October is Nobel Prize season. Literature and Peace are essentially beauty contests, depending on subjective judgements about aesthetics and political correctness. They are akin to the Olympic gymnastic judges holding up numbered cards. Oh, that writer or do-gooder got a 9.5. Economics is a latecomer, having nothing to do with Alfred Nobel’s love of science and guilt about having invented TNT.
The heart of the matter is Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, which these days means biosciences. And frankly, all the sciences now overlap to a befuddling degree if you are committed to old-fashioned categories. But the accomplishments in these fields are more like a foot race or a javelin throw. Something is done that is actually discovered or invented or is measurable.
Since a lot of us have a hard time understanding the increasingly arcane, hermetic mysteries these scientists plumb, the Nobel Prizes at least forces us to try to grasp a few noteworthy accomplishments once a year.
These days we are increasingly told that education needs to focus robustly on STEM — that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics for people my age. No doubt this is so. They promise to be the great engines of our future joy or, if misused, our woe. So, possibly the humanities and ethics ought not to be dropped from the curriculum just yet.
Interestingly, this year’s prizes show how pure science is increasingly a technological and engineering endeavor. The three winners of the Physics prize have essentially reinvented the telescope and the three Chemistry laureates have done the same for the microscope.
Jacob Bronowski once pointed out a “paradox of knowledge. Year by year we devise more precise instruments to observe nature with more fineness. And when we look at the observations we are discomfited to see that they are still fuzzy, and we feel that we are as uncertain as ever.”
But this year’s laureates have taken another step deeper into nature. LIGO —the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory — sounds like something out of bad science fiction, but it allowed the detection of gravity waves predicted by Einstein a century ago and long thought impossible to detect and measure. The perturbation in gravity, in this case, originated with black holes that collided incomprehensibly far away, 1.3 billion years ago.
Three men at Cal Tech and MIT were instrumental in figuring out how to do it and share the prize, but it took a team of as many as a thousand scientists to devise the apparatus to do the job. Bronowski also noted that the smaller or farther away the thing you are trying to study, the more immense and complex the tools needed to do it.
Three men working at English, Swiss and American Universities share the Chemistry award for a cryo-electron microscope which also allowed them to peer into nature more deeply than previously thought possible. In this case into the structure of living cells offering “an unprecedented look at life at the atomic scale, providing us with accurate models of everything from viruses to antibodies.” Among other things, this technique promises an enlarged understanding of many cellular structures and allowed the mapping of the Zika virus, permitting more focused work to combat it.
Finally, the prize for Medicine goes to three more researchers who identified three genes, styled period, timeless and doubletime, that regulate the circadian rhythms that influence the metabolism of living creatures. Their work also shows how these mechanisms work and how they can go awry, with possible implications for health.
Science today, it has often been noted, is what the monastic orders were to the Middle Ages, that is a transnational fraternity headquartered at great universities with a shared learning and language surrounded by a sea of comparative ignorance and superstition. The nine science Nobelists of 2017, number among them two Germans, a Swiss, a Scot and five Americans.
And, in a heartening reminder, in a time when it can seem the United States is dead set on leading a charge into a new Dark Ages, this country still possesses many of the great scientific institutions in the world, attracting the best and the brightest students and researchers. So, it is not a surprise to learn that seven of the nine Nobelists did their work at American universities — the aforementioned Cal Tech and MIT, Brandeis, Rockefeller University and Columbia.
We should all celebrate such excellence, but there is no room for complacency. Such success is not foreordained, but the result of a slow, steady investment — public and private —in educational institutions, scientific infrastructure, and the cultivation of brainpower through scholarships, grants, donations. The Trump budget seeks to slash spending on such items and is pursuing anti-science policies that promise to make us all poorer, intellectually and economically.