Illuminating the Nobels
Photo by Evan Krape November 25, 2019
UD faculty experts discuss this year’s prize-winning work
From the cells in our bodies and the cell phones in our pockets, to the structure of the entire universe, the research honored by this year’s Nobel Prizes covers a lot of ground.
But, as is always the case at the University of Delaware’s annual Nobel Symposium, faculty members were able to use their own expertise to share insights into the prize-winning work with an audience of UD and community members.
As a bonus, the audience at this year’s event also learned about two scandals involving the prize for literature.
The symposium on Tuesday, Nov. 19, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences in Harker Lab, featured seven short talks about this year’s laureates and their work, as well as a special tribute to novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and died in August.
The following are the prizes highlighted at the symposium.
Physiology or Medicine
“Just as a candle needs oxygen to burn cleanly, cells need oxygen,” to convert food into energy, Ramona Neunuebel, assistant professor of biological sciences, said at the symposium. “But too much oxygen is deadly, and too little is deadly.”
Neunuebel explained the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for discovering how cells are able to sense and then adjust their oxygen levels. Oxygen levels can vary, depending on elevation or injury, for example, and scientists have long been puzzled by how cells are able to adapt.
The three laureates put the puzzle together by looking at different aspects of the molecular process that regulates the activity of genes. “Together, they found the pathway,” Neunuebel said.
She noted that, based on these discoveries, drugs are being developed to target anemia, kidney disease, cancer and other serious conditions.
Jim Berry, associate professor of economics, began his talk by pointing out that, despite billions of dollars spent each year on aid to developing countries, the question, “Does this aid actually work?” has been complex and difficult to answer.
But, he said, thanks to the work by this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in economic sciences, a much more reliable, experimental approach has been developed. The laureates — Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer — are all relatively young, and Duflo is only the second woman to win the economics prize, Berry said.
Their approach, which Berry termed, “Start small, then go big,” breaks down the factors involved in each aspect of aid. In seeking to improve education, for example, a researcher might start with the question of whether providing more textbooks to an impoverished school would make a difference in the students’ achievements and then randomly assign schools in the area being studied to receive or not receive more books.
(The answer? Using teaching methods that are responsive to students’ needs, not the quantity of textbooks, is what makes a real difference.)
“This is an approach that’s similar to a medical trial,” Berry said. By doing more and larger randomized experiments of this type, researchers can much more accurately identify strategies that are effective, and donors can then target aid to those initiatives.
“The research conducted by this year’s laureates has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty,” the Nobel Prize organization said in announcing the award.
Sarah Dodson-Robinson, associate professor of physics and astronomy, discussed this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to three scientists, one whose work led to a new understanding of the universe’s history and two who discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.
“This is all about looking for other worlds and understanding the universe,” Dodson-Robinson told the audience.
James Peebles won his share of the prize for 50 years of work that is now the basis for our understanding of the universe, the Nobel organization said. His work “moved cosmology [the study of the origin of the universe] from pencil and paper” to science, Dodson-Robinson said.
The other recipients, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, made the first discovery of an exoplanet, a planet outside our Solar System, that is orbiting a solar-type star. They made the discovery in 1995, and since then, Dodson-Robinson said, “We’ve gone from one planet to thousands. It’s been a real revolution in astronomy.”
When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the announcement also specifically recognized “all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.”
At UD’s Nobel Symposium, Wunyabari Maloba, professor and department chair of Africana studies and professor of history, noted that the Peace Prize is intended to honor the recipient but also to encourage other leaders to undertake reforms.
Abiy took office in April 2018 and worked with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to resume peace talks between the two nations in their long-running border conflict. The two leaders worked out the principles of an agreement, warfare ended and the border between the two countries was reopened.
Although there have been setbacks since then, the prize should be seen as an encouragement for the reforms Abiy has implemented, Maloba said. “Something to celebrate here is that half of his cabinet is composed of women,” Maloba added.
The hope, he said, is that the Peace Prize will inspire other leaders to demonstrate “the courage and daring to bring about peace and stability.”
Lithium-ion batteries play a role in every part of our lives, “including the battery that’s in your pocket right now” powering your mobile phone, said Eric Bloch, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
He explained this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which recognized the research conducted by John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. The three worked separately on different aspects of building a better battery, with the result being the lightweight, rechargeable and powerful lithium-ion battery that’s now used in phones, laptops and electric vehicles.
Calling the recognition “overdue,” Bloch said the battery will continue to play a key role in the future, especially as a means to store energy generated by wind and solar power.
“If we’re going to transition away from fossil fuel … lithium-ion batteries are how we’re going to do it,” Bloch said. “And we have these three [laureates] to thank.”
Literature (2018 and 2019)
No prize was awarded last year in the literature category, after a sexual assault and financial scandal disrupted the Swedish Academy’s awards committee. The organization regrouped after several resignations and this year awarded two prizes.
Viet Dinh, assistant professor of English, discussed both writers who were honored — Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author who won the delayed 2018 prize, and Peter Handke of Austria, who was awarded the 2019 Nobel. The two authors, Dinh said, provide interesting counterpoints to each other, with different styles and bodies of work.
Not all of Tokarczuk’s books have been translated into English, and Dinh focused on those that have. He described her 2007 work, Flights, as “a fascinating book composed of 116 vignettes.” The extremely short stories, he said, mix fiction and fact, jump forward and back in time and can each stand alone, but together they form a “constellation” of themes focused on the concept of travel.
Dinh also spoke about Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which he said has a narrower focus than the expansive Flights. The author takes a story that could be a classic whodunit mystery and transforms it into a kind of fable, he said.
While Tokarczuk’s body of work is smaller and has an outward focus, Handke’s is much larger and more diverse, Dinh said. He’s written novels, essays, dramatic works and screenplays over more than 50 years, including The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Offending the Audience and Wings of Desire.
The Nobel organization called him one of the most influential writers in Europe since World War II, but his controversial selection for this year’s prize has created another scandal. His 1996 book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, depicted Serbia as the victim of the 1990s Yugoslav conflict, and in 2006 he spoke at the funeral of Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial for war crimes.
The dilemma, Dinh said, is, “How do you approach a work of art when the artist is known to hold [offensive or controversial] views?” He suggested that, instead of ignoring the views or refusing to engage with the artist’s work, readers should consider also reading works by other writers that offer context and different points of view.
Special presentation honoring Toni Morrison
A. Timothy Spaulding, associate professor of English and of Africana studies, gave a tribute to 1993 laureate Toni Morrison, who is the only black woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Calling her prose “luminous and poetic,” Spaulding said, “It is impossible to read a Toni Morrison novel without deep feeling or contemplation.”
He praised the vitality of Morrison’s language and the way in which her work speaks so clearly and unflinchingly about the horrors of slavery and the legacy of racism. Even while writing about such topics, Spaulding said, Morrison’s beautiful and eloquent use of language creates “compelling contradictions and paradoxes.”
Her work, he said, is intensely rooted in the black experience but also has a broad reach that speaks to all readers.
Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, and went on to publish 10 other acclaimed works of fiction, including Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize.
This article includes information from the Nobel Prize organization.