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From climate change,
to refugees, to the minimum wage and freedom of the press, the stories behind
this year’s Nobel Prize awards touched on a wide range of hot-button issues.
And on Tuesday, Nov.
9, six members of the University of Delaware faculty brought those stories to
an in-person and virtual audience at the 2021 Nobel Prize Symposium, hosted by
the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) in Gore Hall.
CAS Dean John A.
Pelesko welcomed the audience to the event, which consists of a series of short
talks and question-and-answer sessions, promising that the presentations would
be enlightening and entertaining. Each year, he said, the symposium allows the
University to “share the expertise of our faculty, on campus and beyond.”
recognized and thanked Doug Doren, who retired in 2020 as a UD administrator
and professor of chemistry and biochemistry and who founded the annual Nobel
event more than a decade ago, and John Jungck, professor of biological
sciences, and Karen Rosenberg, professor of anthropology, who have organized it
in recent years.
Following are the
prizes discussed at the symposium.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Rosenberg Professor Emeritus of Communication, spoke about the winners of this
year’s Nobel Peace Prize, editors Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, whose
publications have been taking on autocratic governments in the Philippines and
“Both of these
people have been doing this work for decades,” Begleiter said, noting that
their selection for the prize was based on this long history, not on a specific
single event or achievement.
The Nobel committee
praised both laureates for their fight for a free and independent press,
calling them “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in
a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse
Begleiter, a former
international journalist with CNN, told the audience that he had met Ressa when
she was a young reporter working for a government-controlled television station
in the Philippines and covering massive anti-government protests against the
Ferdinand Marcos regime. She continued to fight as an independent reporter
throughout her career and now is editor of Rappler, an online news organization
that openly challenges the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and has 12
million readers in the Philippines alone, Begleiter said.
He also recalled
briefly encountering Muratov in Moscow in 1996, when both journalists were
covering the first free presidential elections since the fall of the Soviet
Union. Muratov went on to launch a new newspaper and, now that autocracy has
returned to Russia, he has continued his work as editor of that publication.
Six of his journalists have been killed, Begleiter noted.
“This year’s Peace
Prize represents the global role of independent media in holding autocrats
accountable,” he said.
professor of chemistry and biochemistry, described the work done by the two
scientists awarded this year’s prize in chemistry.
David W.C. MacMillan
and Benjamin List devised a method — known as asymmetric organocatalysis — for
constructing molecules in a cheap, environmentally friendly way, allowing
researchers to more easily make pharmaceuticals and other products.
Watson, whose own
research is in the field of catalysis, began by explaining what catalysts are
and their critical role in science. These basic tools control and accelerate
chemical reactions and are not changed by the reaction; instead, they
regenerate with each cycle.
Before the latest
prizes were awarded, seven Nobels had been given for work in catalysis, showing
the importance of the field, Watson said. “Over and over again, people working
in this area are changing what is possible,” she said.
Until 2000, only two types of catalysts, metals and enzymes, were known, Watson said. But that year, MacMillan and List independently developed a third type, building on small organic molecules that are asymmetric--mirror images, said Watson, holding up her two hands to illustrate that description. The discovery changed the field of catalysis because no one had conceptualized this before, she said.
The Nobel committee called the laureates' work "as simple as it is ingenious."
associate professor of English and of women and gender studies, discussed the
books and stories written by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the 2021 Nobel Prize in
Born in what is now
Tanzania, Gurnah fled to England during a revolution and remained there,
writing in English, although his first language was Swahili. The Nobel judges
commended “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of
colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and
Davis said that
Gurnah, now age 73, began writing about his home country as a way to remember
it. Those memories grew into short stories, and the stories eventually became
10 novels, she said, all dealing with the dislocation experienced by refugees
and what the author has called “this idea of losing your place in the world.”
for the Nobel was a surprise to most observers, Davis said. His novels are not
widely read or even available outside of England and aren’t well known in
Africa. The prize is an opportunity for his work to become much better known
and to bring the larger issue of refugee crises and anti-immigrant policies to
light, she said.
At the same time,
Davis said, the recognition of Gurnah shows the Nobel organization’s current
interest in representing the entire literary world. He is the first Black
laureate in literature since Toni Morrison in 1993 (“That’s a very long time,”
Davis said) and the first Black African writer since 1986 (“an even longer
include Paradise, which Davis said is often considered his masterpiece, and the
new Afterlives, published in 2020.
assistant professor of physics and astronomy, spoke about the year’s physics
prize, which was shared by three scientists honored for what the Nobel
organization called “groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of
complex physical systems.”
Half of the prize
was awarded to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for laying the foundation of
our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humans influence it, reliably
predicting global warming. The other half was awarded to Giorgio Parisi for
revolutionizing the theory of disordered material and random processes on
scales from atoms to planets.
Maruca began his
talk by giving the audience some perspective on what complex systems are. A
one-liter bottle containing nothing but air, he said, holds 25 sextillion
molecules — “a huge number” that makes it impossible for even supercomputers to
measure and track each one. In short, complex systems contain too much
information, and so scientists must identify and focus on the key components, a
task that’s “easier said than done,” Maruca said.
Parisi worked with
magnetism and found ways to understand those complex systems. He discovered
hidden patterns in disordered and complex materials and found that his
discovery could be applied to many other complex materials as well, in areas
including mathematics, biology and neuroscience.
Parisi’s work as “finding order out of chaos” and said that, “Ultimately,
you’re solving problems with too much information.”
Hasselmann were recognized for their early work with climate models. “We
struggle to predict the weather a few days ahead,” Maruca said. “So how can we
predict climate decades into the future?”
In the 1960s, Manabe
demonstrated that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to higher
temperatures, work that became the basis for today’s climate models. A decade
later, Hasselmann created a model that linked weather and climate, showing that
such models can be accurate even though weather is changeable.
assistant professor of materials science and biomedical engineering, discussed
the Nobel Prize in medicine, which was awarded to two scientists whose
fundamental work identified the receptors that enable us to sense temperature
discoveries by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who shared the award, could
help lead to new treatments for pain.
“Our ability to
sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our
interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these
sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that
temperature and pressure can be perceived?” the Nobel committee said in its
announcement. “This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize
Dhong noted that
this year’s prize-winning discoveries are ones that we can relate to in
everyday life, from accidentally touching a hot stove to hugging a loved one.
“Receptors help our
cells sense, react and signal,” he said, but for some time, scientists didn’t
know what the specific receptors for touch and temperature were. That lack, he
said, was “a missing link” in understanding how our bodies detect pressure and
capsaicin, the substance that makes hot peppers spicy and creates their burning
sensation, and discovered the molecular receptors that convert heat into the
sensation of pain. Dhong described how he and his colleagues created a library
of millions of DNA fragments and ultimately found a single gene that can make
cells sensitive to capsaicin.
discovered a novel class of sensors that detect pressure in the skin and
internal organs by identifying genes that convert mechanical stimuli into the
senses of touch and pressure. These genes have been found to also play a key
role in sensing body position and motion and regulating such processes as blood
pressure and respiration.
Charles Link, Bank
of America Professor of Business, explained the work done by the three
economists who were awarded this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic
Sciences, which is given in memory of Alfred Nobel.
Half of the prize
was awarded to David Card “for his empirical contributions to labor economics”
and the other half jointly to Joshua D. Augrist and Guido W. Imbens “for their
methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.”
The key to these
laureates’ work is in the use of natural experiments, which Link said has
enabled economic research to become much more empirical and has also come to be
used in sociology, political science and many other social sciences. Many
important issues in economics deal with cause and effect, but researchers have
traditionally been unable to conduct experiments — the kind that natural
scientists perform in laboratories — that have a control group for comparison.
laureates showed that natural experiments could be used, studying situations
where chance events or policy changes result in groups of people subjected to
As an example, Link
described one such experiment, in which Card and a colleague examined whether
raising the minimum wage hurts job growth. They looked at New Jersey, where the
minimum wage had been raised, and adjacent eastern Pennsylvania, which had not
raised its minimum wage. Because the two areas were so similar in other ways,
Pennsylvania could serve as a control group, Link said.
surveyed fast-food businesses in both states and found no evidence that the
higher wages had hindered job growth, he said, adding that later studies of the
issue have had similar findings.
revolutionized the way that economists conduct research,” Link said of the
Article by Ann Manser, with information from the Nobel Prize Organization.
Published Nov. 15, 2021