With the last of the year’s Nobel winners – for Economic Sciences – announced on Tuesday, we review this year’s science prize winners.
The full cohort of 2019 Nobel Prize winners have now been announced, with this year’s science prize winners attracting little controversy – aside from the reasonable mutterings about the absence of women among them.
In 2018, Donna Strickland’s Nobel in Physics and Frances Arnold’s in Chemistry swelled the total number of female science laureates to 19 (Marie Curie won for both Physics and Chemistry). Australia’s 2009 Physiology or Medicine laureate Elizabeth Blackburn is in very elevated company indeed.
Physiology or Medicine
The Prize went jointly to Americans William Kaelin Jr and Gregg Semenza and Briton Sir Peter Ratcliffe, who discovered the mechanisms that human cells use to detect and respond to low oxygen levels (hypoxia).
As a result of their work, much more is known about the role of oxygen levels in regulating key physiological processes.
Oxygen sensing allows cells to adapt their metabolism to hypoxia, for example, in muscles during intense exercise. Other adaptive processes controlled by oxygen sensing include the generation of new blood vessels and the production of red blood cells.
The human immune system and many other physiological functions are also fine-tuned by the O2-sensing machinery. Oxygen sensing has even been shown to be essential during fetal development for controlling normal blood vessel formation and placenta development.
The Washington Post reported that Ratcliffe initially saw his findings on cell oxygen levels turned down for publication. In 1992, the journal Nature told Ratcliffe that “we have sadly concluded, on balance, that your paper would be better placed in a more specialised journal, particularly given the competition for space”.
The Nobel judges praised Ratcliffe, Kaelin and Semenza for discoveries that could lead to “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases”.
US-based Stanley Whittingham and John B. Goodenough and Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino were awarded for the development of lithium-ion batteries.
The Nobel judges said the trio “created a rechargeable world”, citing the use of lithium-ion batteries in devices ranging from mobile phones to electric cars.
Judges also noted lithium-ion batteries’ ability to store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, thus making possible a fossil-fuel-free society.
Lithium-ion batteries’ foundations were laid were during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Whittingham worked to develop methods that could lead to fossil-fuel-free energy technologies. His work led to the creation of an innovative cathode in a lithium battery.
Goodenough improved battery performance by using a metal (cobalt) oxide instead of a metal sulphide for the cathode. His breakthrough led to much more powerful batteries.
Using Goodenough’s cathode, Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.
Yoshino told The Japan Times website that he plans to highlight environmental issues in his award ceremony speech in Sweden in December.
“Words of a Nobel laureate can be a significant message to the world. I want to speak specifically about environmental issues,” he said.
The Japan Times reported that Yoshino’s first post-Nobel-announcement lecture at Meijo University graduate school, in Nagoya, Japan, was attended by “all 21 registered students”. Praise indeed.
Canadian-American Jim Peebles and Swiss pair Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz are the 2019 Physics laureates, “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”.
Peebles was awarded 50% of the prize, with Mayor and Queloz joint recipients of the remainder.
Peebles’ immense body of work over the last 50 years covers the transformation of cosmology from speculation to science. His theoretical framework, developed since the mid-1960s, is the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe.
Scientific American’s Dan Hooper wrote that it was “hard to imagine a more deserving recipient” than Peebles. Hooper highlighted Peebles’ career-long series of seminal contributions to this field, including a critical role in establishing the existence of dark matter.
In 1995, Geneva University professor Mayor and Queloz, his doctorate student, announced the first discovery of a planet outside our solar system – an exoplanet – orbiting a solar-type star in our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
Nobel judges say that this discovery started a revolution in astronomy and over 4000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way.
After the prize announcement, Mayor made news by telling Agence France Presse that he needed to “kill all the statements that say ‘OK, we will go to a liveable planet if one day life is not possible on earth’.”
“These planets are much, much too far away. It’s completely crazy,” he said.