The Nobel 2021 and one more message

I don’t know why this year the Nobel Prize winners in science went somewhat unnoticed. Perhaps other events have stolen their attention.

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That of Physics was shared by Giorgio Parisi, Syukuro Manabe and Klauss Hasselman, for studies that gave meaning to complex systems, considered chaotic and disordered, and that seem to be governed by chance. Parisi studied a strange alloy, known as spinning glass, in which a few iron atoms randomly mix within a lattice of copper atoms, causing radical changes in its magnetic properties. He managed to deduce some rules and described them mathematically. The other two used the rotating glass and their mathematical theory to explain the strange behavior of the weather on Earth. Three highly theoretical physicists, awarded for their impact on climate and environmental sciences.

Chemistry was shared by Benjamin List and David WC McMillan, for developing an ingenious catalytic system to make asymmetric molecules. If the reader opens his right hand in front of the mirror, it will give him the image of a left hand. Some molecules look like our hands at that. The funny thing is that nature chooses only one of the forms in its fundamental processes. An example is the amino acids that make up proteins; all are L (‘levo’, left) there are none D (‘dextro’, right). Many molecules produce a desirable effect in one way and a negative effect in the other. Synthetic methods produce both forms at the same time, and it is difficult to separate them. That is why this advance in sophisticated chemistry was important, but which is basically about a geometric problem.

The one on Medicine was shared by David Julius and Arden Patapoutian, for the definition of the mechanism by which we are capable of feeling heat and pressure. His work, essentially biochemical (both are), consisted of isolating and identifying receptor proteins in cells: some are sensors that react to heat and are involved with pain and temperature regulation, and others react to a mechanical force and, among other functions, regulate blood pressure (and measure the intensity of hugs). It is not yet a result with medical uses, although they promise.

The Nobel committees could not have made a better choice if their intention had been to send us an additional message.

The Nobel Prize in Economics was shared by David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens, for the use of natural experiments to answer important social questions. An example of a natural experiment are the clinical tests to define the efficiency of a vaccine. They compare the effects in a vaccinated group with a control group that received a placebo (a molecule that has nothing to do with it). You can’t do that in society, but the laureates looked for situations that could mimic the natural experiment. An example was the comparison of two regions on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They were alike in everything except minimum wage increases, which were different in each state. With this they were able to define that an increase in the minimum wage did not increase unemployment; result contrary to established belief.

The Nobel committees could not have made a better choice if their intention had been to send us an additional message. They awarded a prize in Physics for solving environmental problems, another in Medicine for a biochemical characterization, one in Chemistry for a problem with geometric bases, and one in Economics, the only social science in the Nobel, for imitating typical science experiments natural. The boundaries between the disciplines of knowledge are increasingly blurred and are, at the same time, the most fertile areas. Problems are best solved with cross-disciplinary approaches.


(Read all the columns of Moisés Wasserman in THE TIME, here)

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The Nobel 2021 and one more message