[Burning Issue] Nobel Prizes 2021

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On 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace – the Nobel Prizes. In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) established ‘The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences’ in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Let us learn more about the Nobel Prize laureates in 2021 here and what is their contribution to society.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2021

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded one half jointly to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and the other half to Giorgio Parisi “for groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems.”

  • This is the first time climate scientists (Manabe and Hasselmann) have been awarded the Physics Nobel. Last year, the award was given for the research into black holes.
  • Three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics for work that is essential to understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing, pinpointing the effect of human behaviour on those changes and ultimately predicting the impact of global warming.

Who are the laureates?

  • The winners were Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann of Germany, and Giorgio Parisi from Italy.
  • In 2015, at a UK-based climate-focused online publication sought to identify the three most influential climate change research papers ever published.
  • The paper that received the most votes was one by Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald way back in 1967.
  • These reports for the first time, had described the impact of carbon dioxide and water vapour on global warming.

Citation for their Climate Model

  • Manabe is a senior meteorologist and climatologist at Princeton University.
  • In the 1960s, he led ground-breaking research into how increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to higher temperatures on the surface of the Earth.
  • This laid the foundation for the development of current climate models.
  • Hasselmann is a German physicist and oceanographer who greatly advanced public understanding of climate change through the creation of a model that links climate and chaotic weather systems.
  • Parisi has focused on quantum field theory and complex systems.

Why it is a significant feat?

  • This is the first-time climate scientists have been awarded the Physics Nobel.
  • The IPCC had won the Peace Nobel in 2007, an acknowledgement of its efforts in creating awareness for the fight against climate change.
  • A Chemistry Nobel was also awarded to Paul Crutzen in 1995, for his work on the ozone layer, is considered the only other time someone from atmospheric sciences has won this honour.
  • The recognition of Manabe and Hasselmann, therefore, is being seen as an acknowledgement of the importance that climate science holds in today’s world.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021

  • The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis.
  • This has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener.
  • Last year, the honour went to Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna, for developing the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 – DNA snipping “scissors”.

What are Catalysts?

  • When two or more compounds react to form new compounds, the process is often aided by other chemicals that do not change themselves but help speed up the reaction.
  • These catalysts have been known at least since the middle of the 19th century, and are used in virtually every chemical process these days.
  • Till around 2000, only two kinds of chemicals were known to act as effective catalysts: metals, mainly heavier metals; and enzymes, naturally occurring heavy molecules that facilitate all life-supporting biochemical processes.
  • Both these sets of catalysts had limitations.

Issues with conventional catalysts

  • Heavier metals are expensive, difficult to mine, and toxic to humans and the environment.
  • Despite the best processes, traces remained in the end product; this posed problems in situations where compounds of very high purity were required, like in the manufacture of medicines.
  • Also, metals required an environment free of water and oxygen, which was difficult to ensure on an industrial scale.
  • Enzymes on the other hand, work best when water is used as a medium for the chemical reaction.
  • But that is not an environment suitable for all kinds of chemical reactions.

Nobel invention: Organo-catalysis

  • List and MacMillan, the both, started experimenting with simple organic compounds.
  • Organic compounds are mostly naturally occurring substances, built around a framework of carbon atoms and usually containing hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus.
  • Life-supporting chemicals like proteins, which are long chains of amino acids (carbon compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen) are organic.
  • Enzymes are also proteins, and therefore, organic compounds.
  • List and MacMillan started working with individual amino acids in enzymes — and struck gold.

What is asymmetric catalysis?

  • Substances can have exactly the same chemical composition and molecular formula; yet differ widely in their properties. They are known as isomers.
  • One type of isomers are those that differ in the way individual atoms are oriented in three-dimensional space.
  • Two molecules could be exactly the same, except that they are mirror images of each other, like our hands.
  • For simplicity, scientists often refer to these molecules as left-handed or right-handed.
  • This simple difference can sometimes have enormous consequences because it allows the molecules to bind in different locations when they interact with other molecules.
  • The end product in a chemical reaction is usually a mixture of left-handed and right-handed molecules.
  • List and MacMillan discovered that by using a natural compound like an amino acid as a catalyst, they were obtaining only one specific mirror image of the end-product.
  • This was later named asymmetric catalysis.

Significance of their discovery

  • The new catalysts, derived from naturally occurring chemicals, were greener and cheaper and ensured that the end product of the chemical reaction was of a specific variety.
  • The end product need not go through a purification process to yield the desired type of compound.
  • The discovery being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 has taken molecular construction to an entirely new level.
  • Its uses include research into new pharmaceuticals and it has also helped make chemistry greener.

Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences 2021

  • The 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded in one half to Canadian-born David Card and the other half jointly to Israeli-American Joshua D Angrist and Dutch-American Guido W Imbens.
  • David Card has been awarded for his empirical contributions to labor economics. Joshua D Angrist and Guido W Imbens won the award “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.”
  • The 2020 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to Paul R Milgrom and Robert B Wilson “for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats”.
  • Unlike the other Nobel prizes, the economics award wasn’t established in the will of Alfred Nobel but by the Swedish central bank in his memory in 1968.

What makes this year’s award special?

  • This is the first time the economic prize has been divided in this fashion with one half going to one awardee and other half divided across two awardees.
  • In the past, prize money was divided equally between the awardees even if the prize was for different topics as is the case this time around.
  • It may appear that the Nobel Prize has been given for two different contributions, but there is a common theme: “natural experiments.”

What are Natural Experiments?

  • Economists are often interested in causal questions such as the impact of education on incomes, impact of COVID-19 on poverty and so on.
  • They are also interested is understanding the direction of causality.
  • Economists have used two kinds of experiments to study these causality and direction of causality questions: random experiments and natural experiments.

(I) Random experiments

  • Under randomized experiments, the researchers allocate say medicines to a treatment group and compare the effect of the medicine with the control group which is not given the medicine.
  • In 2019, the Nobel Committee gave awards to three scholars for their contribution to the field of randomized experiments.
  • However, one cannot randomize experiments to study issues such as why certain people and regions are more unequal or have fewer educational opportunities and so on.

(II) Natural experiments

  • In natural experiments, economists study a policy change or a historical event and try to determine the cause and effect relationship to explain these developments.
  • The trio used such natural experiments to make some landmark contributions to economic development.
  • Natural experiments are more difficult for two reasons. The first is to identify what will serve as a natural experiment.
  • Second, in a random experiment, the researcher knows and controls the treatment and control groups which allows them to study the cause and effect of medicine.
  • But in natural experiments, such clear differentiation is not possible because people choose their groups on their own and even move between the two groups.
  • Despite the limitations, the researchers could use the natural setting to answer some big policy questions.

Natural experiments conducted by David Card

  • One question of interest for policymakers is to understand the impact of higher minimum wages on employment.
  • Earlier studies showed that increasing minimum wages leads to lower unemployment.
  • Economists were also not sure of the direction of causation between minimum wages and employment.
  • Say a slowdown in the economy leads to higher unemployment amid lower income groups.
  • This could lead to lower income groups demanding higher minimum wages. In such a case, it is higher unemployment which leads higher minimum wages.

Contribution of Angrist and Imbens

  • Angrist and Imbens showed how natural experiments can be used to identify cause and effect precisely.
  • We have discussed above how natural experiments make it difficult to separate control and treatment groups. This makes it difficult to establish causal relations.
  • In the 1990s, the duo developed a methodology – Local Average Treatment Effect (or LATE) – which uses a two-step process to help grapple with these problems of natural experiments.
  • Say, one is interested in finding the impact of an additional year of schooling on the incomes of people.
  • By using the LATE approach, they showed that effect on income of an additional year of education is around 9%.
  • While it may not be possible to determine individuals in the group, one can estimate the size of the impact.

What is the importance of the award today?

  • Earlier it was difficult to identify natural experiments and even if one identified them, it was difficult to generate data from these experiments.
  • With increased digitalization and dissemination of archival records, it has not just become easier to identify natural experiments but also get data.
  • Economists have been using natural experiments to help us understand the impact of past policies.
  • As the 2020 pandemic struck, economists used the natural experiments approach extensively to analyze how previous pandemics impacted different regions and tried to draw policy lessons.

India context

  • The methodology date back to the early and mid-90s and they have already had a tremendous influence on the research undertaken in several developing countries such as India.
  • For instance, in India, too, it is commonly held that higher minimum wages will be counterproductive for workers.
  • It is noteworthy that last year, in the wake of the Covid-induced lockdowns, several states, including UP, had summarily suspended several labour laws.
  • This included the ones regulating minimum wages, arguing that such a move will boost employment.
  • The main learning is that minimum wages can be increased in India without worrying about reducing employment.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021

  • Recently, two United States-based scientists, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.
  • Their discoveries have unlocked one of the secrets of nature by explaining the molecular basis for sensing heat, cold and mechanical force, which is fundamental for our ability to feel, interpret and interact with our internal and external environment.
  • They have focused their work on the field of somatosensation, that is the ability of specialized organs such as eyes, ears and skin to see, hear and feel.

Who are the Laureates?

  • David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, working independently in the United States, made a series of discoveries in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
  • They figured out the touch detectors in our body and the mechanism through which they communicate with the nervous system to identify and respond to a particular touch.

What did they discover?

  • They discovered the molecular sensors in the human body that are sensitive to heat, and to mechanical pressure, and make us “feel” hot or cold, or the touch of a sharp object on our skin.
  • In 1997, Dr. Julius and his team published a paper in Nature detailing how capsaicin, or the chemical compound in chili peppers, causes the burning sensation.
  • They created a library of DNA fragments to understand the corresponding genes and finally discovered a new capsaicin receptor and named it TRPV1.
  • This discovery paved the way for the identification of many other temperature-sensing receptors.
  • They identified another new receptor called TRPM8, a receptor that is activated by cold. It is specifically expressed in a subset of pain-and-temperature-sensing neurons.
  • They identified a single gene PIEZO2, which when silenced made the cells insensitive to the poking. They named this new mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo1.

How do they work?

  • The human ability to sense heat or cold and pressure is not very different from the working of the many detectors that we are familiar with.
  • When something hot, or cold, touches the body, the heat receptors enable the passage of some specific chemicals, like calcium ions, through the membrane of nerve cells.
  • It’s like a gate that opens up on a very specific request. The entry of the chemical inside the cell causes a small change in electrical voltage, which is picked up by the nervous system.
  • There is a whole spectrum of receptors that are sensitive to different ranges of temperature.
  • When there is more heat, more channels open up to allow the flow of ions, and the brain is able to perceive higher temperatures.

Therapeutic implications

  • Breakthroughs in physiology have often resulted in an improvement in the ability to fight diseases and disorders. This one is no different.
  • There are receptors that make us feel pain. If these receptors can suppress, or made less effective, the person had felt less pain.
  • Chronic pain is present is a number of illnesses and disorders. Earlier, the experience of pain was a mystery.
  • But as we understand these receptors more and more, it is possible that we gain the ability to regulate them in such a way that the pain is minimized.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2021

  • Recently, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.
  • In 2020, the award was given to the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations (UN) agency.
  • The Norwegian Nobel Committee is convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict.
  • The 2021 peace prize laureates are representative of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.

Maria Ressa:

  • She is an investigative journalist; in 2012 she co-founded Rappler, a digital media platform for investigative journalism, which she continues to head.
  • Rappler has focused critical attention on President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign.
  • In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the Philippines ranked 138 of 180 nations (India was ranked lower, at 142).
  • She has also authored Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center, and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.
Short biographies of Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 – AFP / AFP

Dmitry Muratov:

  • Muratov has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions.
  • Russia has ranked 150 in the 2021 World Freedom Index.
  • He along with around 50 colleagues started Novaya Gazeta (Newspaper) in 1993, as one of its founders. He has served as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief since 1995.
  • Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based non-profit, had felicitated Muratov as one of its International Press Freedom awardees in 2007.
  • Six of Muratov’s colleagues have been killed since the newspaper started, which has often faced harassment, threats, violence and murder from its opponents.
  • Despite the killings and threats, editor-in-chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy.

What is the significance?

  • Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.
  • Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time.

World Food Programme

  • The WFP is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on hunger and food security.
  • Founded in 1961, it is headquartered in Rome and has offices in 80 countries.
  • In addition to emergency food aid, WFP focuses on relief and rehabilitation, development aid, and special operations, such as making food systems more resilient against climate change and political instability.
  • It is an executive member of the United Nations Development Group, which collectively aims to fulfil the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and has prioritized achieving SDG 2 for “zero hunger” by 2030.

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