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!
More from Smithsonian.com:
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
More from Smothsonian.com:
China’s ‘Provocative and Vulgar’ Mo Yan Wins Nobel in Literature
October 11, 2012 12:26 pm
Chinese author Mo Yan took this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature for his “hallucinatory realism” that “merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.”
In China, the Washington Post writes, national television broke its normally tightly-scripted newscast to announce the prize. Chinese social media reacted explosively, and the government is reportedly prideful—the opposite reaction to the last two times Chinese nationals won a Nobel. According to the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, Mo is “the first Chinese writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Exiled critic Gao Xingjian won the same award in 2000, but the government disowned him.
Mo, too, suffered some criticism in the past. According to Reuters, some of his books were banned as “provocative and vulgar” by Chinese authorities. Yet others criticize him as being too close to the Communist party:
While users of a popular Chinese microblogging site offered their congratulations, dissident artist Ai Weiwei said he disagreed with giving the award to a writer with the “taint of government” about him.
Mo is a vice chairman to the government-sponsored Chinese Writer’s Association and did not comment about Liu Xiabao, whose 2010 Nobel Peace Prize infuriated Chinese leadership. Xiabao’s name has been banned from public discussion in China.
“His winning won’t be of any help for Liu Xiaobo, unless Mo Yan expresses his concern for him,” said Ai Weiwei.
“But Mo Yan has stated in the past that he has nothing to say about Liu Xiaobo. I think the Nobel organizers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don’t understand it.”
Mo seems aware of the tenuousness of some writers’ place in Chinese society. Born Guan Moye in 1955, he chose his penname, which means “don’t speak,” as a way to remind himself to watch what he says in order to avoid trouble and mask his identity.
When Mo was an elementary school, he was forced to drop out and instead herd cattle during China’s Cultural Revolution. During his lowest points, he had to eat tree bark to survive. These early experiences informed some of his work. All in all, he’s written 11 novels and around 100 short stories, but his most well known title, Red Sorghum, portrays the hardships farmers endured in the early years of communist rule.
Mo’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, speaks highly of Mo’s work but does not agree with China’s obsession over the prize as a point of national pride. As he told China Daily in an email interview:
I don’t have a problem with the prize; it’s the popular obsession over it that I find objectionable. For populations in countries like China and South Korea, it has become a matter of national validation if successful, and national scorn if not. Come on, folks, it’s an individual prize for a writer’s (or poet’s) body of work. I know, that’s not how a lot of people see it, but …really!
More from Smithsonian.com:
October 10, 2012 11:34 am
Everyone Believed Cell Receptors Existed, But Chemistry Nobelists Figured Out That They Actually Did
Carried in your blood stream, a vast array of chemical messengers—hormones—tell your body how to behave and how to respond to external forces. A scary sight at night, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, triggers a shot of adrenaline (along with a range of other hormones), the basis of the fight-or-flight response. But before these chemicals can carry out their work—a boosted heart rate, a rush of energy to your muscles and changes in your airway to help you get more oxygen per breath—they first need to make it into all of the various cells around your body. Figuring out the specifics of how they do this has earned Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Even before the pair’s work, says The New York Times, scientists assumed that receptors lining the walls of cells were responsible for transporting hormones across the largely impermeable barriers. The specific details explaining how those receptors work (their shape, their genetic blueprint, their specific functionality, and even their existence) were still up in the air. Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s work over the years, starting back in the 1960s when Lefkowitz was just a student, led the charge in cracking those problems. The two scientists’ research focused on a class of cellular receptors known as G-protein coupled receptors, or seven-transmembrane domain receptors, for the fact that they crisscross the cell wall seven times.
Everyone had realized, for decades (more like centuries), that cells had to be able to send signal to each other somehow. But how was this done? No matter what, there had to be some sort of transducer mechanism, because any signal would arrive on the outside of the cell membrane and then (somehow) be carried across and set off activity inside the cell. As it became clear that small molecules (both the body’s own and artificial ones from outside) could have signaling effects, the idea of a “receptor” became inescapable. But it’s worth remembering that up until the mid-1970s you could find people – in print, no less – warning readers that the idea of a receptor as a distinct physical object was unproven and could be an unwarranted assumption. Everyone knew that molecular signals were being handled somehow, but it was very unclear what (or how many) pieces there were to the process. This year’s award recognizes the lifting of that fog.
As Lowe mentions in his blog, GPCRs underlie the bulk of modern pharmaceutical research. A 2004 article from the American Chemical Society said:
If you had to make a wild guess about the target of a certain drug, your best odds are with “G-protein coupled receptor.” Drugs targeting members of this integral membrane protein superfamily, which transmit chemical signals into a wide array of different cell types, represent the core of modern medicine. They account for the majority of best-selling drugs and about 40% of all prescription pharmaceuticals on the market. Notable examples include Eli Lilly’s Zyprexa, Schering-Plough’s Clarinex, GlaxoSmithKline’s Zantac, and Novartis’s Zelnorm.
Upon hearing of his Nobel win, Lefkowitz told the Times, he had to rejig what he was going to do with his day.
“I was going to get a haircut,” Dr. Lefkowitz said, “which if you could see me, you would see, is quite a necessity, but I’m afraid that’ll probably have to be postponed.”
October 9, 2012 8:01 am
Today’s Nobel Prize in physics went to Serge Haroche, from France, and David Wineland, from the United States. The pair won for their research on something we use every day: light. Their research has centered around figuring out the way light behaves at a very fundamental level—a field called “quantum optics.” Haroche was quite surprised to win. The BBC writes:
Prof Haroche was reached by phone from the press conference. He had been told he had won just 20 minutes before telling reporters: “I was lucky – I was in the steet and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately.”
Here’s what the Royal Swedish Academy says about the award:
The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them. For single particles of light or matter the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over. But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena.
If you’re surprised that it didn’t go to someone for the Higgs, you shouldn’t be. Slate asked some science journalists last week who would win. Charles Seife and Geoff Brumfiel cleared up that misconception right away. Seife said:
We have to get one thing out of the way first. It’s not going to be for the Higgs. It’s too early. Even if the Higgs evidence from CERN was hammer-hitting-you-on-the-head conclusive (which it isn’t), it would be a few years before the Nobel committee would likely award a prize.
And Brumfiel agreed:
The obvious story in physics this year has been the Higgs particle, but it seems unlikely that it will get a prize. For one thing, nominations began before this summer’s announcement. For another, we’re still not entirely sure what we’ve found. More data will be released next month and again in December. Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish.
Brumfiel was slightly closer than Seife on his prediction for who would win, although not quite right. He predicted the award would go to researchers working on “specially structured materials that do cool stuff to light.” Right on the light, wrong on the medium.
More from Smithsonian.com: