Saturday, October 08, 2011

Some other people did some other stuff this week, too. (POP!Best!)

The Best Of Everything, every Saturday, brings you POP!Best!: a stirring instrumental homage to the glories of yesteryear...

This week on POP!Best!: Nobel Prize winners, and some stuff you might want to know about them.

Do you know who won the Nobel Prize(s) this year? Odds are you saw the announcements were made, didn't recognize any of the names, and after briefly clicking that you Like "adaptive immunity," you moved on to see what your ex-girlfriend from high school was up to today. I know how it is.

The media makes a big deal about the Nobel Prizes each year, dutifully awarding them and then usually noting that the prizes have been given out each year since 1901, Alfred Nobel discovered chemistry, etc. and that's it. Nobody talks much about who the people are, or what they did and why it was worth giving them all that money.

This year, although the announcements were made, they were not just under-attended by a public that cares more about Ashton & Demis' divorce than they do about evolutionary changes in immune systems, but were also overshadowed by the death of Steve Jobs. It's kind of interesting to note all the attention that was paid to Steve Jobs this week, article after article detailing his accomplishments (which, to be fair, were big ones) but then see that only a paragraph or two gets devoted to what are deemed to be the most significant strides in major fields each year.

So, as usual, the mantle falls on me to do what the rest of the world won't. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, and so on, and so I'm going to spend this week talking about the fascinating subject of Nobel Prize Winners, 2011.

And it really is fascinating. You'll see. Right this way!

First up, Medicine: Says the Nobel Site:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011 was divided, one half jointly to Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann "for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity" and the other half to Ralph M. Steinman "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity".

Here's something I bet you didn't know: You can leave greetings and congratulations for the Nobel Prize winners on their site. And one well-wisher really likes these guys:

Nice to know that supersmart people aren't any better at Tweeting than the rest of us, isn't it? So are Drs. Beutler & Hoffmann, and Steinman as living gods? That depends on how you view their achievements.

Dr. Steinman actually died three days before getting the award, of pancreatic cancer, but you didn't see Facebook pages devoted to him, did you? Maybe because we don't all use his discoveries everyday, or at least don't use them to illegally download Lady GaGa's Born This Way.

Interestingly, Dr. Steinman may not actually be getting the Nobel Prize: They can't be awarded posthumously, so either you're alive to accept it or you were alive when they announced it but then died. In this case Dr. Steinman was already dead when they awarded it to him, but the committee didn't know that, so they're checking the rules to see if he can still win the prize.

Ultimately, the doctors' achievements may prove to be at least as helpful to humanity as a phone that tells you you're looking good today. The three were named together because their ideas built on each other. Steinman actually began his work in 1973, when he discovered dendritic cells, which are uniquely able to activate "T-Cells" to fight infections.

Building on that, Hoffmann later identified how fruit flies fight infections, and to get an idea how these scientists work, consider this phrase from the paper published about Hoffmann's findings:

Natural infections generated by coating flies with fungal spores...

The next time you think you're having a bad day at the office, ask yourself whether you spent your morning coating flies with fungal spores. (If you did spend your day that way, either quit copying Dr. Hoffmann or get some medication.)

Worse yet, from the perspective of someone who doesn't like this kind of thing, Hoffmann proposes to study this effect more by looking at mollusks and sea urchins, which means there's likely a job out there for people who don't mind spending the holidays coating sea urchins with fungal spores.

What, you probably are asking, does this do for me, though? Fair enough: Beutler, the third guy here, later on found in mice a gene that was like the fruit flies' receptor; Beutler was trying to find ways to avoid septic shock, and together with Steinmans' work on dendritic cells, has led to new vaccines.

Over in Chemistry, this year's Nobel Laureate, Dan Shechtman, discovered quasicrystals. Put more simply, Dan Shechtman discovered something that was impossible.

All in a days' work for a Nobel Laureate!

Looking at a compound crystal one morning, Shechtman saw this:

And in response to that, he wrote this, which I will put in its original, scientific-y, language:


Shechtman wrote that because what he was looking at was 10-fold symmetry in a crystal. All matter, mostly, is crystals, and prior to Shechtman's discovery that morning, the highest number of folds that could be symmetried was 6; nobody had ever seen five-fold symmetry and 7 and upwards were deemed impossible.

So Shechtman was looking at something impossible, and he did what any good scientist does at that point: he destroyed the evidence and claimed to have discovered velociraptors fighting hobbits in a dark matter universe created by black holes.

No! He tested it! And he discovered that he was, in fact, mistaken. He didn't have a 10-fold symmetric crystal, after all.

He only had a five-fold crystal. So, only half as impossible.

(Five-fold symmetry means that each atom is surrounded by five identical atoms, and it was thought to be impossible because in a crystal, each atom has to be an identical distance from all other atoms, which can't [they thought] happen with five-fold symmetry.)

When Shechtman actually told other people about how he'd discovered a five-fold crystal, other scientists (probably preoccupied with defending the brontosaurus) ridiculed him; his boss gave him a crystals textbook and told him to read it, and he was asked to leave his research group.

Shechtman, of course, was right, and people conversant with natural patterns like the Fibonacci sequence, or the golden ratio, should have known it; the Fibonacci sequence is the one in which each number is the sum of the two before it [1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.], and Shechtman's impossible crystal used that ratio, thereby confirming the discovery through the use of aperiodic mosaics, which is a mathematician's game in which the math nerds try to make up mosaics that don't repeat themselves using fewer and fewer tiles. The record is 2, and that record is unlikely to be broken, although don't tell Shechtman it's impossible or he'll go and do it.

Quasicrystals help make steel stronger, and are being explored to turn waste heat into electricity. Bah! you say, What's that to do with me!? To which I respond, why are you talking like Ebeneezer Scrooge?, and also: It has this to do with you: Using quasicrystals in cars might be able to convert all that extra heat made by the engine into electricity, making electric cars more efficient.

Imagine, too, if they could do that with laptops -- the heat generated by your laptop keeping the battery charged for longer. Now, aren't you sorry that you didn't pay attention to Mr Hassemer in 11th grade? Me, too.

So at least Ed Begley will be happy, and that's what it's really all about, right?

Then there's physics, where three guys shared the prize this year, too, but shared it asymmetrically: One guy, Saul Perlmutter, got half, the other two guys, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess, shared the other half, each getting 1/4. Or so I assume. Maybe Schmidt got 3/5 of 1/2 and Riess got 2/5 of 1/2. Who knows? (They know, I assume.)

What these three guys did is tell you all how we're going to die. And it's bad news for people like me, because, they say, it's gonna be cold.

We're going to die cold because the Universe is expanding, and that expansion is getting faster -- so the Universe is getting bigger at a faster rate each day, which means eventually we'll all drift apart from each other and die in the dark, cold and alone, like those spacemen after the rocket blew up in Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

I am, as a form of bloggeristic objectivity, going to suspend my skepticism for a moment as I say the following two words:

Dark energy.

Dark energy, which I do not believe in and which I think is simply Einstein's cosmological constant, or a brontosaurus, if you will, is behind this year's Nobel Prize in physics, as two teams vied to map the universe. Perlmutter, on one team, and Schmidt & Riess on the other, were competing to find the most distant supernovae they could, using supernovae because the traditional stars used to measure universal distances, cepheids, were not visible that far out. So the teams here focused on white dwarf supernovae, which glow as brightly as galaxies despite coming from a star that physically is about the size of our planet.

Here's how they worked, according to the Nobel people:

The trick was to compare two images of the same small piece of the sky, corresponding to a thumbnail at arm’s length. The first image has to be taken just after the new moon and the second three weeks later, before the moonlight swamps out starlight. Then the two images can be compared in the hope of discovering a small dot of light – a pixel among others in the CCD image – that could be a sign of a supernova in a galaxy far away.
Rubbing fungi on flies seems good now by comparison, doesn't it? No, you're right: it still doesn't.

Here's what they get to look at:

Compared to, say, gossip bloggers, that might be a blessing: No Nancy Grace nipple-slips there!

The two teams found fifty different supernovae, and concluded that the light was getting weaker as time went on -- meaning that the supernovae were speeding up.

God's got his foot on the accelerator, it seems; we've been around for billions of years and haven't yet hit the red zone on universal speed.

And lest you dismiss my continued rantings about dark energy being simply "scientists saying Huh. We don't know," consider this, from the Nobel press release:

So what is it that is speeding up the Universe? It is called dark energy and is a challenge for physics, a riddle that no one has managed to solve yet. Several ideas have been proposed.
The simplest is to reintroduce Einstein’s cosmological constant, which he once rejected. At that time, he inserted the cosmological constant as an anti-gravitational force to counter the gravitational force of matter and thus create a static Universe. Today, the cosmological constant instead appears to make the expansion of the Universe to accelerate.

That is, in layman's terms: "Huh. We don't know." Dark energy isn't anything at all; it's simply a new phrase used for we don't know. Or, to put it another way, dark energy is what as kids we used to put up to keep others from tagging us during freeze tag:

It may be that the dark energy is not constant after all. Perhaps it
changes over time. Perhaps an unknown force field only occasionally
generates dark energy. In physics there are many such force fields
that collectively go by the name quintessence,
after the Greek name
for the fifth element. Quintessence could speed up the Universe, but
only sometimes. That would make it impossible to foresee the fate
of the Universe.

In other words, the Nobel Prize in Physics this year went to some guys who observed the effects of something they're not sure exists and about which they're not sure how it works, but they're sure it's there. Or, as Nobel put it:

Therefore the findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that is 95% unknown to science. And everything is possible again.

They didn't have to go to 50 distant supernovae to find that out, though. They could have just asked Shechtman.

I'd like to say how this prize helps you, but, frankly, I don't think it does. Dark matter and Dark energy will someday go down in history as an embarrassing episode of physics, like the era of medicine when they used leeches to bleed out the humours. Einstein himself rejected the cosmological constant as being simply a number he made up to make the equations work. Einstein wanted a static universe, and so he made up a number to match what he wanted, that being the exact opposite of how science is supposed to work. Physicists today want a universe that's increasing in speed, and so they make up a number -- "The universe is 75% dark matter, but not always, because God keeps fussing with the flow of quintessence!" -- to match what they want.

I hope the three enjoy their prizes. Columbus got fame for discovering the Indies, even though he was wrong, and his discovery helped create the Western world, even though he was wrong. Believing you've landed in India when you're in Haiti, and believing you've discovered the effects of dark energy when you're just making stuff up seem about the same to me. (For more about how scientists are wrong about stuff all the time, click here.)

It is a good excuse to play Dark Matter by Andrew Bird again, though:

Then there's literature, the prize for which this year was reputed to have gone to a Serb in an internet hoax that I have to admit I don't get -- is it funny because it was Serbia? Practical jokes are so hard to pull off, like the time Linus Pauling put Niels Bohrs hand in a beaker of sulfuric acid while he slept -- but which actually went to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, because, as the committee put it:

“because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.

That's the extent of their press release. Like a bunch of high school sophomores, the Nobel Committee couldn't come up with anything to say about the poems of Tomas Tranströmer, whose name, I'll just admit, makes me think of Transformers, and you can think less of me if you want, but at least I came up with something to say about him.

According to, Tomas has sold thousands of books of poetry and been translated into more than 50 languages, which is surprising because I'd have bet there's only, like 20 languages in the whole world, not counting Klingon or Elvish. also says of his work:

His work has gradually shifted from the traditional and ambitious nature poetry written in his early twenties toward a darker, personal, and more open verse. His work barrels into the void, striving to understand and grapple with the unknowable, searching for transcendence.

Which makes the Nobels seem like they had a theme this year, doesn't it? Impossible crystals, ever-expanding universes, fresh looks at reality -- it was theme week in Stockholm, I'm guessing.

Tomas has his own website, on which he notes that bettors were giving 7-1 odds that he wouldn't get the prize this year, and the prize being $1.5 million, Tomas just proved you can make a decent living being a poet if you work really hard at it and try to grapple with the unknowable.

He has some of his poems on his site, too, like this one:

National Insecurity

The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X

and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.

As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground

so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.

A helmet worn by no one has taken power.

The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.

That would be great on a Hallmark card, in their new line of "Fledgling democracy and insurgent rebels greeting cards." (Another one: Heard you were run out of your country by an angry mob of students who'd been secretly armed by the CIA...)

He also has this poem, which left me speechless when I read it, and so I'm going to end with it:

The Blue House

It is a night of radiant sun. I stand in the dense forest and look away toward my house with its hazy-blue walls. As if I had just dies and was seeing the house from a new angle. It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its wood is impregnated with four times joy and three times sorrow. When someone who lived in the house dies, it is repainted. The dead person himself is painting, without a brush, from inside.

Beyond the house, open ground. Once a garden, now grown over. Stationary breakers of weed, pagodas of weed, welling text, Upanishads of weed, a viking fleet of weed, dragons heads of weed, lances, a weed empire! Across the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang that is thrown and thrown again. It has something to do with a person who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse comes from him, a thought, a thought like an act of will: “make… draw….” To reach out of his fate.

The house is like a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness that grew because someone—much too soon— gave up his mission to be a child. Open the door, step in! In here there’s unrest in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed hangs a painting of a ship with seventeen sails, hissing wave crests, and a wind that the gilt frame can’t contain.

It’s always so early in here, before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. Thank you for this life! Still I miss the alternatives. The sketches, all of them, want to become real. A ship’s engine far away on the water expands the summer-night horizon. Both joy and sorrow swell in the dew’s magnifying glass. Without really knowing, we diving; our life has a sister ship, following quietly another route. While the sun blazes behind the islands.


Michael Offutt said...

Over the last ten years, the Nobel Committee has done a really good job in rewarding who I think are the correct writers. V.S Naipaul, J.M Coetzee (I love this guy), Elfriede Jenilek, Orhan Pamuk, Doris Lessing and Mario Vargas Llosa were all very defendable choices. But they also rewarded J.M.G Le Clézio out of the blue. He's one of the best French writers alive, but that's not saying much. I can't help but think he got the prize by sucking up to the right people. And also...who's Herta Muller?

I wanted the Nobel committee to reward Haruki Murakami for all the great, life-changing novels he gave to mankind, but that didn't happen. I could get behind Bob Dylan or Thomas Pynchon being potential laureates. Cormac McCarthy also. Adonis...I have no idea who that guy really is. The man that they did choose writes beautiful poetry so I can't argue.

As far as dark energy's an intriguing concept. I don't know enough about it other than a few television specials I've seen narrated by Morgan Freeman. But I do know that we live in fascinating times. I'm so glad that we have answers to so many questions even if the answers result in more questions. I'd prefer this than someone coming along with a pre-packaged mythology from some man with an I.Q. less than mine telling me how to live (on a Sunday) because supposedly, that's when his God chose to take a day off. And in order to properly sacrifice to this "god" I should really pony up 10% of my hard-earned income so that this con artist can afford luxuries that I don't have. Yeah...give me dark energy, physics, and space-time any day of the week to that bullshit.

Stephen Hayes said...

A very informative post but I must admit some of it is over my head, even though you explain it all quite well. Did you know that Nobel came up with the idea of his "Prize" after reading his own obituary in a local paper?Nobel's brother had recently died and the newspaper printed Alfred's obituary by mistake. When Alfred read the list of atrocities attributed to the dynamite he'd perfected, the source of his income, he decided to do something to redeem his name. He did a good job of it. Today people remember him for his prize more than anything else.

Rogue Mutt said...

I just wish for Literature they'd name someone I've actually heard of. I guess I'm not snobby enough. It always looks "Transformer" to me too. I think he should just change his name to that.

BTW, it's appropriate to have a clip from the Shout Out Louds since they're Swedish and that's where the Nobels are held.