The Discoveries Behind This Year's Nobel Prizes for Science

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.  I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  This week – we tell about the Nobel Prizes.  We also tell about the winners of the two thousand six prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine.

The Nobel Prizes are presented each year on December tenth.  The Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway.  The others are given in Stockholm, Sweden.

December tenth is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel.  He died in eighteen ninety-six.  The Swedish engineer held legal rights to more than three hundred inventions.  One is for the explosive dynamite.

Alfred Nobel left nine million dollars to establish yearly prizes in his name.  He said they should go to living people who have worked most effectively to improve human life.  He said the physics and chemistry prizes should be given by the Swedish Academy of Sciences.  He asked the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm to present the medical prizes.

The first Nobel prizes were presented in nineteen-oh-one.  Each award includes a gold medal and ten million Swedish kronor.  Today, that is worth more than one million three hundred thousand dollars.  The money is shared if more than one person wins a prize.  However, a prize may not be divided among more than three persons.

Scientific groups in Sweden choose the winners from among those nominated by past winners and specially chosen university professors.  How the choices are made is a secret among the committee members.  The names of those nominated are not made public for fifty years.

The Karolinska Institute this year chose two Americans to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  Craig Mello is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Andrew Fire is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California.

The scientists did their prize-winning work in the nineteen nineties for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.  At the time, the two men worked at laboratories in Baltimore, Maryland.  They performed experiments with very small worms.  They found they could control genes in the creatures with injections of specially designed ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

All living cells need molecules of RNA and another chemical, called deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA.  DNA makes copies of itself for new cells.  RNA makes other chemicals necessary for these cells.

The RNA used in the experiments needed to possess two lists of genetic orders, or strands.  The scientists found that this double-stranded RNA stopped the action of targeted genes within cells more effectively than other methods.  This discovery of the way cells control individual genes is known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

The discovery was made just eight years ago.  That is considered very recent for a Nobel Prize.  But scientists say the Nobel Committee probably recognized the work so quickly because it changed the science of genetics.  They say Professors Fire and Mello opened up a whole new area of research.

Later experiments showed that RNAi is present in cells of nearly all organisms.  Scientists have begun working on ways to use it to get cells to control genes responsible for causing diseases.  The discovery already is being used to develop possible treatments for diseases such as macular degeneration and hepatitis.

Two Americans are the winners of the two thousand six Nobel Prize for physics.  John Mather and George Smoot won for producing what scientists say is the strongest evidence yet that the universe began with a great explosion.  The two men are being honored for their work with the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, or COBE.

The American space agency launched the satellite into Earth's orbit in nineteen eighty-nine.  An instrument on COBE was designed to receive energy waves from the first big explosion, also known as the Big Bang.  It measured the temperature of the energy waves.  The measurements confirmed the main idea of the Big Bang theory -- that the explosion created a huge number of microwaves that have continued to expand and cool.

John Mather is an unusual Nobel Prize winner because he works for the United States government.  He is a top scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.  He was the main investigator in developing the COBE satellite.  George Smoot works at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California.  He led the team that studied the information provided by the satellite.

Mr. Mather explained their work by calling it an attempt to solve the mystery of the beginning of the universe.  He said COBE found small amounts of the earliest moment of time.  Scientists have used the findings to estimate the age of the universe as more than thirteen thousand million years old.

The chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics said the two Americans did not prove the Big Bang theory, but gave it very strong support.  Per Carlson called their work one of the greatest discoveries of the century.  He said it increases our knowledge of our place in the universe.

Still another American won the two thousand six Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  Roger Kornberg is being honored for his work in genetic research.  The Nobel Prize committee said he showed how information in the nucleus of genes is copied and moved to other parts of a cell.  The committee said he was the first to show pictures of this process taking place.

The process involves copying information from a cell's DNA into what is called messenger RNA.  The messenger RNA then moves the information from the nucleus to other areas of the cell where it builds proteins that control cell action.

Scientists say this "transcription" is what keeps living things alive.  Any interference causes cancer, heart disease or other disorders.

Roger Kornberg told the New York Times newspaper that his work has influenced the development of drugs and treatments for medical conditions.  He said understanding transcription is central to research into using stem cells to cure diseases like diabetes.

Professor Kornberg works at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.  Reports say he is the sixth Nobel Prize winner to have a father who also won a Nobel.  Arthur Kornberg shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in nineteen fifty-nine, also for work in genetics.  He and Severo Ochoa were honored for discovering how cells produce DNA.

Roger Kornberg said he clearly remembers visiting Stockholm when he was twelve years old to see his father receive the Nobel Prize.  And he expressed happiness that he can take his family there for the ceremonies this year.

It must be noted that Americans won all the scientific Nobel Prizes this year.  An Associated News report says Nobel officials were not surprised.  The permanent secretary for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences reportedly said the United States is leading Europe in scientific research.  Gunnar Oquist also said European governments are not providing scientists with the money they need to carry out good research.

Other Nobel Prize committee members said money to pay for research is extremely important to producing good scientific work.  Anders Liljas is a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.  He reportedly said American universities often have more creative environments than those in other countries.  He said American scientists talk to each other a lot instead of working separately.

This is not the first time that Americans have won the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry all in the same year.

In nineteen eighty-three, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and William Fowler shared the physics prize for increasing the understanding of the universe.  Henry Taube won the chemistry prize for work on electron transfer reactions.  And, Barbara McClintock won the medicine prize for discoveries in genetics.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach.  Brianna Blake was our producer.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty.  Internet users can download transcripts and audio files at voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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