This feature is a collaborative effort between Hannah Byrne, Caroline Kelly, Robin Mentel, Neha Ajit Natu, and Heather Reynolds
The Nobel Prizes, at their core, were established to award those who have contributed the most good to humankind in the past year. Established upon the death of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish businessman, scientist and inventor, the awards have run since 1901, and to date, have honoured 975 individuals and 25 organisations. The awards honour achievements and efforts in the aim of promoting Peace and Literature, and in the development of practices and knowledge in the realms of Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine or Physiology. In addition to the original five awards, an award honouring Economic study and achievement was added in 1969. This spread aims to tell you all you need to know about the achievements that lead to the honouring of this year's recipients.
Quantum Mechanics (QM) is that thing in the real world that comes closest to magic: Things just vanish in a flash of light, or travel through a solid wall to the other side as if the wall didn't exist. It is also one of the most notorious fields in physics, where even battle-hardened theoreticians shudder in fear (another example for such a topic is magnetism: if you really want to mess with an astrophysicist, just ask them “Nice work, but what about magnetic fields?”, and watch them cringe in horror). This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics is awarded to Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger for resolving a paradox that has plagued our fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics since the early days.
The problem with QM is that it does not let you predict the outcome of a process as you can do in other fields of physics. Say if you toss a coin and I know the mass and shape of the coin and the force with which you toss it, I can (in principle) predict, or determine, whether it will be heads or tails; this is called determinism. But QM is different: in a quantum coin toss, even if I knew perfectly precisely the force of your throw and the properties of the coin,, I still could not determine exactly whether you throw heads or tails. All I could do is to give probabilities - that’s why such a system is called probabilistic. There are now two possible reasons why I cannot exactly determine the outcome of a coin toss: Either I am missing some “hidden variable” that I haven’t taken into account yet, for example some evil magnetic fields influencing the coin, or the coin-tossing is intrinsically probabilistic and has some weird physics going on which make the coin sometimes land on heads and sometimes on tails.
The prize will be awarded for finding out which of the two is the case. For that, they used a concept called entanglement. Imagine you have an atom that emits two electrons, one to the right and one to the left, one spinning in one direction and the other spinning the other way around. If the electrons are entangled, they will be somehow connected, even when light years apart: if you meddle with one electron, you will also influence the other electron - and that influence will take place literally instantaneously, cheerfully ignoring the universe’s universal speed limit, the speed of light. The reason for this “spooky action at a distance” can be either because the other electron’s reaction was already determined when they were emitted via some hidden variable we don’t know about, or that this spook is really a part of quantum mechanics.
The Bell inequality is a very theoretical tool devised by Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell in a 1964 publication with which one can distinguish between these two possibilities with an experiment. Each of the laureates made important contributions: John Clauser developed the theoretical idea of Bell into a practicable experiment, with Aspect refining it and removing an important loophole, and Zeilinger lastly bringing the research to new heights by setting up experiments where the two entangled particles would be thousands of kilometres away from each other. The laureates’ ground-breaking result was that, indeed, there are no hidden variables - and particles can indeed interact with each other in principle across the entire universe within an instant. But their work wasn’t just fundamental: they laid the groundwork for quantum computation, which is a field that promises to revolutionise cryptography and computation by making certain calculations many orders of magnitudes faster.
“The theory of quantum mechanics has strange implications. For example, the correlations [this entanglement] between particles can be kept even when particles are separated miles and miles away. In classical physics, that is simply not possible. Quantum mechanics was thought to be incomplete.” explains Victoria Sánchez Muñoz, a researcher at the University of Galway. ”The hidden variable model was thought as the theory that explained the experimental results without the weird implications of quantum mechanics. But the experiments ruled out these theories and confirmed that quantum mechanics was a complete description. It was problematic that there were no hidden variables models because it forced the scientific community to accept quantum mechanics and its strange implications, even on the philosophical side.”
The announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics is often met with criticism not just regarding sexism (only 4 out of 221 recipients are women) and Eurocentrism (only eight prizes have been awarded outside of Europe, North America, Russia/the Soviet Union, and Japan, with not a single prize awarded to South America or Africa). The prize can be awarded to at most three individuals, which was fine 100 years ago when discoveries were made in small labs with few people involved. Today, science is a global endeavour, with major breakthrough publications in particle physics citing up 15 pages of authors that contributed to the work. It becomes increasingly unrealistic to award such a prestigious prize to a single person, ignoring the many others around the globe who crucially contributed to the breakthrough.
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is awarded each year to a candidate/candidates who have contributed outstanding work within the field of economic sciences. In 2022, three candidates were awarded the prize. They were Ben S. Bernanke, Douglas W. Diamond and Philip H. Dybvig. These men were awarded the prize in recognition of their research on banks, and how to prevent financial crises. Bernanke’s paper and Diamond and Dybvig’s collaborative theory which secured them the award were both published in the early 1980s.
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize has been awarded each year since 1969. Riksbank is the central bank of Sweden and the prize was established to mark their 300th anniversary. Awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the procedure for winning this prize begins with being nominated. Each year various scientists, professors and previous laureates are contacted to make nominations. The laureates are then chosen by the Economics Prize Committee. The first recipients of the prize were Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen. There have been 92 laureates awarded prizes in Economic sciences. Only two of these have been women, being awarded the prize in 2009 and 2019. The youngest laureate was 46 years old and the oldest was 90 years old.
Each laureate has been recognised due to their contribution to the field of economic sciences. The laureates each receive an equal share of the 10 million Swedish kronor prize. In 2022, the awarded works, which focused on financial crises, were extremely topical due to today’s economic climate. Professor John Hassler, a member of the committee for the economics prize, summarised their contributions, stating “What Bernanke did was to show that bank work played a central role in turning a relatively small recession into the depression of the 1930s [..] Dybvig and Diamond are more theoretical, they set up models trying to explain why banks are important so that when they are not there, the economy does not work, and why they are vulnerable and also what can be done about this vulnerability.”
Ben S. Bernanke is a member of The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1975 and a doctor of philosophy degree in economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979. He was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve System in February 2006. He held this position until 2014 through the presidencies of both Bush and Obama. Speaking about Bernanke’s achievement Professor John Hassler spoke about Bernanke’s on the ground experience as chairman of the Federal Reserve System “He really knew how bad things can go if you do not handle a financial crisis”. Forbes stated, “Bernanke has steered the Fed during some of the biggest financial challenges since the depression”. Bernanke’s work was based on analysis of the Great Depression in the 1930s. This research discussed bank runs, which is when multiple customers withdraw large amounts at the same time, and how they affected the crisis, as well as how borrowers’ information was treated during the collapse.
Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig collaborated on their theory, the Diamond-Dybvig model in the 1980s, in order to investigate how to prevent bank crashes, while allowing banks to make investments and also still allowing borrowers to access their money. Diamond has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1975, two master’s degrees in 1976 and 1977, as well as a PhD from Yale University in 1980, all in economics. He specialises in financial crises and liquidity. At the time of the award, he was associated with the University of Chicago.
Dybvig, who is affiliated with Washington University, St Louis, received a bachelor’s degree in maths and physics from Indiana University before attending Yale University and receiving a doctorate in economics. Dybvig has gone on to write two academic textbooks as well as numerous journal articles based on finance and banking. The work of both men, which was completed when they were new to the economics field, was described by The Washington University in St. Louis as “one of the most widely cited papers in finance and economics”.
All three laureates have created work that has remained relevant almost 40 years after publication, as well as all three men remaining close friends with Diamond. In a Nobel Prize outreach interview, he stated, “There are very few people in the world I’d rather be discussing these issues with and be sitting next to when discussing these issues”. In relation to the lasting impact of these articles on the world today, Professor Hassler stated, “We can learn a lot [..] how important it is to make sure that this system doesn’t collapse, because if it does, it has very dramatic consequences and they are very long lasting.”
The 10th of December marks the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish scientist, inventor and businessman, who aimed to reward the discoveries that have conferred the greatest benefits to humankind. In a recent press release, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet decided to award the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Svante Pääbo for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution. His work not only revealed important connections of our species with other, now extinct, human species like the Neanderthals, but also helped to understand modern diseases, and shed light on what makes us uniquely human.
Sequencing the genome of the Neanderthals was presumed an impossible task until done by Svante Pääbo through his pioneering research. The Hominins is the group consisting of extinct human species and Homo Sapiens, as well as all our immediate common ancestors. The most significant discovery resulting from this was the gene transfer from these now-extinct hominins to Homo sapiens, following the migration out of Africa roughly 70,000 years ago. The evidence that Neanderthals contributed to our modern human DNA came as a shock to researchers. Pääbo himself presumed “it was some kind of statistical fluke” until all their results pointed to the same conclusion. It has now been confirmed that between 1 percent to 4 percent of the DNA of people living outside Africa came from Neanderthals, as a result of interbreeding between Neanderthals and early homo sapiens.
By tracing how the genes were exchanged between ancient hominin populations, researchers have been able to trace these groups’ migrations and dig deeper into modern human physiology. Despite dealing with ancient DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans and other hominins, Pääbo’s work has important implications for modern medicine. Although only a small part of the human genome is made up of DNA from our ancient ancestors, it makes an important contribution to the risks of diseases ranging from schizophrenia to severe cases of COVID-19. In 2020, Pääbo presented a study that suggested that humans with a particular gene cluster of Neanderthal DNA are a major genetic risk factor for severe symptoms after SARS-CoV-2 infection and hospitalisation. The research highlighted a potential reason why COVID-19 had often proven deadlier in South Asia, where the gene cluster inherited from Neanderthals is carried by around 50% of people, compared with around 16% of people in Europe.
Svante Pääbo’s research has triggered an entirely new scientific discipline of paleogenomics. It is the field of the reconstruction and analysis of genomic information in extinct species. By investigating the genetic differences between all living humans from extinct hominins, Pääbo’s discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human. Recently, researchers showed that a gene variant found in humans, but neither in Neanderthals nor Denisovans, is linked to greater growth of neurons. “We’ve never come so close to understanding what makes humans human,”says Johannes Krause, a palaeogeneticist at MPI-EVA.
The only thing predictable about the Nobel Prize is its unpredictability. This year’s prize surprised many people as it was awarded in evolutionary biology research, highlighting this maturing field and giving it the recognition it deserves. “This award proves Svante’s foundational innovations in the field of ancient DNA, and of the insights, his work has provided into Neandertals, Denisovans, and the complex history of modern humans,” writes Janet Kelso, a frequent collaborator of Pääbo’s at the EVA.
Although the recognition for these contributions is priceless, each laureate is also awarded a gold medal, a diploma, and a prize money of over €930,000. These great rewards helped make the Nobel Prize a controversial topic stirring a lot of debate; the selection process has been battered by accusations of sexism and racism, and the award committee is often accused of being Eurocentric. One of the most controversial Nobel Prizes was awarded in 1949 to the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz for the creation of the modern lobotomy. This procedure involves hammering a needle directly into the brain to sever brain connections to ‘fix’ mental illnesses. Shortly after the prize was awarded, the medical community shifted away from the lobotomy with concerns about its effectiveness and ethical questions. However, it is not possible to revoke a Nobel Prize, despite countless campaigns to rescind Moniz’s prize. In addition, the Nobel Prize was founded with global ambitions, but unfortunately has been perceived to be painfully slow to open to the wider world beyond Europe and North America. Despite a global scientific community, 52% of all laureates are from Europe and 32% are from North America. Has the Nobel Prize’s vision drifted from its founder’s vision?
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to human rights advocates in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus who have emerged as the epitome of resistance and accountability during the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year.
The laureates—Memorial, a Russian organisation; the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine; and Ales Bialiatski, a jailed Belarusian activist—have prevailed as some of the foremost challengers to the widespread misinformation disseminated by authoritarian leaders, and to various instances of human rights abuses.
“The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in announcing the awards. “They have for many years promoted the right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens.”
According to the Nobel Committee, there were 343 candidates for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, out of which 251 were individuals, with 92 organisations, becoming the second highest number recorded in history, behind 2016. Past laureates have included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Mother Teresa (1979) and Nelson Mandela (1993).
The human rights organisation Memorial was established in 1987 by activists in the former Soviet Union who sought to ensure a legacy and national memory for the victims of the communist regime’s oppression. 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and human rights advocate Svetlana Gannushkina were among the founders of the organisation. According to the Nobel Committee, “Memorial is based on the notion that confronting past crimes is essential in preventing new ones.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Memorial grew to become the largest human rights organisation in Russia. In addition to obtaining and establishing documentation on victims of the Stalinist era, Memorial gathered and systematised intelligence on political oppression and human rights violations in Russia. In turn, Memorial became the most authoritative source of information on political prisoners in various Russian detention facilities.
In December 2021, Russian authorities ruled that Memorial was to be forcibly liquidated and the documentation centre was to be shut down permanently. Despite the closures becoming effective in the following months, the people behind Memorial refused to cease operations. Commenting on the forced dissolution, chairman Yan Rachinsky stated, “Nobody plans to give up.”
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in Kyiv in 2007 for the purpose of advancing human rights and democracy in Ukraine. The centre has worked to embolden Ukrainian civil society and pressure the authorities to fully democratise Ukraine. To develop Ukraine into a state governed by the rule of law, Center for Civil Liberties has actively advocated for an alliance between Ukraine and the International Criminal Court.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Centre for Civil Liberties worked to identify and document Russian war crimes against the Ukrainian civilian population. In concert with international partners, the centre is pioneering in its efforts towards accountability and justice.
Ales Bialiatski, the head of Belarus rights group Viasna, was awarded the prize following historic demonstrations and severe oppression in his ex-Soviet country. Bialiatski was detained in 2021 and is presently being held in prison without trial; his current condition is unknown.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), a French international news agency, he was arrested on “charges of tax evasion, a move that critics of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko saw as a thinly veiled tactic to silence his work.”
In 1996, Bialiatski founded Viasna, whose work has tracked President Lukashenko’s increasingly severe practices and policies. Established during mass pro-democracy protests after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bialiatski and his organisation were crucial in lending aid to detained protesters and their families.
In the years following, Viasna and Bialiatski have grown in prominence as Lukashenko’s regime has leveraged more power over the people of Belarus.
When massive demonstrations erupted across the country, protesting Lukashenko’s claim to a sixth presidential term in August 2020, Viasna kept meticulous records of people detained at protests and after police raids across Belarus in the months following.
In the wake of the vote, Bialiatski described “real terror” prevailing over regional towns and in the capital city of Minsk as authorities sought to forcibly quell dissent.
“The goal is very simple—to retain power at any cost and instil fear in society so that there are no protests against the falsification of these elections,” he said.
By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022 to Ales Bialiatski, Memorial, and the Centre for Civil Liberties, the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that it hopes to “honour three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence in the neighbour countries Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.”
The Nobel Prize for advancement in Chemistry is in its 121st year, having been launched alongside the Physics, Medicine/Physiology, Peace, and Literature prizes in 1901. Since its foundation, the award has been bestowed upon 189 individuals, 8 of whom have been women - including Marie Curie and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie. The eighth woman to be selected for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Carolyn R. Bertozzi, one of this year's three selected laureates in the field. This year's award also contributed to the American dominance in this field, as two of this year's laureates are from the United States, bringing the country’s total number of laureates in Chemistry up to 79 - over twice the number of the next highest performing countries (Germany and the UK are tied at 34).
This year's laureates, who will be honoured at the Nobel ceremony in December, are the aforementioned Bertozzi, Morten Meldal, who is Danish, and K. Barry Sharpless, another American chemist. They are being awarded for "for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry", as said by the Nobel Awards on their website.
This is notable in and of itself in the ways in which it does not diversify the awards, as it has been raised in the recent past that the awards favour certain topics within the larger field of chemistry - in fact, in 2020 it was revealed that half of the awards given between 1995 and 2017 were awarded to those working in the same fields across the awards, the favoured chemical field being molecular chemistry. As the awards are intended to honour those who have made the most substantial contribution to human wellbeing in the past year, it does make sense (to a degree) for topics to become recurring throughout the years, but it would still be refreshing to see yet another topic break through and receive the acclaim - and the award money attached to the prize, which will hopefully be reinvested into further research in the field.
The two fields that have been developed by this year’s laureates are click and bioorthogonal chemistry, both being biochemical reactions. Click reactions are “small molecule” reactions, another term for microbiological reactions. They help form connections between biological molecules. They occur naturally in biological systems, but are also used commonly in pharmacological and biomedical industries, and are considered incredibly beneficial when trying to locate and classify biomolecules.
Bioorthogonal chemistry, a term coined by Bertozzi in 2003, is a much broader term in comparison, referring to any reaction that occurs within a living biological system that does not interfere with any natural biological processes. Bioorthogonal chemistry works closely with click chemistry as it has allowed for the study of several biomolecular compounds within biological systems while avoiding toxicity or harm for the biological system being studied. However, despite this close relationship, the methodology which allows for bioorthogonal reactions has a great deal of use across the biomolecular and biochemical world.
Since the coining of the term in 2003, nine methods of achieving bioorthogonal reactions have been developed, which have allowed for a great deal of study on click reactions, and use of click reactions in the study of biomolecules. The bioorthogonal nature of the reaction allows for greater stability and length of study, and has also become popular for pretargeting experiments in nuclear imaging and radiotherapy.
Sharpless and Meldal have been awarded for their work developing click chemistry, which the Nobel Prize press release describes as a function “in which molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently.” Sharpless pioneered the field in the year 2000, putting it forward as a simple form of reaction lacking in waste products, allowing for a quick and reliable reaction. Meldal joined the field not long after, the two working independently of each other in the field, leading to the development of what is described as the “crown jewel” of click chemistry, the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition. This particular type of click reaction is considered to be the current gold standard in the field, and is used in the production of pharmaceuticals, DNA sequencing, and creating new materials within biochemistry.
Bertozzi has been awarded for her use of this click chemistry in conjunction with her stable bioorthogonal reactions, which have allowed her to map an elusive biomolecule called the glycan, which lives on the very surface of the cell. Her use of the reliability and stability provided by both schools of chemistry has allowed for significantly greater study of the molecule due to it allowing her to isolate the molecule without destroying the cell.
Both fields have led to strides in cancer treatment and pharmaceuticals, which are currently beginning human trials.
Literature was the fourth of the five prizes mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will, in which he laid out how he wanted the awards to be established, and the direction he wanted them taken in. Like the other five original awards, literature was a field Nobel held to be of great significance, and he himself followed literary pursuits alongside his work in scientific fields.
There have been 117 literary laureates since the inception of the award in 1901, over 115 prizes. 17 of the awardees have been women, only outnumbered by the Peace Prize, which has awarded 18. This year's winner, Annie Ernaux, is the 17th of these laureates, and has been awarded for “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory,” according to a press release on the Nobel Prize website.
Previous winners include Toni Morrison, writer of Beloved and Ernest Hemingway, for the production of The Old Man and the Sea, although officially the award is given based on the author's entire body of work.
The Nobel Prize for Literature is perhaps among the most criticised of the awards - while awards like Medicine have been criticised for previous recipients being awarded for practices that have been revealed to cause harm to humanity in the long run, and all awards have received criticism for Eurocentrism throughout their lives (and the geographic distribution of those awards does, numerically, back that accusation up), the literature award is routinely criticised for its choices and perceived politicisation. Some critics, such as Joseph Epstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, have called it essentially a second Peace Prize, awarding authors for subject matter over technical skill. Epstein also highlighted authors that have been seen as uniquely influential on literature since the awards foundation in 1901, who he claims to have been overlooked - including UCD’s own James Joyce, often credited for revolutionising the short story with his collection Dubliners.
Of course, this association more with subject matter than skill, and with promoting topics of note to humanity through art is intentional on behalf of the Nobel board - it's the metric that was laid out in Nobel’s will. However, the secondary criticism holds substantially more weight specifically in the realm of literature - looking at the nationality of previous laureates, the first laureate from outside Europe and America was not awarded until 1945, to the Chilean Gabriela Mistral. The majority of laureates are from Europe and the Americas, with only 19 recipients from Asia, Africa and South America. The majority of recipients are also writing in European languages. Tim Parks, a British Novelist, has been quoted in The New York Review of Books as questioning if it was possible for "Swedish professors ... [to] compar[e] a poet from Indonesia, perhaps translated into English with a novelist from Cameroon, perhaps available only in French, and another who writes in Afrikaans but is published in German and Dutch..."
At present, there have been 16 laureates in literature originating from France. That is only three fewer than the number of laureates from three other continents. It is clear to see that, at the very least, the global aim of the award is questionable.
Specifically, the award has been accused of favouring Swedish entries. More laureates have been awarded from Sweden than from the entire continent of Asia, at time of publication, and many of them have been queried as to their impact on wider global society - some being virtually unheard of outside of their home country.
As for this year's laureate, Emaux is primarily an autobiographical writer with a sociology focus. Her work has been awarded since early on in her career, writing memoir style novels discussing her life and society, often focusing on the place of gender in her world. Upon the announcement of her selection, President Macron issued his congratulations, calling her a voice “for the freedom of women and of the forgotten.”
Emaux has been politically active outside of her literary work, vocally supporting French protests and social movements as well as global causes, most notably in her backing of BDS (the Palestinian led boycott of Isreali goods), and in her use of her Nobel Prize win to draw attention to the civil unrest and state sanctioned violence in Iran.
She has been publishing since 1974, and has, to date, received 12 literary awards, as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019 for her book, The Years. Her books can be found in their original French, or in English translation.