2017 Nobel Prizes shortlist, explained

Clarivate Citation Laureates is the new name of Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates, historically the best predictors of Nobel Prizes. Their main criteria is number of citations garnered by scientists, and they have correctly predicted at least one winner every year (except 1993 and 1996) since they started in 1989. Here are their 2017 Citation Laureates, explained.


Physiology or Medicine Shortlist (announced Monday, 10/2)

 

For discovery of the signaling pathway phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) and elucidation of its role in tumor growth:

Lewis C. Cantley (Weill Cornell Medicine, NYC)

Lewis C. Cantley (Weill Cornell Medicine, NYC)

Cantley identified the PI3K signaling pathway in 1984. It’s one of those insanely complex cellular processes that’s hard to visualize, and has a “critical role in regulating diverse cellular functions including metabolism, growth, proliferation, survival, transcription and protein synthesis.” When something in this pathway goes awry, it can cause cancer and tumor growth. There are drugs on the market now that inhibit the work of this pathway, which then suppresses tumor progression (Zydelig for lymphomas and leukemias, for example).

A representation of the process that triggers the PI3K pathway. Credit: Wikipedia.

A representation of the process that triggers the PI3K pathway. Credit: Wikipedia.

 

For fundamental contributions to the analysis of brain imaging data, specifically through statistical parametric mapping and voxel-based morphometry:

Karl J. Friston (University College London, UK)

Karl J. Friston (University College London, UK)

fMRI and PET scans are awesome, and have provided great insight into how the brain works. But these scans, just like the brains they image, are messy and would be good only for geeky coffee table photo albums if there wasn’t sophisticated software with which these images could be analyzed. Friston developed the techniques now used to tease out the relevant data from the noise. Based on statistical models, these techniques can help identify if the brain is firing because the subject is being shown a photo of a coffee cup or if they are thinking of Kofi Annan. Friston’s work gives us the wonderful visualizations of the brain we all know and love and are creeped out by.

fMRI scan of a person performing memory tasks, with the most active parts of brain identified. Credit: Wikimedia.

fMRI scan of a person performing memory tasks, with the most active parts of brain identified. Credit: Wikimedia.

 

For their discovery of the Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus, or human herpesvirus 8 (KSHV/HHV8):

Yuan Chang (University of Pittsburgh, PA)

Yuan Chang (University of Pittsburgh, PA)

Patrick S. Moore (University of Pittsburgh, PA)

Patrick S. Moore (University of Pittsburgh, PA)

In the 1980s, when HIV exploded into public consciousness, the biggest visual identifier of the infection was Kaposi sarcoma (KS), a skin cancer associated with AIDS. At the time, 40% of people with HIV showed signs of this disease, and it is still “the most common AIDS-associated malignancy.” In 1994, the wife and husband team of Chang and Moore discovered why KS happens: it’s caused by a strain of herpes they discovered, called herpesvirus 8. This virus can live in your body without any indication, until there is some kind of immunosuppression--then it can break out and cause cancerous tumors to form.

Kaposi sarcoma lesions on the skin of a patient. Credit: Wikipedia.

Kaposi sarcoma lesions on the skin of a patient. Credit: Wikipedia.

 

Conspicuously absent from the list: arguably the most important medical development of the century, CRISPR gene editing technology. It is unlikely this will get awarded anytime soon since the patent battle, though initially decided in favor of MIT, is still ongoing. Nobel committee will probably sit tight on this one until a clear winner is crowned.


Physics Shortlist (announced Tuesday, 10/3)

 

For seminal contributions to carbon-based electronics:

Phaedon Avouris (IBM, NY)

Phaedon Avouris (IBM, NY)

Cornelis Dekker (Delft University, Netherlands)

Cornelis Dekker (Delft University, Netherlands)

Paul McEuen (Cornell University, NY)

Paul McEuen (Cornell University, NY)

Only certain materials, semiconductors and conductors of electricity, are useful for creating electronics. These are usually made of rare earth or precious metals, of which we have a limited supply on Earth. Avouris, Dekker, and McEuen have pioneered ways of using abundant carbon in new arrangements, like carbon nanotubes, that have very interesting electronic properties. This will likely upend the industry, as carbon-based technologies are already starting to outperform conventional batteries and transistors.

Rendering of a carbon nanotube, a single sheet of graphite rolled up in a tube. Credit: Wikipedia.

Rendering of a carbon nanotube, a single sheet of graphite rolled up in a tube. Credit: Wikipedia.

 

For pioneering discoveries in nonlinear and chaotic physical systems and for identification of the Feigenbaum Constant:

Mitchell J. Feigenbaum (Rockefeller University, NYC)

Mitchell J. Feigenbaum (Rockefeller University, NYC)

A legend in the field of chaos theory (always a hot topic for Nobel Prizes), Feigenbaum has made many discoveries. His most famous, perhaps, is describing how stable systems transition to chaotic ones. Feigenbaum noticed that as stable systems transitioned to chaotic ones, they would oscillate between two different states, then four different states, then 8, 16, 32… and so on. “This is known as the period-doubling path to chaos,” and “the ratio between the values where the period doubles ends up approaching the Feigenbaum constant, approximately 4.669.” So, chaos is not random, just very hard to predict.

A graph showing the ordered way a system slips into chaos. Credit: Wikipedia.

A graph showing the ordered way a system slips into chaos. Credit: Wikipedia.

 

For his profound contributions to our understanding of the universe, including its origins, galactic formation processes, disk accretion of black holes, and many other cosmological phenomena:

Rashid A. Sunyaev (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow)

Rashid A. Sunyaev (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow)

Sunyaev (along with now deceased colleague Yakov Zel’dovich) was the first to propose the properties of the earliest light of the universe we have ever seen: the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Sunayev theorized, decades before the first satellites were able to get us the images of the CMB, that it would have a nearly perfect black body curve with very minor but specific fluctuations. These fluctuations would provide the seeds of matter and energy for all the galaxies we did today. Sunayev’s math and theories were so good, that his predictions were only a few percent off from what we observe with the most cutting-edge instruments today.

The subtle variations in the CMB the Planck satellite observed in 2013 match Sunyaev’s predictions. Credit: ESA.

The subtle variations in the CMB the Planck satellite observed in 2013 match Sunyaev’s predictions. Credit: ESA.

 

I would add, the first year they’re actually eligible:

For their development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that made possible the detection of gravitational waves:

Kip S. Thorne (California Institute of Technology, CA)

Kip S. Thorne (California Institute of Technology, CA)

Rainer Weiss (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA)

Rainer Weiss (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA)

LIGO is a pair of huge interferometers, located in rural parts of Washington and Louisiana. An interferometer splits a beam of (laser) light into two perpendicular beams, then bounces them back and lets them interact on a photodetector, creating an interference pattern. This technique is used to measure very tiny changes in distances for many different types of scientific experiments. The interferometer was invented by Michelson for his famous eponymous experiment that disproved the luminiferous ether and set the speed of light. Each LIGO installation has two 2.5-mile-long perpendicular arms, which are so big that they can detect the bending of spacetime itself to the tune of 1/10,000th the width of a proton! In September of 2015, the installations both recorded a change in the interference pattern that corresponded to the detection of gravity waves for the first time in human history, confirming predictions set out by Einstein in 1915. Though more than a thousand scientists work on this project, probably the originators of the idea would get Nobel Prizes (Ronald Drever, another co-founder, sadly died in March).

Aerial view of the LIGO interferometer at Hanford, Washington. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab.

Aerial view of the LIGO interferometer at Hanford, Washington. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab.


Chemistry Shortlist (announced Wednesday, 10/4)

 

For critical contributions to C-H functionalization:

John E. Bercaw (California Institute of Technology, CA)

John E. Bercaw (California Institute of Technology, CA)

Robert G. Bergman (University of California, Berkeley, CA)

Robert G. Bergman (University of California, Berkeley, CA)

Georgiy B. Shul’pin (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow)

Georgiy B. Shul’pin (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow)

There are two kinds of scientists in this world: those that love organic chemistry and those that hate it. There’s nobody in between. Bercaw, Bergman, and Shul’pin obviously fall into the first category, and probably cackle gleefully when thinking of sophomore science majors around the world that are drowning in notecards, trying to memorize the multitude of ways carbon-based molecules interact. This trio pioneered C-H functionalization, meaning they developed techniques of using various metallic compounds to very carefully and precisely take off a hydrogen stuck to a carbon chain and replace it with something more useful, like an oxygen or nitrogen. Being able to do this in a very selective manner has been and continues to be a boon to chemists, who can now design new kinds of plastics and medicines much more quickly and with fewer steps.

Bergman invented this iridium-based C-H functionalization. Credit: Wikipedia.

Bergman invented this iridium-based C-H functionalization. Credit: Wikipedia.

 

For fundamental advances, theoretical and practical, in heterogeneous catalysis on solid surfaces:

Jens Nørskov (Stanford University, CA)

Jens Nørskov (Stanford University, CA)

Catalysts are a miracle of chemistry. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch cracked the code of how to turn inert nitrogen from the atmosphere into useful forms for fertilizer, greatly increasing our planet’s carrying capacity and earning Nobel Prizes in the process. Nowadays, half of the proteins in your body have nitrogen made by this catalytic process. The next step of catalysis is designing ones that perform very selective green-tech tasks, like taking carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into fuels. At the forefront of this is Nørskov, who uses computer simulations to design new, cheap, useful catalysts. One of his big successes has been developing a cheap and effective nickel-zinc alloy that plucks out a contaminant from a chemical process that produces plastics. Hopefully, his work helps revolutionize the world of energy conversion and storage to the same extent that the Haber-Bosch process did for agriculture.

The Haber-Bosch process, which uses solid iron to turn nitrogen into ammonia, is an example of heterogeneous catalysis. Credit: ESA.

The Haber-Bosch process, which uses solid iron to turn nitrogen into ammonia, is an example of heterogeneous catalysis. Credit: ESA.

 

For their discovery and application of perovskite materials to achieve efficient energy conversion:

Tsutomu Miyasaka (Toin University, Japan)

Tsutomu Miyasaka (Toin University, Japan)

Nam-Gyu Park (Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea)

Nam-Gyu Park (Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea)

Henry J. Snaith (Oxford University, UK)

Henry J. Snaith (Oxford University, UK)

Since 2009, the chemistry world has been abuzz with talk of perovskite, a mineral structure different elements can form. That’s when Miyasaka et al. first used perovskite to make solar cells. In just a few short years, perovskite solar cells have gained efficiency faster than any other class of photovoltaics, and many researchers have high hopes for a perovskite-powered future. There are plans to integrate perovskite into other types of commercial solar panels already on the market, hopefully by the end of next year.

A sample of perovskite crystals. Credit: Wikimedia.

A sample of perovskite crystals. Credit: Wikimedia.

 

Banner image credit: Wikipedia.


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Fedor Kossakovski is a production assistant for Miles O'Brien Productions.