May 1, 2013 3:22 pm
It took Santiago Ramón y Cajal quite a while to find his true calling in life. He tried his hand at cutting hair and at fixing shoes. As a boy in the mid-1800s, he planned for a career as an artist. But his father, an anatomy professor, shook his head and decided that young Ramón y Cajal would pursue medicine instead. The would-be artist went on to found the field of modern neuroscience, earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along the way. Born May 1, 1852, in Spain, Ramón y Cajal would have celebrated his 151st birthday today.
Before he began to stand out as a researcher, Ramón y Cajal had been an anatomy school assistant, a museum director and a professor and director of Spain’s National Institute of Hygiene. His most important work did not begin until around 1887, when he moved to the University of Barcelona and began investigating all of the brain’s different cell types. He discovered the axonal growth cone, which control the sensory and motor functions of nerve cells, and the interstitial cell of Cajal (later named after him), a nerve cell found in the smooth lining of the intestine. Perhaps most significantly, he developed the “neuron doctrine,” which demonstrated that nerve cells were individual rather than continuous cellular structures. Researchers consider this discovery the foundation of modern neuroscience.
In 1906, the Nobel committee awarded Ramón y Cajal and an Italian colleague the prize in Physiology or Medicine ”in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”
While Ramón y Cajal may have changed neuroscience forever, he maintained his original childhood passion. Throughout his career, he never gave up his art. He sketched hundreds of medical illustrations, and some of his drawings of brain cells are still used in classrooms today.
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February 4, 2013 11:52 am
A team of Russian geographers took winter swimming to an extreme last Friday. In a record-breaking dive, the head of the Russian Geographical Society sunk to the bottom of Lake Labynkyr in Siberia, one of the coldest lakes in the world, RIA Novosti reports, where air temperatures regularly hit minus 50 degrees Celsius. The team hopes to get its name in the Guinness Book of World Records for the stunt.
In addition to breaking records for cold dives, the geographers sought to follow up on mysterious discoveries of past years. Though no one is known to have ever entered the lake before, Labynkyr has been remotely explored with echo-sounders and probes. Sonars revealed unusually large objects in the lake, but scientists could not figure out what they were based on echolocation alone.
Locals in the nearby village of Oymyakon—which has a population of around 500 and is the coldest permanently inhabited settlement in the world—have their own ideas of what those objects could be. An old legend claims that Labynkyr is home to a Loch Ness-like water monster called “the devil” by nearby villagers.
According to the Voice of Russia, the team reported finding jaws and skeletal remains of a large animal with their underwater scanner, though these claims are not yet confirmed.
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October 15, 2012 11:21 am
When you consider the field of economics, you may think of using money as a basis on which to trade time and things. But some systems operate outside the realm of money, yet may still be explained by economic principles. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences went this year to two American researchers who worked on the problem of matching up groups—students to schools, doctors to hospitals—when money can’t be used as an arbiter.
“For example,” says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “many schools and universities are prevented from charging tuition fees and, in the case of human organs for transplants, monetary payments are ruled out on ethical grounds. Yet, in these – and many other – cases, an allocation has to be made. How do such processes actually work, and when is the outcome efficient?”
Alvin Roth, a Stanford professor and blogger, says Dylan Matthews for the Washington Post, “is an expert at “market design,” or the creation of matching systems or other mechanisms in situations in which normal markets are, for whatever reason, impracticable.”
Paired with the work of Lloyd Shapley, a game-theoretician, the two broke new ground in exploring and explaining how stable, cooperative systems can be built. Ironically, Roth and Shapley never actually worked together directly. Rather, says the Associated Press:
Shapley made early theoretical inroads into the subject, using game theory to analyze different matching methods in the 1950s and ’60s.
…Roth took it further by applying it to the market for U.S. doctors in the ’90s.
The easiest way to describe this is to consider the market for marriage. Nowadays we can consider this as a market without prices (well at least not ex ante prices) but a market nonetheless as there are only a certain number of ways you can match equal numbers of men and women. As it turns out, if you imagined the market as organised — something that surely takes a ton of imagination — you might consider each side ranking the people they would like to marry of the other gender in the population. Then the algorithm would pick one side, say, women, and give them their preferences first. If several women ranked the same man as No.1, then the men’s preferences would come into play. Without going into full details, this simple procedure led to three things. First, the matching outcome was stable in that you could not find individual pairs of men and women who were not married to one another who would prefer to be so over their matched partners. Second, and related, the outcome was Pareto optimal in that there was no other stable allocation where everyone could be made better off. Finally, whichever side got to propose first (say, the women in my discussion above) got, loosely, the better deal.
These same concepts, of pairing groups of things together, says Gans, have been applied to all sorts of issues: such as putting college roommates together, organizing staff layouts or even pairing up organ donors.
Roth, says Gans, “is an economic theorist who hasn’t just made things more efficient. He has actually saved lives. It is unclear whether it is the economics Nobel he deserved or the Nobel prize for medicine.”
October 12, 2012 2:03 pm
We’re all thinking it. Author Gary Shteyngart is just brave enough to say it:
Help me talk about Mo Yan at parties w/o reading his work. “I think Mo Yan is ____” “The thing about Mo Yan is___” “You like Mo Yan? Try___”
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) October 12, 2012
Some of the smartest people in the world were honored by the Nobel Committee this week and, uh, what did they do again?
Here, in Twitter-sized bites, are descriptions of the work that won the Nobel this week:
John Gurdon made a tadpole from a frog’s intestine cell, before anyone believed in stem cells.
Shinya Yamanaka figured out how to convince an adult cell to turn into any type of tissue cell. No embryonic cells needed!
Serge Haroche & David Wineland study tiny quantum particles. Haroche: “I use atoms to study the photons and he uses photons to study atoms.”
(Bonus: Why didn’t the Higgs boson research win? Too soon.)
Receptors move hormones and other chemicals across cell walls. Everyone assumed they existed. Robert Lefkowitz & Brian Kobilka proved it.
Mo Yan is provocative: he has a novel called Big Breasts & Wide Hips. But not too provocative: China’s government thinks he’s alright.
The committee went a little Oprah by honoring the EU: “You get a Nobel Prize and you get a Nobel Prize and you get a Nobel Prize!”
Can anyone out there do better? We’re open to suggestions — we’ve got parties to go to, too!
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October 12, 2012 9:21 am
This morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union for its role over the past 60 years in building peace and reconciliation among enemies who fought in the nations’ wars.
The award also seemed to illuminate competing visions of Europe as both historical unifier and meddlesome overlord, recalling deep strains within the bloc, primarily between Germany and other European nations over Berlin’s insistence on austerity to resolve the euro crisis, measures that have brought pain to Greece and Spain particularly.
Indeed, some Europeans themselves were taken aback by the prize. As Reuters reports:
“Is this a joke?” asked Chrisoula Panagiotidi, 36, a beautician who lost her job three days ago. “It’s the last thing I would expect. It mocks us and what we are going through right now. All it will do is infuriate people here.”
In Madrid, Francisco Gonzalez expressed bafflement. “I don’t see the logic in the EU getting this prize right now. They can’t even agree among themselves,” the 62-year-old businessman said.
In Berlin, public relations worker Astrid Meinicke, 46, was also skeptical. “I find it curious. I think the EU could have engaged itself a bit better, especially in Syria,” she said, near the city’s historic Brandenburg Gate.
Many Norwegians are bitterly opposed to the EU, seeing it as a threat to the sovereignty of nation states. “I find this absurd,” the leader of Norway’s anti-EU membership organization Heming Olaussen told NRK.
Norway, the home of the peace prize, has voted “no” twice to joining the EU, in 1972 and 1994.
On Twitter, commenters lost no time in reducing the prize to pointed, 140-character long observations and mockeries:
@rockjnewman Giving the#Nobel #PeacePrize to a govt coalition is like writing a novel without any characters.
@jswatz Giving the Peace Prize to the EU feels a little like the year TIme magazine awarded “Person of the Year” to “You.”
@ johnmcquaid: Eurasia, Oceania, Eastasia win Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, I kid Europe. But seriously …
@David_Boaz Maybe they’ll give the Economics prize to Congress.
@brokep Oh the irony. Because of the EU, Sweden is not a neutral country in conflicts anymore. So much for #nobel #peace.
@stefandevries BREAKING: The 27 member states are already fighting over who is going to pick up the prize in Oslo.
@pigmyanalogyboy The fallout from #eu #Nobel is going to be entertaining to say the least. Get some popcorn and a copy of the @Telegraph
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China’s ‘Provocative and Vulgar’ Mo Yan Wins Nobel in Literature