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Nobel laureates predict science’s future

Scientists must break through the boundaries between disciplines and nations to find solutions to some of the great unanswered questions, some of 2007’s Nobel Prize winners say.
/ Source: Reuters

Scientists must break through the boundaries between disciplines and nations to find solutions to some of the great unanswered questions, some of 2007’s Nobel Prize winners said on Friday.

“I think this will be the great challenge for science. Science will merge. The borders between physics and chemistry and biology will disappear more and more,” Gerhard Ertl, this year’s Nobel laureate for chemistry, told a news conference.

He said research also transcends national borders. “Science is international. So there is no Chinese science, no German science, no American science. That means that all the free exchange of results between the different countries is necessary,” Ertl said.

The scientists were in the Swedish capital for Nobel Week celebrations ahead of Monday’s solemn ceremony, at which they will receive their medals from the Swedish king.

Leonid Hurwicz, co-winner of the economics prize and the oldest person to receive a Nobel, will not attend. Literature laureate Doris Lessing was also unable to come to Stockholm due to ill health.

Economics widens its reach
Eric Maskin of Princeton University, who won the economy prize with the University of Chicago’s Roger Myerson and Hurwicz, of the University of Minnesota, said the study of economics was touching on everything from psychology to ecology.

“I think this is the wave of the future,” Maskin said.

“Too often we see our enterprises as divided very much into narrow disciplines — economics, anthropology, evolutionary biology or ecology — but these boundaries are artificial. There’s no reason to maintain them and I am hopeful that with time they will start disappearing.”

Myerson said major policy choices such as how to address global warming should also draw on many disciplines. He referred to the Nobel Peace Prize, which is being awarded to former Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change across the border in Norway.

“It’s not only a problem that’s important in the world — that’s in the news this year with another prize in Oslo — but it’s a good example of where physical science and social science go together, and we need to be thinking about both.”

Social as well as scientific issues
The answer to global warming lies in hard science, he said.

“But ultimately if anything’s going to be done, there is a social problem of creating international institutions which will implement the policies that our physical research (suggests).”

Pressed about the future, many of the panelists talked about important work being done at “borders,” “boundaries” or ”intersections” of two or more disciplines.

French scientist Albert Fert, who with Germany’s Peter Gruenberg won this year’s physics Nobel for a discovery that led to consumer-friendly innovations such as the iPod music player, said he was interested in molecular electronics.

Myerson mused that discovering why some countries are much wealthier than others with similar resources and people -- a question he called the “dark matter” of economics -- would require a union between political science and economic theory.

“The methodology that is most promising to me is a real merger,” he said.