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Nobel Prizes explained

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Faculty experts discuss the work of this year's laureates

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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.”

Pelesko also 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.

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Peace

Ralph Begleiter, 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 Russia, respectively.

“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 conditions.”

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.

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Chemistry

Mary Watson, 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."

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Literature

Emily Davis, 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 literature.

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 continents.”

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.”

Gurnah’s selection 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 time”).

Gurnah’s novels include Paradise, which Davis said is often considered his masterpiece, and the new Afterlives, published in 2020.

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Physics

Bennett Maruca, 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.

Maruca described Parisi’s work as “finding order out of chaos” and said that, “Ultimately, you’re solving problems with too much information.”

Manabe and 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.

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Physiology or medicine

Charles Dhong, 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 and touch.

These molecular 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 laureates.”

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 heat.

Julius studied 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.

Patapoutian 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.

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Economics

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.

This year’s laureates showed that natural experiments could be used, studying situations where chance events or policy changes result in groups of people subjected to different effects.

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.

The researchers 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.

“They have revolutionized the way that economists conduct research,” Link said of the laureates.

Article by Ann Manser, with information from the Nobel Prize Organization.

Published Nov. 15, 2021

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Experts from the UD faculty spoke at the College of
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Nobel Prizes explained