You, Me and the Nobel Prizes

The Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1901. This year we commemorate their centenary.
Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896, created them.
[Irony or ironies: During the last years of his life one of the medicines administered to him was TNT]

Nobel Prizes these days are worth close to $1 million.

Apart from the money, though, do the Nobel prizes actually mean anything?

To you and to me?
  • Who deserves to be famous?
  • These high achievers have had their fifteen minutes, have they?
  • Will they disappear again?
  • Perhaps these people really are important?
  • If so, why?

Presumably these people win because they've done something to change our lives.

We review what these people have actually done:

Peace Medicine Chemistry Physics Economics Literature

Nominees for this highly coveted award included U.S. President Bill Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter,
and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell (for his efforts in Northern Ireland). For their Balkan peace efforts,
ex-President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin were in the running too.
But, in the end, Kim Dae Jung, the President of South Korea, won the Peace Prize.

He genuinely may be achieving that rare thing, for which this particular award is given: Peace.
He is a great man, and they are valuable to the world. People call him Asia’s Nelson Mandela.

76 year old Kim Dae Jung won the award for his work for democracy and for human rights as well as for peace and reconciliation in South Korea and in East Asia in general.
In the course of South Korea's decades of authoritarian rule, despite repeated threats on his life and long periods in exile,
Kim Dae Jung gradually emerged as his country's leading spokesman for democracy. His election in 1997 as the republic's president marked South Korea's definitive entrance into the democratic world.
As president, Kim Dae Jung has sought to promote internal reconciliation within South Korea.
With great moral strength, he has stood out in East Asia as a leading defender of universal human rights in Asia.
He has been active and committed in the campaigns for democracy in Burma and against the repression in East Timor.
Kim Dae Jung has persuaded North Korea’s notorious leadership to engage in talks towards normalising relations.
He has also managed to convince the United States - far from impressed by his 'Sunshine Policy' — that a sea change was possible. His efforts have prompted hopes for peace on the Cold War's last frontier.
Kim is the first Korean to win a Nobel Prize. He has been nominated 14 times - every year since 1985.
Kim Dae Jung’s turbulent political life dates back to a successful escape from incarceration by North Korean Communists during the Korean War (1950-53).
From the 1950s when Kim first stepped into the political arena, he was persecuted ceaselessly by undemocratic regimes but won increasing public popularity.
He experienced a kidnapping, repeated arrests, beatings, exile and two death sentences during his long struggle as opposition leader.
During the presidential election in 1971, backers of the dictatorship tried to murder Kim and
make it look like a traffic accident. After being kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel in 1973 by agents of the Korean CIA, he was almost drowned at sea. But prompt intervention by the United States and Japan saved his life. He was subsequently released from prison on medical grounds and sent into exile in the United States.
For Kim, prison was like a college. He recalled that it was in prison when he first developed a deep taste for - and a broad understanding of - the Oriental classics by Confucius and Mencius and the Korean indigenous form of neo-Confucianism or 'practical learning' (Silhak).
‘I abhor mistaken politics, but do not hate any individual,' he said, choosing to forgive the former rulers who had persecuted him and sentenced him to death.
His policy of forgiveness is a visible expression of freedom from hatred and fear. He wrote to his son from prison in 1980, saying 'Only the truly magnanimous and strong are capable of forgiving and loving,'
A good and brave man, worthy of the accolade and of being called Asia’s Nelson Mandela.

The Nobel Prize for was won by Arvid Carlsson (Sweden), Paul Greengard (United States), and Eric Kandel (United States)

Their research into how brain cells transmit signals to each other resulted in a better understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Their work has led to new treatments for Parkinson's and schizophrenia, and contributed to the development of anti-depressants, such as Prozac.
They have added to our understanding of both short- and long-term memory.
The research these men have done will increase our understanding of the workings of the brain
Their efforts have also helped in the alleviation of human suffering.

In the human brain there are more than hundred billion nerve cells. They are connected to each other through an infinitely complex network of nerve processes.
The message from one nerve cell to another is transmitted through different chemical transmitters. The signal ‘transduction’ takes place in special points of contact, called synapses. A nerve cell can have thousands of such contacts with other nerve cells.
The three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine have made pioneering discoveries concerning one type of signal transduction between nerve cells, referred to as ‘slow synaptic transmission’.
These discoveries have been crucial for an understanding of the normal function of the brain and how disturbances in this signal transduction can give rise to neurological and psychiatric diseases. These findings have resulted in the development of new drugs.

Arvid Carlsson was born on January 25, 1923 in Uppsala, Sweden and studied at the University of Lund, Sweden. His other awards have included the Wolf prize in 1979. He is Professor of Pharmacology, at the University of Göteborg in Sweden
Carlsson has been rewarded for his discovery that dopamine is a transmitter in the brain and that it has great importance for our ability to control movements.
Arvid Carlsson performed a series of pioneering studies during the late 1950's, which showed that dopamine is an important transmitter in the brain.
His research has led to the realisation that Parkinson's disease is caused by a lack of dopamine in certain parts of the brain.
His research showed that an efficient remedy for this disease could be developed: L-dopa.
Carlsson has made a number of subsequent discoveries, which have further clarified the role of dopamine in the brain.
These have included the mode of action of drugs used for the treatment of schizophrenia.

Paul Greengard was on December 11, 1925 in New York. He gained his PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and has had stints in London and Cambridge in England as well as at Bethesda and Yale before becoming Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at the Rockefeller University in New York.
Greengard discovered how dopamine and a number of other transmitters exert their action in the nervous system. The transmitter first acts on a receptor on the cell surface. This triggers a cascade of reactions that affect certain "key proteins". They in turn regulate a variety of functions in the neuron, or nerve cell.
The proteins become modified as phosphate groups are added (phosphorylation) or removed (dephosphorylation).
These modifications cause a change in the shape and action of the protein.
Through this mechanism the transmitters can carry their message from one nerve cell to another.

Eric Kandel was born on November 7, 1929 in Vienna, Austria. Now an American citizen, he is a graduate of New York University and Harvard, and has been at Columbia for a quarter of a century. He won the Wolf Prize in 1999.
Kandel is responsible for finding out how the efficiency of synapses can be modified, and which molecular mechanisms that take part.
He used the nervous system of a sea slug, Aplysia, as his experimental model.
It has comparatively few nerve cells (around 20.000), many of which are rather large. It has a simple protective reflex that protects the gills, which can be utilised to study basic learning mechanisms.
Eric Kandel found that certain types of stimuli resulted in an amplification of the protective reflex of the sea slug. This strengthening of the reflex could remain for days and weeks and was thus a form of learning. He could then show that learning was due to an amplification of the synapse that connects the sensory nerve cells to the nerve cells. They activate the muscle groups, which in turn give rise to the protective reflex.
In short he demonstrated that short-term memory, as well as long-term memory in the sea slug is located at the synapse.
During the 1990's he has also carried out studies in mice. He has been able to show that the same type of long-term changes of synaptic function that can be seen during learning in the sea slug also applies to mammals.
Our memory can therefore be said to be "located in the synapses" and changes in synaptic function are central, when different types of memories are formed.
The road towards an understanding of complex memory functions is a very long one, but the results of Eric Kandel have provided a crucial foundation.
It is now possible to study how complex memory images are stored in our nervous system, and how we recreate the memory of earlier events. Since we now understand important aspects of the cellular and molecular mechanisms, which make us remember, the possibilities to develop new types of medication to improve memory function in-patients with different types of dementia may be increased.

The Chemistry Prize was won by Alan J. Heege (United States), Alan G. MacDiarmid (United States), and Hideki Shirakawa (Japan)

The received wisdom is that plastic cannot conduct electricity.
Well it can.
These men proved it. Quite interesting in itself, but their work has practical applications:
Look out for the use of plastic that can conduct electricity in cell phone displays, in photo labs, where anti-static substances are applied to film, and in electromagnetic radiation shields on computer screens.
Semi-conductive polymers have recently been developed in light-emitting diodes, mini-format television and even solar cells.
What’s more, in the future we will be able to produce transistors and other electronic components consisting of individual molecules - which will dramatically increase the speed and reduce the size of our computers.

Alan J. Heeger, 64, was born in 1936 in Sioux City, Iowa, He is Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute for Polymers and Organic Solids at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Alan G MacDiarmid, 73, was born in 1927 in Masterton, New Zealand. He is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hideki Shirakawa, 64, was born in 1936 in Tokyo. He is Professor of Chemistry at the Institute of Materials Science, University of Tsukuba, Japan.

Heeger, MacDiarmid and Shirakawa made their seminal findings at the end of the 1970s and have subsequently developed conductive polymers into a research field of great importance for chemists as well as physicists

Plastics are made of an entwined mesh of long molecules called polymers, each with a central strand of carbon atoms.
Polymers generally do not conduct electricity, which is why metal wires are of course insulated with plastic.

The story of this particular Nobel Prize indicates the serendipity that often occurs in science.
The discovery of plastic conductors began with a mistake and was given a big boost by a happy coffee break.
In the early 1970's, Dr. Shirakaw a developed a technique for producing thin films of the polymer polyacetylene.
One day, a researcher in his laboratory misheard his instructions and added 1,000 times too much
catalyst to the chemical reaction.
A silvery film formed; it was composed of a different form of polyacetylene.
Meanwhile, MacDiarmid and Heeger, then also at Penn, had made a metallic-looking film out of strands
of sulphur nitride.
MacDiarmid mentioned the sulphur nitride film during a seminar in Tokyo.
Shirakawa nabbed MacDiarmid during the coffee break and told him about the silvery polyacetylene film.
MacDiarmid invited Dr. Shirakawa to Penn, where researchers diffused iodine into Shirakawa's polyacetylene films.
They were of course by that stage experienced with sulphur nitride.
"The iodine…pulls some of the electrons out of the plastic and therefore the remaining electrons aren’t
packed so tightly," MacDiarmid said. "Then the electrons can move more easily from one electrode to
Heeger remembers: "The electrical conductivity increased by a factor of 10 million in a few minutes, and
we knew we were onto something."
The results were presented at a 1977 conference in New York City.
It was made clear that plastics do conduct electricity.
This work opens up a number of possibilities for a variety of technological applications.
Agfa are already adding a layer of conducting polymers to their photographic film to drain away static.
Cambridge University boffins have made polymers that can emit light, which will soon be used for low-cost,
low-energy, possibly even foldable video displays.
Plastic semiconductors do not perform as well as silicon and will not replace silicon in computer chips.
But plastic has other important advantages: It is light, cheap, flexible, and malleable.
Also, needless to say, this research is an important step towards the production of components consisting of individual molecules, as we increase the speed and reduce the size of our computers.

The Physics Prize was won by Zhores I. Alferov (Russia), Herbert Kroemer (United States), and Jack S. Kilby (United States)

Often the practical applications of the Physics Prize can take decades to kick in.
This time, the physicists were rewarded for nothing less than the information technology revolution.
Alferov and Kroemer's semiconductors allow us to transmit information over fibre- optical cables, satellites and cell phones. Their work paved the way for CD players and PC’s
Kilby, who also happened to be co-inventor of the pocket calculator, invented the microchip.

Zhores I. Alferov was born in 1930 in Vitebsk, White Russia, then the Soviet Union. He obtained his doctor's degree in physics and mathematics at A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Russia. He has been Director of that Institute since 1987.
Herbert Kroemer was born in Germany in 1928. After gaining his doctor's degree in physics at the University of Göttingen, he has worked at RCA Laboratories, in Princeton and Varian Associates in Palo Alto; Kroemer has held professorships at the universities of Colorado and California.
Jack S. Kilby was born in 1923 in at Jefferson City, Missouri, USA. He worked at Texas Instruments for some twenty years and holds a professorship at Texas A&M University

In this case, Jack Kilby, the third name mentioned in the prize listing, must be the first to be singled out.
There are few living men whose insights and professional accomplishments have changed the world.
But Jack Kilby has achieved that.
His invention of the monolithic integrated circuit - the microchip - some 30 years ago at Texas Instruments (TI) laid the conceptual and technical foundation for the entire field of modern microelectronics.
It was this breakthrough that made possible the sophisticated high-speed computers and large-capacity semiconductor memories of today's information age.
As early as 1958, he joined TI in Dallas. During the summer of that year working with borrowed and
improvised equipment, he conceived and built the first electronic circuit in which all of the components, both active and passive, were fabricated in a single piece of semiconductor material half the size of a paper clip.
The successful laboratory demonstration of that first simple microchip on September 12, 1958, made
Jack Kilby went on to pioneer military, industrial, and commercial applications of microchip technology.
He headed teams that built the first military system and the first computer
incorporating integrated circuits.
He later co-invented both the hand-held calculator and the thermal printer that was used in portable data
In 1970, he took a leave of absence from TI to work as an independent inventor exploring, among
other subjects, the use of silicon technology for generating electrical power from sunlight
Mr. Kilby holds over 60 U.S. patents.
In 1982, he was – quite rightly inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, taking his place alongside Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers.

Zhores I. Alferov is the first Russian to win a prize since Gorbachev’s Peace award in 1990.Alferov and Herbert Kroemer have invented and developed fast opto- and micro-electronic components based on layered semiconductor structures, termed semiconductor heterostructures.
Fast transistors built using heterostructure technology are used in e.g. radio link satellites and the base stations of mobile telephones.
Laser diodes built with the same technology drive the flow of information in the Internet's fibre-optical cables.
They are also found in CD players, bar-code readers and laser pointers.
Electric bulbs may in the future be replaced by light-emitting diodes.
With heterostructure technology powerful light-emitting diodes are being built for use in car brake lights, traffic lights and other warning lights.

A truly practical year for the Physics prize.

The Nobel Prize winners for economics were James J. Heckman and Daniel L.McFadden, both Americans.

They have worked out ways of analysing how we make choices.
Their work will aid our understanding of polls, of schools, universities, jobs, housing for the elderly and in a host of other ways.

James J. Heckman 56, was born in Chicago in 1944. Since 1995 he has been the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.
Daniel L. McFadden, 63, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1937. Since 1990 he has held holds the E. Morris Cox Chair in Economics at Berkeley.

Both economists are giants in the field of microeconometrics, a discipline straddling the boundaries of statistics and economics.
Heckman and McFadden created theory and methods to help sharpen the focus and heighten the accuracy of household polls, which will in turn help sociologists and economists better understand trends in employment, education, housing and so on.
Via microeconometrics, ‘micro’ data is studied, and economic information is obtained about large groups of individuals, households, or firms.
Greater availability of micro data – and increasingly powerful computers - have enabled empirical
Studies such as the following:
What determines whether an individual decides to work and, if so, how many hours?
How do economic incentives affect choices of education, occupation, and place of residence?
What are the effects of different educational programs on income and employment?
James Heckman and Daniel McFadden have resolved fundamental problems that arise in the statistical
analysis of such data.
The methods they have developed have solid foundations in economic theory, but have evolved in
close interplay with applied research on important social problems.
They are now standard tools, not only among economists but also among other social scientists.
Available information often entails selective samples.
Data on wages, for instance, cannot be sampled randomly if only individuals with certain characteristics - unobservable to the researcher - choose to work or engage in education. If such selection is not taken into account, the statistical estimation of economic relationships will yield biased results.
Heckman has developed statistical methods of handling selective samples in an appropriate way. He has also proposed tools for solving closely related problems with individual differences unobserved by the researcher; such problems are common, e.g. when evaluating social programs or estimating how the
duration of unemployment affects chances of getting a job.
Heckman is a leader of applied research in these areas.
Information regarding individuals' occupation or place of residence will reflect choices they have made among a limited number of alternatives.
Prior to the work that McFadden has done, empirical studies of such choices lacked a foundation in economic theory.
Evolving from a new theory of discrete choice, the statistical methods developed by McFadden have transformed empirical research and prevail in models of transports and are used to evaluate
changes in communication systems.
Examples of McFadden's extensive applications of his own methods include the design of the San Francisco BART system, as well as investments in phone services and housing for the elderly.

The Literature Prize was won by Gao Xingjian of China

Because stories are important, and Gao Xingjian’s stories are especially important, beautiful and profound.

Gao Xingjian, born January 4 1940 in Ganzhou (Jiangxi province) in eastern China, is today a French citizen.
He is notable for what the Nobel committee has called his 'bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity.'
He is the first Chinese writer to win the prestigious prize. He himself called it 'a miracle.'
It has to be said that he has his detractors among literary critics. Some say his work lacks focus, others simply don’t get it. There is no doubt that he is not an easy writer to read. What’s more, of course, there will not be many who can read his writings in the original Chinese.
In fact the freezing out by the Nobel authorities of Chinese literature for so long has been a disgrace.
Gao Xingjian, a self-exiled Chinese author and dramatist, whose work is banned in his homeland, won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for work that, according to the Swedish Academy, is inspired by 'the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses.'
Actually he is an experimental playwright and novelist, one whom few Chinese people know, whom the Chinese government considers subversive and whom the Chinese media have largely been banned from discussing....
'We should congratulate him for his award,' said Shu Yi, head of the recently opened National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing. But he added: 'The award is stimulating and provocative for China.' It makes us feel awkward--we don't know whether to laugh or cry.'
'In some ways he [Gao Xingjian] represents what might be called a global vision,' said Leo Ou-fan Lee, a professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. 'His relationship with China is not limited to memory, history or politics. He uses all these themes as metaphors, indexes to a much more personal search for meaning.'
Mr. Gao says he deliberately stays out of Chinese politics so that he will have the freedom to think as he pleases, writes as fluently in French as in Chinese.
In the writing of Gao Xingjian literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses.
He is a perceptive sceptic who makes no claim to be able to explain the world. He asserts that he has found freedom only in writing.
His great novel ‘Soul Mountain’ is a work sui generis.
It is based on impressions from journeys in remote districts in southern and south-western China, where shamanistic customs still linger on, where ballads and tall stories about bandits are recounted as the truth and where it is possible to come across exponents of age-old Taoist wisdom.
The book is a tapestry of narratives with several protagonists who reflect each other and may represent aspects of one and the same ego. With his unrestrained use of personal pronouns Gao creates lightning shifts of perspective and compels the reader to question all confidences.
This approach derives from his dramas, which often require actors to assume a role and at the same time describe it from the outside.
I, you, he and she, and even ‘he/she’ become the names of fluctuating inner distances.
Soul Mountain is a novel of a pilgrimage made by the protagonist to himself and a journey along the reflective surface that divides fiction from life, imagination from memory.
The discussion of the problem of knowledge increasingly takes the form of a rehearsal of freedom from goals and meaning.
The work recalls a romantic dream of an universal poetry.
Gao Xingjian’s second novel, ‘One Man’s Bible’, fulfils the themes of ‘Soul Mountain’ but is easier to grasp. The core of the book involves settling the score with the terrifying insanity that is usually referred to as China’s Cultural Revolution.
His play ‘Fugitives’ irritated the democracy movement just as much as those in power.
Gao Xingjian points out himself the significance for his plays of the non-naturalistic trends in Western drama, naming Artaud, Brecht, Beckett and Kantor.
However, it has been equally important for him to "open the flow of sources from popular drama”.
When he created a Chinese oral theatre, he adopted elements from ancient masked drama, shadow plays and the dancing, singing and drumming traditions. He has embraced the possibility of moving freely in time and space on the stage with the help of one single gesture or word - as in Chinese opera.
The uninhibited mutations and grotesque symbolic language of dreams interrupt the distinct images of contemporary humanity.
Erotic themes give his texts feverish excitement, and many of them have the choreography of seduction as their basic pattern.
In this way he is one of the few male writers who gives the same weight to the truth of women as to his own.

In China the Nobel Committee has been accused of making an award that was overtly political.