This season, let’s celebrate science

Dinesh C Sharma | Updated on January 23, 2018

Nurtured in the West: Nobel Prize winners such as Venki Ramakrishnan are an inspiration to Indian scientists

The Nobel Prize recognises the blood and sweat powering work that impacts humanity and proves itself over time

October is a keenly awaited month in the world of science and academia globally because it is the Nobel season. An air of expectation and speculation starts building up weeks ahead of official announcements from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the awardees for physics and chemistry Nobels. The one for medicine or physiology is chosen by The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

As it happens with all prestigious awards, there are surprises and disappointments. Often scientists are woken up in the middle of night or at daybreak (due to time zone differences) to break the good news to them, as it happened with the winners of chemistry and physics this year too.

Is there a pattern?

Now that there are close to 585 scientists who have won the Nobel for physics, chemistry and medicine between 1901 and 2015, the question that arises is if there is a pattern that one can decipher. Research scholars have been digging into the Nobel archives to discover the winning formula for science Nobels. This can be basically done by looking at nominations that are made for the three science prizes every year, and analysing the science done by them vis-à-vis that year’s winner. However, there is a catch: There is a 50-year embargo on this information. Names of the nominees and other information about nominations cannot be revealed until 50 years later.

While this is so, one dominating trend that has emerged in the past few decades is that the Nobel selection committees are not awed by contemporary breakthroughs. Instead, they look for theories, discoveries and technologies that have had an impact on humanity and have withstood the test of time. For instance, François Englert and Peter W Higgs were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2013 for the theory of how particles acquire mass — a theory they proposed in 1964 — only after their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of a so-called Higgs particle in 2012. The 2009 Nobel in physics went to two discoveries made in the 1960s — fiber optics and Charged Couple Device (CCD) — after the discoveries had contributed immensely to the spread of information and communication technologies. CCD, for instance, is the electronic eye in digital cameras.

Continuing trend

This year’s Nobel in medicine reinforces this trend. Chinese scientist Tu Youyou has been awarded for the discovery of a new class of drugs against malaria, Artemisinin, in the 1960s. She started hunting for an alternative to chloroquine or quinine which was declining in its success then. Artemisinin has lived its full cycle, saving millions of lives in the past half-a-century and is now on the verge of being phased out as malaria parasites have become resistant to it. Yet, Artemisinin-based combination therapy remains the most potent drug regime against falciparum malaria. The same holds good for the co-winners of the medicine Nobel — William C Campbell and Satoshi Ômura — who discovered a novel therapy (Ivermectin) against infections caused by roundworm parasites. The impact of Ivermectin in improving the health and wellbeing of millions of people suffering from river blindness and lymphatic filariasis is huge.

The winners of the chemistry Nobel this year have made fundamental discoveries relating to repair mechanisms in human DNA. The award-winning work was done in the 1970s and 1980s and forms the basis for a lot of current research that may lead to cancer therapies in the future. The repair mechanisms help fix thousands of occurrences of DNA damage caused by the sun, cigarette smoke or other toxins. These mechanisms help counter spontaneous alterations to DNA or genetic information. Our genome would collapse without these repair mechanisms. Rapid changes in DNA, or failure of the repair mechanism, increases risk of cancer. So, understanding these mechanisms could help scientists unlock cancer.

The Nobel Prize in physics this year has also gone for a fundamental discovery about neutrinos that changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe. Scientists across the globe, including India, are engaged in experiments to capture neutrinos and study their properties. The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), an underground lab being built in Bodi West hills of Theni district in Tamil Nadu, is one such important experiment.

The Indian question

A question that often crops up is why Indian scientists don’t win Nobel prizes. The only Indian scientist to win a Nobel for work done in India was in 1930 when Sir CV Raman got the physics prize. He was nominated by leading physicists including Niels Bohr and Lord Rutherford. Later on, a few other Indian scientists — including Homi Jehangir Bhabha (he was nominated five times in the 1950s) — were noticed, but did not make it. The Indians who won the prize later had all settled down in the West or did all their research in western institutions, including Venkatraman Ramakrishanan who won the chemistry Nobel in 2009.

This does not mean no Indian scientist is doing world-class science. Now there are several mega-prizes in science such as the Fields Medal and the Tang Prize with some of them carrying prize monies of millions of dollars. And Indians have won some of these prestigious international prizes in recent years.

Notwithstanding allegations of bias and discrimination, the Nobel remains the hallmark of measuring excellence in science. Just one Nobel can alter the ranking of a research institute or university. The only way to join the big league is to excel in science, focus on cutting-edge as well as fundamental or basic research. Countries such as India have unique problems and if science can find solutions to them, Nobels will follow for sure.

The writer is a fellow at the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi

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Published on October 25, 2015
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