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News Nobel Lectures 2013 - Natural Sciences

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Pictured are Nobel symposium presenters (from left) Stephen Barr, Frederick Bereskin, Kenneth van Golen, Stuart Kaufman, Siobhan Carroll and Sandeep Patel.

Today's chemists might work at a computer as often as in a laboratory, medical researchers studying conditions such as diabetes rely on understanding how cells carry and deposit materials within the body, and average investors in the market increasingly buy index funds to average out the short-term ups and downs of individual stocks. The discoveries that led to these changes are among the work that was honored by this year's Nobel Prizes.

On Nov. 6, six University of Delaware faculty members — each with particular expertise in one of the prize-winning areas of study — explained the work and its significance to an audience in UD's new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab). The location, which allowed for informal seating and convenient viewing of slide presentations on large wall-mounted monitors, was chosen in part to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature both of the Nobels and of the teaching and research housed in the building.

The College of Arts and Sciences sponsors this series of short lectures each fall, shortly after the Nobel Prizes are announced. Doug Doren, senior associate dean of the college who organizes the event, said the talks offer the general public the opportunity to learn about the prize-winning work in more depth than most news coverage provides.

"Our faculty speakers do research in areas that are closely connected to the work being recognized, and they bring their personal insights to the talks," he said.

The following are the lectures in the natural sciences.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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Sandeep Patel, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, discussed the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel for developing computational models of complex chemical systems.

Patel began his talk by saying that chemists want to understand and control the process of molecular transformation, but because atoms and molecules are so small, researchers must create models — in combination with laboratory experiments — in order to make predictions.

In the past, these models were made of plastic balls and sticks, he said, but now supercomputers can be used to make complex virtual models. In the 1970s, this year's prize-winners made the discoveries that laid the groundwork for today's computer models.

"What you have now is the ability to do chemistry on a computer," Patel said.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

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Kenneth van Golen, associate professor of biological sciences, described the work done by James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Suedhof, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells."

Cells are compartmentalized by their different functions, but substances need to move back and forth between those compartments, van Golen said. The phrase "vesicle traffic" refers to that movement, and all three of the Nobel laureates contributed different aspects of understanding how cells transport their cargo and then unload it in the correct place. Nearly all cellular function depends on vesicle traffic, van Golen said.

"The work of these three … has created an entire field" of study, he said, and has given researchers new insights into such diseases as Alzheimer's and various immune diseases.
The Nobel Prize in Physics
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Stephen Barr, professor of physics and astronomy, explained the physics prize, given to Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs for the theoretical prediction of "a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles … recently confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle."

Barr began by describing the concept that objects exert influence on others across space, as in the moon's effect on Earth's tides. "Action at a distance is a strange and spooky idea," he said, adding that space is not empty but rather is filled with gravitational, electromagnetic and other types of fields.

Englert and Higgs were working independently in 1964 when each proposed a theory of how particles acquire mass by interacting with a particular field, now called the Higgs field. The field they hypothesized became a key part of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes how everything in existence is made up of a relatively small number of building blocks, or matter particles.

In 2012, researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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UD science faculty explain the 2013 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Physics.
On Nov. 6, six University of Delaware science faculty members — each with particular expertise in one of the prize-winning areas of study — explained the work of this year's Nobel Prize winners and its significance to an audience in UD's new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab).
1/3/2014
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