After the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prizes between Oct. 2 and Oct. 9, Yale professors, several of whom have worked with this year’s prize winners, spoke highly of the majority of the winners and expressed excitement about what this year’s breakthroughs could mean for their fields.
No Yale professors won Nobel Prizes this year. But biochemistry professor Donald Engelman GRD ’67 said he has worked with one of this year’s three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Richard Henderson.
“They definitely deserved the award,” Engelman said of Henderson and the other two winners.
Engelman met Henderson while the Nobel Prize recipient was completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale in the 1970s. The two have remained friends ever since.
Henderson, who received the award jointly with Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank, worked with Engleman on looking at crystalline membranes in single-celled organisms. Although Henderson later moved to Cambridge University, his research at Yale was fundamental to him winning the prize, Engelman explained.
The research that won Henderson the prize concerns the potential for improved imaging of biomolecules.
“We may soon have detailed images of life’s complex machineries in atomic resolution,” the Nobel press release reads.
A Nobel Prize press release lauded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, for “its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of [nuclear] weapons.”
Political science professor Alexandre Debs, who recently published the book “Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Proliferation,” said there is growing concern among academics about President Donald Trump’s nuclear policies and “heightened international concerns that more should be done to make progress on nuclear disarmament.”
Therefore, Debs said, he was not surprised the award was given to an organization involved in the effort to abolish nuclear weapons.
Yale’s Director of International Security Studies Nuno Monteiro, who co-authored “Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Proliferation,” was not surprised either. But he was not convinced the organization deserved the prize, he said, because he does not find the idea of nuclear abolition feasible or even desirable.
“I am disappointed that the Nobel committee would decide to confer the prestige of their prize to an organization dedicated to an idea that is not sufficiently thought through,” Monteiro said. “I would like to see the peace prize go to entities that foster nuclear security rather than nuclear abolition.”
While diminishing the number of nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, Monteiro said, the presence of nuclear weapons is a powerful tool for peace and one of the major reasons there have been no “great power” wars since 1945. Taking away nuclear weapons could destabilize the world, he warned.
In February 2016, the current head of Benjamin Franklin College, Charles Bailyn, was teaching a seminar on black holes at Yale-NUS when he caught wind of the announcement from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. He had his class watch the midnight press conference announcing the detection that confirmed Albert Einstein’s theories regarding gravitational waves.
Watching alongside him was Sarah Weiss, rector of Yale-NUS’s Saga College and daughter of Rainer Weiss, one of three winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
“It’s a once-in-a-generation type discovery,” Bailyn said. “When I saw ‘the chirp,’ the hair stood up on the back of my head. It was so perfect and unambiguous, it looked like what was predicted in a textbook.”
The LIGO project was also important because of the technical achievement of building the detector. The detector, which was four miles long, was able to measure gravitational waves to the accuracy of an atomic nucleus, Bailyn explained.
Michael Nitabach, the principal investigator of a lab in the School of Medicine that carries his name, studies circadian rhythms using fruit flies as test subjects. The three winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, worked in the same field with the same model organism and were colleagues of Nitabach.
“Their discovery is of tremendous biological and human health importance,” Nitabach said. “It helped crack open the secrets behind how cells ‘keep time.’”
The growing body of information on circadian rhythms could have significant diagnostic and therapeutic applications. It suggests a future in which long-distance travelers could take a pill to cure jet lag or workers could take one to avoid adverse physiological consequences from shift work, Nitabach said.
Some have suggested that other discoveries — such as CRISPR/Cas9, a technique that allows researchers to modify DNA — were equally deserving of the prize. Nitabach acknowledged the importance of CRISPR, saying it has “overwhelmed bio-sciences with new approaches and techniques.”
Timothy Nottoli, the co-director of Yale’s Genome Editing Center, said it is a “real safe bet” that the scientists behind CRISPR will be recognized in the next 10 years. But, he said, “CRISPR can wait” as this year’s recipients are deserving of the award.
The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1901.
Shakel McCooey | firstname.lastname@example.org