Nobel Prizes are a bridge between science and society

Augustana biology professor Sheryl Gares sheds some light on the research that won this year's Nobel Prizes in science.

Tia Lalani - 26 February 2018

By Sheryl Gares

Photo courtesy of Adam Baker on Flickr (

In December, the Augustana Science Department hosted a public Lunch & Learn event to discuss the Nobel science prize winners for 2017. The Nobel science prizes are very prestigious awards given to scientists recognized as making the most significant discoveries or advancements in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine.

These awards allow the scientific community the opportunity to publically celebrate the real world impact of often seemingly esoteric research. While the Nobel Committees have been accused of having a political agenda, and of overlooking deserving candidates, the ceremony and the prizes, which include a cash award, serve as an important bridge between science and society and highlight how scientific advancements can serve the public good.

Within chemistry, the award was shared by Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson, for their scientific contributions toward developing a method called cryo-electron microscopy. Their research achievements improved microscope resolution, image processing and specimen preparation to the extent that we can now clearly see images of biological specimens at the atomic level including biological structures at the surfaces of cells.

How does the ability to see the way biological molecules are arranged and interact at cell surfaces make a difference to the world? From a medical perspective, we can examine and compare highly infectious versus non-infectious bacteria or viruses and identify changes that correlate with greater disease-causing ability. This development promotes the targeted design of medicines that can be more effective and cheaper to produce.

The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was shared by Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for research on the genetic basis of the biological clock that controls circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms include the sets of responses or behaviours that occur in a regular daily pattern; for example, we typically wake around the same time every day, and we feel hungry at the same time every day. These rhythms require two components: an external sensory cue and a built-in genetic mechanism that acts like a clock or a pacemaker.

So what is the importance of understanding the genetic basis of circadian rhythms? They explain why we feel jet-lagged when we travel through several time zones in a short time period. The external cues and our internal clock become mismatched. Circadian rhythms also help regulate metabolism, so work or lifestyle that does not respect our natural rhythms is recognized as a contributor to metabolic disorders like diabetes, obesity and disease susceptibility. Disease specialists are beginning to recognize that certain treatments for patients are more effective at certain times of the day because patterns of certain hormones or immune factors are at higher or lower levels. Thus, working out the genetic mechanism of our internal clock now makes it possible to fine-tune how we manage or treat illness to improve patient outcomes.

Physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne were recognized for their contributions to the observation of gravitational waves. As predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity in 1915, gravitational waves can travel nearly unhindered over vast stretches of the universe. They are typically caused by the fast rotation of two heavy objects about one another, such as two back holes or two neutron stars, and are amplified if the two objects subsequently merge.

The Nobel Prize winners predicted how such waves would modify space-time as they pass us, effectively varying the distances between objects on Earth. These signals would manifest themselves in a change of the time it requires for light to travel between two fixed mirrors. The Nobel laureates also designed an incredibly precise and sensitive experiment to measure this minuscule change in length, which amounted to the astonishing width of an atomic nucleus over a one-mile mirror distance! They not only proved Einstein wrong, who doubted that we would ever detect gravitational waves, they also delivered a new tool to look deeper into space, and hence further back in time than ever before.

Together, these three groups of scientists demonstrate that even research that may not seem very practical or useful has important consequences for our understanding of our world and ourselves. The Nobel Committee's recognition of their research conveys it to the rest of us and demonstrates the importance of science to our lives.

Sheryl Gares, Biology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on February 13, 2018.