This year’s American Nobel boom
Here is an antidote to savor when overcome with gloomy thoughts about the nation’s future. When this year’s Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine and economics were handed out, American academics won nine awards compared to one each for Britain and Belgium. The rest of the world got zero for science.
U.S. higher education has its shortcomings, but it still has the capacity to produce new discoveries and new technology to strengthen the nation’s medical system and economy while providing new jobs to its progeny. As Bret Stephens noted in The Wall Street Journal, since 2000, Americans, including immigrants from other nations, have won 21 of 37 physics Nobels, 18 of 33 in medicine, 22 of 33 in chemistry and 27 of 30 in economics. An impressive record indeed.
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year was awarded for the development of computer models that can predict chemical reactions for creating new drugs and other uses. The winners were Martin Karplus of Harvard University, Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Arieh Warsel of the University of Southern California.
The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to James E. Rothman of Yale University, Randy W. Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley and Thomas C. Sudhof of Stanford. Their research into the role of vesicles in cell structure leads to a better understanding of neurological and immunological diseases and diabetes.
The Nobel Prize for Economics was shared by Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen of the University of Chicago and Robert Shiller of Yale for work showing that asset price trends cannot be reliably predicted in the short term but can be predicted over longer terms. Their work has led to the rise of index funds as investment vehicles and to the creation of the widely used Case-Shiller index for measuring trends in real estate prices.
The Nobel Prize for Physics, perhaps the most prestigious Nobel science award, went to Peter Higgs of Britain and Francois Englert of Belgium for their simultaneous but separate 1964 papers on how subatomic particles get their mass. Last year the CERN particle physics accelerator laboratory near Geneva confirmed their theory by discovering the long-elusive particle known as the Higgs Boson, or so-called “God particle.”
Two non-scientific Nobels are awarded, for literature and contributions to world peace. Avoiding the often-repeated criticism that recent choices in literature have been obscure and unreadable, the Swedish Academy this year awarded the literature prize to the highly accessible Canadian author Alice Munro, whom the Academy rightly hailed as a “master of the contemporary short story.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, following a recent pattern of promoting international organizations instead of heroic individuals, passed up the sentimental favorite, 16-year-old Pakistani school-girl and Taliban opponent Malala Yousafzai, and gave the Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has been assigned the yet-to-be-accomplished task of removing chemical weapons from Syria. It has been reasonably suggested that the Norwegian committee was again betting on the outcome.
Hopefully, it will turn out to be more prescient than in the 2009 Peace Prize awarded to President Barack Obama.
And maybe the OPCW’s work in Syria will belatedly help validate Mr. Obama’s credentials in the peace-making realm.