Congratulations to the 2013 Nobel Prize Winners!

The results are in, and this year's Nobel Prizes highlight some truly exciting science! Such science is the result of long processes and the ideas and inputs of multitudes of scientists.

Congratulations to the 2013 Nobel Prize Winners!

The results are in for the 2013 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine!

In Physics, François Englert and Peter W. Higgs have been awarded the prize "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider." For some background on the Higgs field and its mass-imbuing properties, check out this Nova video.

In Chemistry, the prize goes to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems." This Economist article explains the challenge of modeling real-world quantum mechanical chemical processes. "To quote Albert Einstein, a model must be as simple as possible—but no simpler. And in creating one, the three winners also brought chemistry fully into the computer age."

In Physiology or Medicine the prize goes to James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells." This New York Times article describes the award-winning research and features commentary from the new Nobelists. Dr. Rothman calls attention to the need to support research, even when its correctness or application isn't immediately apparent. When he began his career, he recalls,

"'Your idea was the only limit, any risk could be taken no matter how difficult.' He experienced five years of failure before the first signs of success, he said. Today, he said, there is less support for risky ideas, 'and it is becoming a pressing national issue, if not an international one.'"

This Mother Jones article adds,

"The Nobel Committee's recognition of this type of research takes on a much larger symbolic meaning today than it might have had in prior years: The government shutdown and the sequester have hit science labs hard across the country, halting research and stagnating progress. More generally, without obvious applications like developing vaccines or curing diseases, basic biological research has often taken a back seat in funding and attention. Yet clearly, the Nobel Prize committee begs to differ. All three science prizes announced this week have gone to researchers whose contributions are on quite fundamental science topics."

While the Nobel Prize is a great—and well-earned—honor, it's important to remember that the work of doing science does not occur in isolation. Jon Butterworth, a physicist on the Atlas team at CERN (which, along with the CMS team, conducted the experiments that found the Higgs boson) points out

"Prizes only give one view of how science is done. They encourage the idea that the typical manner of progress in science is the breakthrough of a lone genius. In reality, while lone geniuses and breakthroughs do occur, incremental progress and collaboration are more important in increasing our understanding of nature. Even the theory breakthrough behind this prize required a body of incrementally acquired knowledge to which many contributed.

The discovery of a Higgs boson, showing that the theoretical ideas are manifested in the real world, was thanks to the work of many thousands. There are 3,000 or so people on Atlas, a similar number on CMS, and hundreds who worked on the LHC. While the citation gives handsome credit for all this, part of me still wishes the prizes could have acknowledged it too."

This isn't just the case in particle physics. The Economist writes,

"Big science, complicated machines and papers with half a dozen authors or more are now the rule rather than the exception in many disciplines, and that trend will only intensify as science becomes both more specialized and more collaborative. There was speculation this year that the Nobel committee would break with another tradition, that organizations are not honored in the science prizes, and give part of the physics gong to CERN itself. But they didn't. The rules specified in Nobel's will have been reinterpreted in the past. It may be time to rejig them once again."


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on nyas.org are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.