The awarding of the Nobel Prizes to three University of California faculty members this month underscores the importance of the state’s world-class public higher education system to advancing the pace of discovery and innovation that fuels economic growth and improves lives.
UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier for the co-development of CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing breakthrough that has revolutionized biomedicine.
“Their discoveries have benefited sellers, buyers and taxpayers around the world,” the prize committee said.
The two men will receive a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor, worth a bit more than $1.1 million.
Today’s announcement comes as the global economy is battling to emerge from a painful recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The International Monetary Fund expects “a partial and uneven recovery” next year. Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from 189 member nations will gather virtually this week for the annual meetings of the fund and its sister institution, the World Bank.
Last year, a trio of economists shared the prize, which they received in recognition of their pioneering work developing new methods to fight global poverty. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael Kremer of Harvard University were honored for practical research insights that the academy said had “considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty.”
Duflo, at 46, was the youngest person to receive the economics prize and just the second woman to do so in its first half-century of existence.
Before today, a total of 84 laureates had received the prize, known formally as The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
Standing in my office 25 years ago was an unknown, newly minted astronomer with a half-smile on her face. She had come with an outrageous request—really a demand—that my team modify our exhaustively tested software to make one of our most important and in-demand scientific instruments do something it had never been designed for, and risk breaking it. All to carry out an experiment that was basically a waste of time and couldn’t be done—to prove that a massive black hole lurked at the center of our Milky Way.
My initial “no way” (perhaps I used a stronger expression) gradually gave way in the face of her cheerful but unwavering determination. It was my first encounter with a force of nature, Andrea Ghez, one of three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, for her work on providing the conclusive experimental evidence of a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns residing at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
That determination and the willingness to take calculated risks has always characterized Andrea. For 25 years she has focused almost exclusively on Sagittarius A*—the name of our own local supermassive black hole. It is remarkable that an entire field of study has grown up in the intervening quarter century, of searching for and finding evidence of these monsters thought to lie at the heart of every large galaxy. And Andrea is without question one of the great pioneers in this search.
Andrea’s co-prizewinner Reinhard Genzel has been involved in the same research from the outset—and it is the work of these two teams, each led by a formidable intellect and using two different observatories in two different hemispheres that has brought astronomy to this remarkable result—the confirmation of another of the predictions of Einstein’s more than century-old theory of general relativity.
As in so many fields of science, the competition has been intense, sometimes brutal, but out of this has been forged an unshakable result that has been tested and retested over a quarter century. And at the heart of the competition, two colleagues, great astronomers each, whose work has been as much defined by the science as by the availability of telescopes and instrumentation almost perfectly suited to this exact scientific endeavor.
Andrea did her work at the W.M. Keck Observatory’s twin telescopes on Maunakea, Hawai’i, in the calm and clear air almost 14,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. She started using the very first instrument commissioned on Keck Observatory’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRC), now gracing the lobby at our headquarters. NIRC was never designed to do what Andrea needed—an ultrafast readout of images and then a restacking of the result to remove the effects of the atmosphere’s turbulence. But she was not to be denied—and we made the changes. And it worked! It was supremely hard and time-consuming to make sense of the data, but Andrea persisted.
Out of that effort came the first evidence—not just hints—of stars orbiting the black hole. It was
Black holes are cosmic phenomena that never fail to capture the world’s attention and curiosity. Millions of these galactic beasts are peppered throughout the universe, and their gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape. This morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists for their research that illuminated details of black holes’ existence and function in the universe.
Roger Penrose, a cosmologist and professor emeritus at the University of Oxford in England, received half of the award for demonstrating that black holes exist—an idea that even Albert Einstein himself was skeptical of. The other half of the award was jointly awarded to Reinhard Genzel, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and Andrea Ghez, an astronomer professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, for discovering a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Ghez is the fourth woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in physics.
“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,” says David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, in a press release.
In 1905, Einstein outlined his theory of special relativity, which established that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe, the speed of light is constant and nothing travels fasters than light. A decade later, Einstein presented an added explanation for acceleration to the mix through his theory of general relativity, which indicates that massive objects can distort space-time through their gravitational pull. The theory implied the existence of black holes, objects so massive that their gravitational pull consumes all nearby matter into an inescapable void. But the suggestion was theoretical and even Einstein had his doubts.
But in 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Penrose calculated that when too much mass occupies too small a space, it would collapse, thus proving the existence of black holes. Further, he showed that if an object passes the black hole’s outermost boundary, or “event horizon,” it will not be able to escape without traveling faster than the speed of light, which is impossible, according to the special theory of relativity. Running contrary to Einstein’s theory, however, Penrose found that the law of physics do not apply inside a black hole and, in fact, time and space “switch roles,” report Dennis Overbye and Derrick Bryson Taylor for the New York Times.
“Prior to this groundbreaking work, most physicists thought that black holes were merely mathematical curiosities which appear in general relativity but that they would not exist in reality,” Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany, tells Lee
Mario Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 and the only Mexican scientist to be honored with a Nobel, died Wednesday in his native Mexico City. He was 77 years old.
Molina’s faamily announced his death in a brief statement through the institute that carried his name. It did not give a cause of death.
He won the prize along with scientists Frank Sherwood Rowland of the United States and Paul Crutzen of the Netherlands for their research into climate change.
Molina and Rowland published a paper in 1974 that saw the thinning of the ozone layer as a consequence of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, chemicals used in a range of products.
Molina’s work contributed to the drafting of the first international treaty on the subject, the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of the chemicals. Later, he focused on confronting air pollution in major cities like his own Mexico City and pushing for global actions to promote sustainable development.
One of his last public appearances was alongside Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, also a scientist, in a video conference during which Molina reflected on the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of wearing masks to avoid transmission.
Molina was a member, among other institutions, of the National Academy of Sciences and for eight years was one of the 21 scientists who composed President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
Only two other Mexicans have been awarded Nobel Prizes: Alfonso García Robles received the Peace Prize in 1982 for his work on nuclear weapons negotiations and writer Octavio Paz was awarded the prize for literature in 1990.
Molina died on the same day this year’s prize for chemistry was awarded.
Mario Molina, Mexico chemistry Nobel winner, dies at 77 (2020, October 8)
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