What, in no particular order, do Louise Gluck, Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, the World Food Programme, and dynamite have in common? If you said food, it is an argument you can sustain, but you will be wrong by quite a margin.
Along with Andrea M.Ghez, Harvey J. Alter, Roger Penrose, Michael Houghton, Charles M. Rice and Reinhard Genzel, the aforementioned are of course the 2020 winners of the Nobel Prize in the several categories, that include literature, chemistry, physics, physiology and medicine.
Few will have heard of the names, whose work in the case of the scientists, may potentially be life changing for humanity.
Louise Gluck, has been a celebrated literary figure for the best part of five decades, during which she has produced twelve volumes of poetry, and two of essays on writing. She is universally admired by critics and other writers alike. A poet’s poet, the qualities she admires in great poets like TS Elliot, are also attributed to her by her peers.
“Through decades of Anglo-American poetry alternating between over intellection and misery memoir confession” says fellow poet Fiona Sampson, “Gluck has continued to write poetry that is accessible, despite its huge sophistication.”
Clarity, lucidity, are words that come almost automatically, whenever Gluck’s work is discussed.
“It is difficult to think of another living poet whose voice contains so much electrifying undercurrent, whose rhythms are under such control, but whose work is also so exposed and urgent” writes novelist and poet Colm Toibin.
Gluck should now be accustomed to accolades. She has been the recipient of almost every literary award, from the Pulitzer prize, the Bollingen Prize for poetry, the National Humanities Medal, awarded to her by Barack Obama in 2016, and now the Nobel Prize. But she nonetheless seems to have been surprised by the call from the Nobel committee.
“I can’t remember what I said” she recalls the telephone call, “but it had some suspicion in it. I think I was unprepared.”
Not so welcome for the publicity shy poet, has been the inevitable onslaught of media interest, which in her own words, has been “nightmarish.”
“I am not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life” she has said, “but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit.”
The normally sociable 77 year old, has, like much of the rest of the world, had her routine disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. She has had to rearrange her normal custom of dinner with friends, six times a week. But she is cheered by the hope that “at the end of it, there will be art.”
The poet joins biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, for developing the CRISPR gene editing method. The CRISPR-Cas9, commonly known as CRISPR is a method of gene editing, which allows genetic scientists to more precisely cut any strand of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) they wish.
“The number of discoveries in biomedicine that have had the impact that Jennifer’s and Emmanuelle’s had can be counted on the fingers of one hand” says gene scientist Fyodor Urnov, of University of California, Berkeley.
Thanks to CRISPR, scientists can alter DNA, the building blocks of life, in organisms from Butterflies, mushrooms, tomatoes and even humans.
If the enormity of Doudna and Charpentier’s achievement is difficult for the lay person to grasp, even more unfathomable will be that of the three recipients of the prize for physics.
Mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, Professor of physics and astronomy, Reinhard Genzel, and Astronomer Andrea Ghez, share the prize for literally peering into the black hole, for most of us, the stuff of science fiction.
At 89 years old, University of Oxford Professor Sir Roger Penrose, won his part of the prize for his calculation proving that black holes are a consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Interestingly, Einstein was not convinced that black holes really existed.
But in 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Penrose’s research proved that black holes really can form, and described them in detail. That work is still regarded as the most important contribution to the understanding of the general theory of relativity, since Einstein himself.
Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez’s pioneering research, has according to the citation, given us the most convincing evidence yet of a “supermassive” black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, the Earth’s Galaxy.
“The discoveries of this year’s laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black” said Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, David Haviland.
Although a great deal about black holes still remains a mystery, much is now known, since the days when even their existence was all doubted.
Black holes are spaces with such strong gravitational pull, that not even light can escape. The gravity is so strong that matter is squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen at the dying of a star, for instance.
Because of the strength of the gravity at their centre, it is not possible to see inside a black hole. Scientists can however study the effects of gravity on the stars and gas surrounding the black hole. They can also use satellites and telescopes in space, to detect a high energy light made, when a star and a black hole come close together.
Black holes come in all sizes. Scientists believe the smallest are as small as an atom. But even these, thought to have been formed when the world began, can have the mass of a mountain, such is the strength of their gravitational pull.
“Stellar” black holes can have mass twenty times that of the sun. There are many of these in the Milky Way. They are formed when the centre of a large star collapses on itself, causing an explosion, or Super Nova, that sends part of the star into space.
The largest black holes are known as “supermassive” and that seems to be something of an understatement. These black holes have masses equivalent to more than a million suns. It is the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, known as Sagittarius A, that Ghez and her colleagues study.
Except in film theatres, black holes do not go about devouring moons, stars and threatening earth. No black hole is close enough to the solar system for the Earth to be pulled into it, and even if there were one, the earth and the other planets would orbit the black hole, and they now orbit the sun.
The dangers to humanity are much closer to home, such as blood-borne hepatitis, the unravelling of whose deadly secrets, have earned Michael Houghton, Charles M. Rice, and Harvey J Alter, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.
Prior to their work, the majority of blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancers, remained largely unexplained.
Less glamourous perhaps, but no less important to the world, is the work of Robert Wilson, and Paul Milgrom, winners of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences.
Their theoretical discoveries in auctions, have led to major improvements in auctions and new inventions in auction formats.
According to chair of the prize committee Peter Fredriksson, the winners “started with fundamental theory and later used their results in practical applications, which have spread globally. Their discoveries are of great benefit to society.”
The bidding system will determine how trade, including of minerals is conducted.
The World Food Programme won the Nobel Prize for Peace. The Nobel committee recognised the organisation’s role in “combating hunger” and as a “driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger, as a weapon of war and conflict.”
“We are deeply humbled to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace. This is an incredible recognition of the dedication of the WFP (World Food Programme) family, working to end hunger every day in 80+ countries,” tweeted a delighted WFP Director David Beasley.
He may have quietly noted the irony that the man who established the Prize, Chemist and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel, also invented dynamite, and other powerful explosives.