SciTech

2022 Nobel Prizes announced: hominins, quantum mechanics, click chemistry

This past week, the Nobel Prize committee named the winners of this year’s prestigious awards in sciences, literature, economics, and peace work. Six prizes are awarded, with some prizes going to multiple winners. A prize was announced each day this past week.

While the awards are named in October, the award ceremonies are to be held on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, while the other prizes are awarded in Oslo, Norway.

Physiology or Medicine

The prize for physiology or medicine was the first to be awarded. Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo claimed the prize “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” He was the sole recipient of the prize.

Pääbo was able to sequence the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans, and discovered a previously unknown hominin, Denisova. The gene transfer between now-extinct hominins to Homo sapiens following migration out of Africa approximately 70,000 years ago was an important discovery of Pääbo’s work. This underscores the physiological relevance of gene flow, like how our immune system reacts to infections.

Physics

The prize for physics was shared between three men: Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger for their work in quantum technology. Each man received a third of the prize “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.”

As technology develops, people are starting to find applications of quantum mechanics, including quantum computers, quantum networks, and secure quantum encrypted communication. One implication of quantum mechanics is “entanglement.” When two particles are in an “entangled pair,” actions to one particle also determine what happens to the other particle, even if they are far apart.

In the 1960s, John Stewart Bell developed what is known as the Bell inequality. This states that if there are hidden variables in a system, then the correlation between the results of a large number of measurements will never exceed a certain value. Quantum mechanics, however, predicts this is not true; there is a certain type of experiment that should lead to a stronger correlation than would otherwise be possible.

Clauser was the first to investigate this, designing a practical experiment to disprove Bell’s ideas. He was successfully able to take measurements that supported quantum mechanics’ violation of the Bell inequality. Essentially, this means quantum mechanics cannot be replaced with a theory that utilizes hidden variables.

Aspect followed up on Clauser’s experiments to close some loopholes. In his experiments, Aspect was able to switch the measurement settings after an entangled pair had left its source, meaning the setting of the entangled pair did not affect the result.

Zeilinger, using more refined tools and a long series of experiments, was able to use entangled states. His research group demonstrated that it is possible to perform “quantum teleportation,” which makes it possible to move a quantum state from one particle to another at a distance.

Chemistry

The prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists: Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal, and Carolyn Bertozzi. Each was awarded a third of the prize “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.”

The essence of click chemistry is making difficult processes easier. Sharpless and Meldal laid the foundation for a functional form of chemistry — known as click chemistry — in which molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently. Bertozzi took the idea of click chemistry and utilized it in living organisms.

Sharpless, who previously won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, coined the concept of click chemistry around the year 2000. Click chemistry simplifies some processes in chemistry. The idea is that reactions occur quickly and unwanted by-products are avoided.

Independently of each other, Meldal and Sharpless presented what is considered to be the crown jewel of click chemistry: “the copper catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition.” This is a chemical reaction that has widespread use and is utilized in the development of pharmaceuticals, mapping DNA, and creating materials that are more fit for purpose.

Bertozzi took click chemistry and applied it to living organisms to map biomolecules that are on the surface of cells called “glycans.” The “bioorthogonal reactions” that she developed take place without disrupting the normal chemistry of the cell and are used to explore cells and track biological processes.

Writing

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” She is noted for examining a life marked with strong disparities regarding gender, language, and class in her writings, both consistently and from different angles.

Peace

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to one individual and two organizations: human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties.

Bialiatski was one of the initiators of the democracy movement in mid-1980s Belarus. He is noted for devoting his life to promoting democracy and peaceful development as well as founding the organization Viasna (Spring) in 1996 in response to controversial constitutional amendments that were passed. These amendments gave the president dictatorial powers and triggered widespread demonstrations. Bialiatski was imprisoned for his role in fighting for democracy from 2011 to 2014 and once again in 2020. He is still being detained without trial.

Memorial was established in 1987 by human rights activists in the former Soviet Union who wanted to ensure the victims of the communist regime’s oppression would never be forgotten. Memorial’s mission is based on the belief that to prevent new crimes, we must confront past ones. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Memorial became the largest human rights organization in Russia. They established a center of documentation on victims of the Stalinist era and compiled information on political oppression and human rights violations in Russia. In December 2021, authorities decided Memorial was to be forcibly liquidated, and as a result, the documentation center was closed permanently. Despite this, the people behind Memorial refuse to be shut down.

The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in Kyiv in 2007 for the purpose of advancing human rights and democracy in Ukraine. The Center took a stand to make Ukraine a full-fledged democracy and develop a state governed by law. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Center for Civil Liberties has engaged in efforts to identify and document Russian war crimes against the Ukrainian population and is playing a major role in attempting to hold guilty parties accountable for their crimes.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences will be announced on Oct. 10.