing of the infection, thus contributing to reduction in the death-toll caused due to this virus. Presently, with the availability of advanced drug treatments, Hepatitis C virus infection is curable in most cases with a recovery rate of 95%.

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences (Nobel Prize) 2020 was awarded jointly to Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson "for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats."
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel 2020
  How much is something worth, how much are you willing to pay for it and how badly do others want the same thing? These are the chief questions that were addressed by this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics, colloquially known as the Nobel Prize in Economics. Building on previously established aspects of auction theory, the mentor-mentee duo made advances in new formats of bidding and methods of auctioning inter-related items simultaneously. Milgrom’s work views this problem from the POV of a seller aiming to maximize their profit while Wilson concentrated on ensuring that bidders didn’t overpay.

Economics minimal art
  Now, imagine you go to a market to buy a commodity, which has a fixed production price (let’s say a ‘true’ price) from a seller. Your motivation is to buy lower than the true price but the seller wants to sell above it. So either you end up overpaying (loss) or the seller makes a loss. This is however not the case at all in an auction, that involves not only two parties, but a host of competitive bidders. Most importantly, the ‘true’ price of the object might not even be established.

  So there are three factors to consider:
  i. The auction’s format: there are various - the traditional English, the Dutch Tulip, the Vickrey auction, the Closed Bid auction. The bidding strategy of the buyer, going into the auction, changes with the format.
  ii. Does the auctioned object have a known ‘true’ value? If not, does the value change from bidder to bidder?
  iii. What information does a particular bidder have about the resources or spending capacity of the other bidders, if at all?

Robert Wilson (Left) and Paul Milgrom (Right) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business [Photograph : Stanford News]
Robert Wilson (Left) and Paul Milgrom (Right) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business [Photograph : Stanford News]
  These are the questions that were considered and analyzed to design a superior, equilibrium-inducing auction format designed by Milgrom, Wilson and Preston McAfee called the SMR(Simultaneous Multiple Round) auction or the simultaneous ascending-bid auction. This was designed in response to the USA’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC)’s 1993 attempt to auction the nation’s telecommunication spectrum. It was required to be a simultaneous auction of multiple items, for eg. multiple frequency bands in different geographic locations. While Wilson and Milgrom’s contribution was the fundamental idea that all individual auctions must conclude simultaneously, McAfee’s work was on the practical aspects of conducting such an auction on a level playing field for all bidders, especially minority communities.

  In July 1994, the FCC conducted the first SMRA to sell 10 licenses in 47 bidding rounds for a total of 617 million dollars. This award marks a trend over the last couple of years of the Economics Nobel Prize committee to recognize work that has immediate practical applications in the real world, primarily to the aim of achieving greater good for humanity at some level.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2020 was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) "for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict."
The Nobel Peace Prize 2020
  The World Food Programme was established in 1961 following the 1960 Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) conference under the leadership of the US Food for Peace Programmes. The motivation was to look after the maintenance of Sustainable Development Goals, which are intricately influenced by food shortages, hunger and malnutrition – the three primary factors directly or indirectly leading to poverty, unemployment and illiteracy.

World Food Programme: India is home to 1/4 of world’s hungry.
World Food Programme: India is home to 1/4 of world’s hungry.
  In today’s world, one out of nine people still cannot afford food resulting in an extensive drain of invaluable human resources. Climate change has pushed the expansion of barren uninhabitable lands and rise of seawater, causing a chunk of the global population to migrate, leaving behind their land and resources, thus feeding into the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. To counter such a waste, WFP coordinated several programmes out of which the five-year Purchase for Progress (P4P) pilot project remains their current initiative. Improved agricultural production, handling and assurance of quality, finance – all such aspects were taken care of across 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos
  However, their primary role has always been to cater to emergency responses. The 2010 Haiti Earthquake inflicted a catastrophe and WFP responded extensively and tactfully with food supplies only to women since they ensured the entire household was taken care. The fight against gender equality has been a bane for quite a while, and WFP prioritises to address women empowerment through proper nourishment and extensive supply of food resources. WFP has also been looking after the war-torn Middle East nearly bashed out by the Caliphate regime.

  COVID-19 has brought the entire world to a drastic halt. Nearly 138 million people are going to suffer from malnutrition after 2020 and WFP is putting its expertise to maximise the extent of its helping hand in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the UN system, NGOs and national governments.

  This year’s Nobel Peace Prize continued the trend for appreciating the efforts of individuals or associations to prevent combat amongst us and maintain the atmosphere of peace and harmony through an improved enhancement of the society.

Concluding remarks:
  It would be a grave error to fail to mention the Nobel Prize in Literature, for it is, in truth, as important as the others that have been overviewed. In the year 2020, the American poet Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for "her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal".

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2020Louise Glueck
  Now, at this stage, we ought to ask ourselves the following: Is this the best we can do for the sciences, the arts, and their practitioners insofar as acknowledging the contributions to humanity is concerned?

  While the Prizes have undeniably been incalculably helpful for popularizing these disciplines to the general public, this comes at a cost, and serious criticisms have been levelled against it not just for its surface-level errors in judgment every now and then but at a more general, deeper level.

  Considering its roots in 19th century Europe, Eurocentrism and sexism are two unsurprising biases in it, skewing the statistics of this supposedly international prize in a most shameful manner. But even beyond this, there is a certain amount of distortion and ignorance that must be willfully performed if one wishes to employ a winner-takes-all system of this kind. Indeed, a winner-takes-all system is a contradiction in terms when it comes to things like science and art. Any scientific invention is a node which has had hundreds of minds contributing to its unveiling, and all of these must necessarily be neglected if one is to give all the glory exclusively to the contributions of a few.

  But at the same time, is any science popularization endeavor possible which does not indulge in some level of distortion?

This article was put together by four editors of Cogito137 - Aditya Dwarkesh, Arunita Banerjee, Shreshtha Chowdhury and Subhayu Bagchi. Debjyoti Ghosh added the section on Nobel Prize in Peace. The authors would like to thank Vedanth Sriram for vetting the section on Nobel Prize in Economics.

Follow our website and social media handles for more updates on the “Nobel in focus 2020” series, coming up on our YouTube channel soon, in collaboration with Science Club, IISER Kolkata. Also, our December issue will include detailed articles covering some of the topics mentioned in this special release.

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