Monday, 19 September 2016

Nobel Prizes around the corner

Image result for nobel medalThe start of every academic term coincides with the build up to the October announcement of the Nobel Prizes in the fields of Chemistry, Physics and Medicine (or Physiology), Peace, Literature and, a more recent addition, Economics. I remember vividly, the first year at the UTC, when we had a live stream of the Stockholm announcements as they were broadcast on the Monday (Medicine or Physiology), Tuesday (Physics) and Wednesday (Chemistry) of the first week in October. The Principle, Mr Lloyd, had received a motivational email from Sir Rich Roberts (Nobel Prize for the discovery of split genes in humans) and the Y12s were getting ready to start a lab class. 

When I realised we could stream the broadcast video, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, but the announcement was delayed, and delayed, and then I realised it would be in Swedish! However, out of the blue, the spokesperson for the committee appeared dramatically and announced the winning discovery of the trafficking of cellular components. In English! What I didn't expect was what happened next. The class broke into a spontaneous round of applause. I was flabbergasted! I think that was the moment when I realised how important it was for me to spend time working with students and staff at the UTC, to try and understand how best to capture that enthusiasm for Science. I couldn't have scripted it! The next year we were a little better organised and the tradition of celebrating the three Science awards is something I wouldn't miss for anything.

Why do I think the Nobel Prize is so important in Science: after all there are many who think it has a negative impact? It is a little like the impact of the Olympics, or the World Cup. It is probably because it is a landmark event that places Science (as opposed to Sport) firmly in the public eye for a week (or at least three days), assuming there are no competing world events! It is also a celebration of outstanding scientific achievements, that (even if you might disagree on who gets left out) seems to transcend Nationality. Since we are bombarded every day with arguments over sovereignty and borders, the Nobel Prize recognises scientific achievements irrespective of the nationality of the winners. It is certainly true that some countries have been more successful than others, but the nationality of Nobel laureates, unlike that of Olympic medal winners, is much less a part of the celebration. (Some would say I am being a little naive here!)

The original criteria for the award of a Nobel Prize included an assessment of the "impact" of a discovery in the year it was made. Or as Alfred Nobel put it: "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". In addition, it was more common in the early years for individuals to be awarded the Prize. Today, Science is increasingly a team effort and multi-disciplinary, making it more common for two or even three individuals to share the spoils. (A maximum of three laureates can share a prize). Moreover, it is not surprising that the committee tends to let the discovery "bed down" for a few years, just in case...

Image result for double helixI always ask new undergraduates of UCAS applicants to tell me about their "favourite" Nobel Prize winner or the discovery. You wont be surprised to hear it is mainly Watson and Crick. I now preface my question with: "apart from Watson and Crick...". not that it isn't in my top 5, but it makes the discussion more interesting....for me! I find the Nobel Prize role of honours an excellent starting point for tutorial discussions with students and I would recommend all students at the UTC take a look at the Nobel Foundation and read about the winners and their stories: it will not only help with University interviews, but I hope it will prove as fascinating to you as it does to me.

Before I go, who do I think will among be this year's recipients? The discoverers of Gravitational waves? The application of a bacterial defence system to the edit human genes: CRISPR? Or will it be recognition at last of the chemistry behind lap top (Lithium) batteries? Whoever wins, I look forward to talking to you all about the science behind the 2016 Nobel Prizes!

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