After Nobel Announcement Week

This year’s Nobel Prizes were announced last week. The press conferences were watched all over the world, the names of the winners became headline news, and millions of people got a first introduction to areas of science and civil society.

The digital Nobel Media channels (including the website http://www.nobelprize.org) reached more than 14 million individuals when the Nobel prizes for physics and peace were announced, over 10 million people for the Nobel prizes in medicine and chemistry, and more than 6 million for the prize in economic sciences. Add to that hundreds of millions who got the information via TV, radio, newspapers, and independent web channels. Nobel Announcement Week is by far the largest information campaign about science on the planet.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank all those who have worked hard to make Nobel Announcement Week such a success: our staff at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as well as their colleagues in the Norwegian Nobel Institute, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, and Nobel Media. Needless to say, the Nobel Committees made the most important work by performing the evaluations and analyses that led to the Nobel Prizes.

When I announced the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I described the discoveries by Frances Arnold, George Smith and Greg Winter as harnessing the power of evolution. That inspiring quote from our press release captured in a few words their brilliant approach. Frances Arnold used evolution in a test tube to create tailor-made enzymes, George Smith used evolution of phages, i.e. viruses infecting bacteria, to produce new, high-affinity reagents, and Greg Winter modified the phage-display technology to evolve antibodies that are now used as therapeutic agents against many diseases afflicting humankind.

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics honoured innovators. Arthur Ashkin is a pioneer in laser technology and his invention of the optical tweezers has had an enormous impact, not least in molecular biology. The ”chirped pulse amplification” technique invented by Gerard Morou and Donna Strickland has made it possible to generate ultra-short, high-intensity laser pulses that are now being used in numerous applications all over the world, for instance in eye surgery.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honoured Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo, two scientists who made immunotherapy against cancer a reality after many years of dreams and disappointment. By removing the brakes on immune attack, their treatment allows cytotoxic immune cells to destroy cancer cells. Grateful patients whose lives were saved are now joining in the celebrations for these two scientists. The Nobel Prize was a particular joy for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since Jim Allison was the first recipient of the Sjöberg Prize, the large prize for cancer research funded by the Sjöberg Foundation and awarded by the Academy.

The Prize in Economics Sciences went to two economists who have focused on the interaction between economics, climate and technology. William Nordhaus identified climate change as an important factor in global and national economics and Paul Romer pointed out how technological innovations interact with economic development. This was indeed a very timely award, coming just days after the IPCC conference in Incheon, Korea.

We were proud that the sciences were in the good company of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Ms Nadia Murad, two heroic individuals who have devoted their lives to defending women victimized in wars.

This year’s Nobel Prizes were not coordinated efforts to make a statement, yet there is a clear statement in the list of discoveries and achievements. That statement is about scientific creativity improving life on this planet and about the important role of women in society. Donna Strickland was the third woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, and Frances Arnold the first woman in ten years to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Neither of them got the Prize  because they are women. They got it because they made groundbreaking discoveries and inventions. Scientific creativity is widely distributed in humankind and not limited by gender or ethnicity. Alfred Nobel knew that and wrote in his will that” It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person”. He would have been proud to see this year’s roster of Nobel laureates.

Göran K. Hansson

After Nobel Announcement Week