Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nobel Week

My favourite week of the year!

I'm going to do things a little differently in the blog this week. I could describe the winning nobel prizes, but there are plenty of sources for that information. Instead, I'm going to talk about why I think there's still room for the Nobel categories.

There's been some debate this year (as there is every year) about the relevance of the prizes today. There are plenty of fields, important to modern science, that aren't captured in the Nobel's list of possibilities. Environmental research, for instance, is not captured by Medicine, Physics or Chemistry. There's an argument to be made that the categories should be redefined and broadened to recognize fields that didn't exist in the time of Nobel himself.

I'm going to argue against that. Well, not vehemently, because if there were more categories, that would only be a good thing. But when you look at this year's awards, it seems to me that the Nobel committee does pay attention to relevance.

All of these three science awards are for relatively recent work. And in each case, real practical outcomes that affect vast numbers of people, have been achieved. Telomere research has taught us about aging, and cancer and lots of diseases. The CCD and fibre optics have changed communication forever, and we're only scratching the surface of their potential. Ribosomes are a fundamental building block in the cell, and we have a whole class of antibiotics that owe their existence to the understanding of the ribosomal structure. But in all these cases, none of the practicl outcomes would have been possible without the fundamental discoveries of the researchers. In the end, that's what's great about the Nobel prizes. At a time when a lot of research funding is headed to 'applied' research, those who perform basic work can still be gratified to know that their fundamental science will be applauded and recognized by the most famous award of all.

Keep the Nobels, but make more prizes too!

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