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Spotlight shines on science prizes

The science world's most prestigious awards are about to be announced, and that means the Nobel Prize guessing games and explanatory efforts are in full swing.
This medal for the chemistry Nobel Prize was won by Linus Pauling in 1954 for his research "into the nature of the chemical bond." This year's chemistry prize is due to be awarded on Wednesday.
This medal for the chemistry Nobel Prize was won by Linus Pauling in 1954 for his research "into the nature of the chemical bond." This year's chemistry prize is due to be awarded on Wednesday.Eric Arnold via OSU
/ Source: Reuters

Frequency combs, dancing molecules and lilacs in spring have all been called into service in recent years to explain the complicated issues behind the scientific Nobel Prizes, due to be announced next week.

The awards, which start on Monday with medicine and follow with physics and chemistry over the next two days, generally involve hard-to-grasp concepts needing explanation for a wide audience that might find it easier to understand the literature and peace prizes.

This year, science writer Ulrika Bjorksten is one of those who has to describe what lies behind the prizes, which are worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.37 million) each and were founded in the will of millionaire dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel.

“Metaphors can be good and bad, you have to be really careful. If you’re not careful, people will expend their energy trying to understand the metaphor and not what you’re trying to explain,” she told Reuters.

Bjorksten, in her first year in the job of writing about the physics and chemistry prizes for the award-givers at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, was calm about the task at hand.

“It is an opportunity to think, ‘What do I want to say about science?’ — wanting to show that it’s a process, that ideas don’t come down from the sky and there is a lot of hard work behind it,” she added.

Name that metaphor
Frequency combs were part of the 2005 physics prize, shared by Americans Roy Glauber and John Hall and German Theodor Haensch for their work in optics. The devices are used to make extremely fine measurements.

Dancing molecules was how the academy explained the work of the 2005 chemistry prize winners, Frenchman Yves Chauvin and Americans Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock, on metathesis, where molecules change partners to create new molecules.

The 2005 medicine prize was won by Australians Barry Marshall and Robert Warren for showing that a bacterium caused ulcers, not stress. Lilacs in spring appeared for the 2004 award to Richard Axel and Linda Buck for work on the sense of smell.

Whether the focus on science for the first three days of the prizes increases general interest in medicine, physics or chemistry is open to debate, but for scientists the awards are still the world’s most prestigious.

Economists have their day on Oct. 9 for the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It is the only prize added to those in Nobel’s will of 1895 and was founded by the Swedish central bank, the Riksbank, in 1968.

The literature prize is due on one of the first two Thursdays in October, while the peace award is announced in Oslo on Oct. 13.

Who will win?
The field for all the prizes, as always, is also wide open, but particularly so in the very varied fields of science.

Medicine winners have sometimes previously won the Lasker Award. (This year's Lasker Award for basic research was shared by three Americans for their work with telomerase, an enzyme linked to the aging process.)

Information group Thomson Scientific runs a service that tries to predict who might win. This year the field includes scientists working on nuclear hormone receptors, DNA and gene targeting in medicine, magnetoresistance in physics or cell circuitry and pathways in chemistry.

“I think everyone is always surprised,” said Bjorksten, when asked who might win the chemistry or physics prize.