We talk about computer modeling a lot in the context of climate science — powerful algorithms that help scientists get a better idea of how climate systems work, how they spin off into weather, and how the systems and the weather are altered by both nature and humans. But modeling plays a huge role in other sciences, as well. In fact, on the flip side of the climate change coin, modeling is an essential part of designing better solar cells to turn energy from the Sun into useable electricity. If we ever do master the art of artificial photosynthesis, we'll have the three men who just won this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry to thank.
Back in the 1970s, Martin Karplus of Université de Strasbourg, France and Harvard University, Michael Levitt of Stanford, and Arieh Warshel of USC, were instrumental in constructing the first computer models capable of predicting the effects of chemical reactions — including ones that happen far too quickly to be observed. Today, their work touches the daily lives of chemists all over the world, doing research from solar cell design to drug development.
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The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics was announced this morning and it is probably the least surprising Nobel of the year. People have been speculating for months that the award was going to be centered around the discovery of the Higgs Boson — the subatomic particle that helps explain why everything else in the Universe has mass. The Higgs Boson, itself, has been the physics pop culture celebrity for the last few years. It's even got its own blues.
So the big question going into today's announcement wasn't what discovery would the award be about. The question was who was going to end up being the named human recipients of said award. This was always going to be a tough call. The whole reason you've heard about the Higgs is because of a long-running effort to experimentally prove whether or not it existed. The very nature of experimental particle physics makes it a collaborative enterprise — proving a theory requires huge, expensive machines, international institutions, and lots of physicists. The Nobel Prize, meanwhile, can only be given to three recipients at a time. (Although an institute, like, say, CERN, could have been one of those, at least hypothetically.) The Nobel Committee gut this Gordian Knot by skipping over the experimental physicists altogether and giving the 2013 award to two theorists, alone — Peter Higgs and Francois Englert.
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If the cells that make up your body are little factories, then the shipping department just picked up a Nobel Prize this morning with the award for physiology or medicine going to researchers Randy Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley, James Rothman of Yale University, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford. These scientists don't work together, but their research does overlap and play off each other in important ways. In fact, this isn't the first time some of these men have shared major research awards.
What makes their work so important? It's really all about increasing our understanding of how individual cells operate and participate in major bodily systems like immunity or hormone control. If you built little models of cells back in grade school, you probably have a mental image of them as a sort of lumpy sack with a couple of things inside — a big fat nucleus and some squirrelly little mitochondria, mostly. But it turns out that there's a lot more happening in the interior of a cell than that. Much of that activity is centered around vesicles — bubbles in the fluid that fills a cell. There are many different kinds of vesicles doing many different jobs, but one of the important things they do is move molecules, either within the cell or from the cell to the outside world.
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