This week the world's scientific, cultural and literary elite have filled halls in Stockholm and Oslo to celebrate academic endeavour. The Nobel Prize is synonymous with both human achievement and the desire to improve the world. They recognise the absolute peak discoveries in the fields of physiology/medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economic sciences as well as the somewhat contentious peace prize.
On Monday the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a trio of American scientists for evidencing the genetic process that guides our body clock
. The circadian rhythm - by no means unique to humans - determines our sleep patterns, fertility, health, attentiveness, digestion, mood and more. The actual mechanisms that power the body clock were a mystery until Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young undertook their research.
Studying fruit flies, they've learned that encoded within us is a feedback loop: genes signal the production of proteins
, the proteins build up and switch the genes off, only for the proteins to degrade over time and trigger the genes again. It takes roughly 24 hours. Their research will form the basis for future investigation into how we can better harness the potential of our body clocks, and crucially, reduce the harm done to people (like nightshift workers) who disrupt their circadian rhythms.
Another trio of American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their part in solving a century-old mystery. They represent the world-renowned Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), based at the California Institute of Technology, LIGO scientists have taken home an incredible 18 Nobel Prizes. That tradition has been carried on another year by Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, who've successfully measured gravitational waves
pulsing through the universe.
None other than Albert Einstein first posited the existence of gravitation waves that move at the speed of light, ripples in space-time
caused by massive galactic upheavals. Only the collision of black holes or the collapse of supergiant stars can generate such an extraordinary amount of power. For instance, when LIGO (in conjunction with a similar facility in Italy) first detected the gravitational waves in 2015, it was the result of an event over 1 billion light years away. For scale, the Moon is roughly eight light seconds away.
For many years the electron microscope has been tool with which we've explored the molecular world. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three biophysicists who have modified this fundamental tool to far extend its usefulness
. Jacques Dubochet of Switzerland, Joachim Frank of America and Richard Henderson of Scotland collaborated to pioneer cryo-electron microscopy
. This technique involves 'freezing' biomolecules under the microscope, giving the viewer an incredibly detailed snapshot of the very building blocks of life. It's a discovery that will have flow-on effects for thousands of other scientific endeavours.
Following the contentious decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016, the judges returned to a more familiar format. British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro
has taken the honour this year for creating an 'aesthetic universe all his own'. His distinctive writing style (as manifested in his 1989 masterpiece 'The Remains Of The Day') transcends the literary sensibilities of both Britain and his country of birth, Japan.
The Nobel Peace Prize is by far the most controversial award, one that seems imbued with the same internal tensions of the man it was named after. Alfred Nobel was a man of incredible talent in the sciences and business, best known for inventing dynamite. Yet he profited enormously from his company Bofors, which for decades created and shaped steel for cannons and guns. It was only towards the end of his life, faced with accusations of profiting from arms manufacturing, that he endowed his fortune to the Prize we celebrate today. It carries a chequered past; its most controversial recipient was Henry Kissinger, considered by many to be a war criminal for his actions during the Vietnam War and political upheavals in South America and Southeast Asia. The controversies are ongoing, right now there are calls to have Aung San Suu Kyi stripped of her award for her perceived failure of leadership over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the organisation which takes the lofty and devilishly difficult goal of total denuclearisation
. The group known globally as ICAN was formed in 2007 and comprises several hundred member organisations from 100 countries around the world. Their political nous and the patience required to grind out treaty-based solutions to the threat of nuclear disaster is beyond laudable. In an international community taut with the fear of a shooting war between North Korea and America, it's a timely and welcome decision.
The award for economic sciences will be announced on Monday.