Why, Isn’t That Nobel?

Jim Peebles
Nobel Prize in Physics
Nobel Prize in Physics

Every year, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces the Nobel Prize, a set of awards in the fields of science and culture widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in their respective fields. A committee of five is chosen to scrutinize and discuss the hundreds of nominations received each year for the award. After a rigorous and thorough process, the final laureates are chosen. DoJMA brings to you all that you need to know about the winners in all 6 categories of the Nobel Prize for 2019. 


The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics is shared between three scientists who have made groundbreaking contributions to the field of astrophysics. We can thank them for knowing a bit more about the dark sky when we look at it in wonder. One half of the £740,000 prize money goes to James Peebles, a Canadian-American who has made numerous theoretical discoveries in the field, while the other half is shared between Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of the first exoplanet. James Peebles has been working in the field of physical cosmology since the 1960s, a time when it wasn’t considered to be a very promising field. He laid the foundation for modern cosmology when he predicted the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB is faint cosmic radiation that gives us information about the start of the universe. He has also made contributions to the study of dark matter, dark energy and the rise of the first elements. Mayor and Queloz have been recognised for their joint discovery in 1995 of the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b, 50 light-years away. It was discovered using a custom-built instrument that used Doppler spectroscopy, in which the changes in the frequency of light caused by the wobbles of the sun during rotation are used to find out information about the planet. This kicked off the hunt for more exoplanets and over 4,000 of them have now been discovered. Scientists who work on exoplanets and on large scale cosmology often compete with one another for funding and resources, so sharing the Nobel between the two was a decision that can create a bridge between the groups. 


The Chemistry Nobel has always been a bit more significant, given that it is the basis of Alfred Nobel’s achievement. This year, the prize has been awarded to 3 renowned scientists, John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, for their pioneering work in developing lithium-ion batteries. Each of them will be awarded equal shares of the 9 million kronor prize. At 97, Goodenough also happens to be the oldest laureate to receive a Nobel prize in any discipline. “They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the Academy said. Far lighter and more compact than earlier types of rechargeable battery, and able to hold their charge for longer, they are found in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric cars. They truly are the technology of the future, and just the fact that each and every one of us interacts with this tech on a daily basis makes this award all the more relevant. 


Humans seem to have this innate tendency to create conflict where there is none, and war has plagued our civilization since the very beginning of recorded history, taking lives, destroying families. It takes extremely brave, visionary people to see through the hatred and restore peace. Very rare are such people, and even rarer is it that they are ever recognised for their work. In 2019, the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to the leader of Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Abiy, 43, took office after widespread protests pressured the longtime ruling coalition and hurt one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Africa’s youngest leader quickly announced dramatic reforms and “Abiymania” began. In a move that caused surprise in the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region, he said Ethiopia would accept a peace agreement with Eritrea, ending one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. Within weeks, Eritrea’s longtime leader, visibly moved, visited Addis Ababa and communications and transport links were restored. For the first time in two decades, long-divided families made tearful reunions. Ethiopia has one of the world’s few “gender-balanced” Cabinets and a female President, a rarity in Africa. Despite all odds, Abiy is known to stand by the morals he believes in. A grenade was thrown at him during an appearance in the capital. A large group of soldiers confronted him in his office in what he called an attempt to derail his reforms. In a display of the brio that has won Abiy widespread admiration, the former military officer defused the situation by dropping to the floor and joining the troops in push-ups. People like him are truly inspirational, and leave us with the hope that perhaps there is still something to look forward to.


Two winners were named for the Nobel Prize for Literature, one for the year 2018 and one for 2019 after the award was scrapped last year due to a sexual assault and financial scandal in the Royal Swedish Academy. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the prize for the year 2018 for her work that focuses on challenging nationalist cover-ups for historical oppression. Meanwhile, Austrian playwright, poet and novelist Peter Handke was awarded the prize for the year 2019 “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience,” as per the Academy. Peter Handke’s win has brought upon a lot of criticism on the Academy because of his denial of the Serbian genocide during the fall of Yugoslavia and his support of their mastermind Slobodan Milošević, going as far as to offer to testify in his favour at The Hague when he was to be indicted for war crimes. There is an argument that the Nobel Prize for literature should be rewarded regardless of politics but it is awarded, according to the will of Alfred Nobel, for outstanding work “en idealisk riktning” – in an ideal direction or direction of an ideal. The awarding of these two very contrasting works together could be a case of the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature looking to appreciate critically good works on both sides of the spectrum. 


The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for 2019 was shared by Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. They received the award for their experimental approach in alleviating global poverty. Banerjee is an India-born economist who is a professor of economics at MIT. There, he and his doctoral student Duflo conducted multiple experiments on poverty-related issues in developing countries, including India. Duflo is currently the professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT. She married Banerjee in 2015. Kremer is the professor of Developing Societies at Harvard. He worked alongside Banerjee and Duflo to show how experimenting is an essential part of alleviating poverty. The research done for this award is based on the fact that practical, on-field experiments are a better method of determining ways to reduce poverty. Banerjee and Duflo initially carried out research in India and Kenya. The participants made choices in their actual everyday environment and this allowed them to test new policies more easily. They then went on to see if these policies could be generalized and applied irrespective of location. By tackling multiple fields in poverty like education, health services, and general rationality, they have helped in making changes to various government policies around the globe.


The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to National Institutes of Health grantees Gregg L. Semenza and William G. Kaelin Jr, who share the prize with Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, MD, of, for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, which is called hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs). Dr Semenza is the professor of paediatrics, oncology, biological chemistry and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr Kaelin’s work is mostly related to tumour suppressor proteins. He is a professor at Harvard University and the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute. Dr Ratcliffe, who is affiliated with the University of Oxford, England, and Francis Crick Institute, London, is a physician as well as a trained nephrologist. Their research has been termed as a textbook discovery for its simplicity and significance. It might bring about major breakthroughs in treating various diseases in which oxygen is in short supply — including anaemia, heart attacks and strokes — as well as for treatment of cancers that are fed by and seek out oxygen.