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The 2017 Nobel Prizes: What were they given for?

Date: Thu. February 8th, 2018, 4:00 pm-5:00 pm
Location: Rockefeller 301

Harsh Mathur (Physics) on the prize in Physics; Phoebe Stewart (Pharmacology) on the prize in Chemistry; Peter Harte (Genetics and Genome Sciences) on the prize in Physiology or Medicine; Mariana Carrera (Weatherhead) on the prize in Economics. 

On 14 September 2015 the LIGO collaboration detected gravitational waves from the merger of a pair of black holes a billion light years distant from the Earth. The discovery constitutes the first direct observation of gravitational waves almost a century after they were predicted by Einstein and is the culmination of a fifty year long experimental quest. LIGO is simultaneously a laboratory for fundamental gravitational physics and an observatory of a new kind that promises to revolutionize astronomy. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. 

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the development of “cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”. The cryoEM method involves flash freezing a concentrated solution of a biomolecule on an EM grid, collecting transmission electron micrographs of the frozen sample, and using software to convert two-dimensional projection images into a three-dimensional structure. The individual contributions of the three prize winners, Drs. Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson, will be described. It is now possible to determine atomic resolution structures of protein complexes, membrane proteins, and icosahedral viruses by cryoEM. 

2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “for discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”. We have known since the 1930s that living organisms contain an internal clock that allows them to anticipate and adapt their behavior and physiology to the daily light-dark cycle imposed by the rotation of the earth. This award was for the first breakthroughs in understanding the molecular nature of this clock, its components and inner workings, and how it is regulated. These discoveries, beginning in the 1980s, involved a powerful combination of genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry using Drosophila (fruit fly). We will focus on understanding the key experiments that led these discoveries and to our current understanding of how the clock produces the circadian oscillations that modulate a multitude of physiological and metabolic processes. 

The Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017 was awarded to Case alum (Class of ’67) Richard Thaler. Traditional economic models assume that people make decisions based on self-interest and good information which they can process perfectly using the laws of mathematics and statistics. In graduate school, Thaler began exploring how human behavior deviates, in persistent and systematic ways, from the usual predictions of traditional economic models. Much of his work formed the basis for what is now regarded as behavioral economics, a field which integrates insights from psychology with microeconomic models in order to better explain both human behavior and market outcomes. Carrera will give an overview of Thaler’s contributions in three areas: limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control. She will also discuss Thaler’s interest in improving the design of public policies by carefully addressing behavioral biases, making it easier for people to make what they themselves will deem to be good decisions. 



Page last modified: February 1, 2018