Note about Nobels

Published December 01 2016

It was two weeks after the Nobel Prizes were announced for this year (well, one week, if you include the delayed announcement of the literature prize to Bob Dylan). I was hosting a birthday party for one of my sons at home. This meant I had a herd of elementary-school boys stampeding through my house fueled by cheese pizza and lemonade. I only had to wonder how the noise level would change when the birthday doughnuts were served.

Not only was I responsible for making sure no child lost a limb or an eye, but I also had to host some parents. It was the first time I was meeting these parents, and I was regretting that the social circumstances were not more dignified. But we managed to carry on a conversation while the ceiling trembled over our heads. We began with the obligatory “What do you do?” conversation opener.

I always find these conversations a bit trying, because it takes me a while to explain what I do. When I say I’m a managing editor of a science magazine, people immediately assume it’s Scientific American or Popular Science. I then have to say, “No, no, you can’t buy this magazine at the grocery store,” and, “It’s published by a scientific society.” Then, inevitably, I get asked the name of the scientific society, and as I rattle off “The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology” most people’s eyes glaze over as they get flashbacks to that one nightmare semester of organic chemistry they took.

It wasn’t very different with the parents sitting in my dining room. One was an Air Force pilot. Another was a mental-health therapist. I was the only one steeped in the life-sciences.

At this point of the conversation, I get asked what the magazine covers in its pages. I’m usually ready to talk about the proteomics of breastmilk or the science of catching performance-enhancing drugs in elite sports. But on that day, for a moment, my mind went blank. I can’t think clearly when there is a cacophony of yelling and banging of plastic light sabers and wands (Star Wars and Harry Potter are very popular in my household right now). Panicked at causing the conversation to stall, I forced myself to think about what I had edited earlier in the day.

It was John Arnst’s feature, which is the cover story for this issue of ASBMB Today. It’s about the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on autophagy.

I turned to the parents and asked, “Did you hear about this year’s Nobel Prize to the scientist who described self-eating?” They nodded and eagerly asked me to explain what this year’s prize was all about. They had heard the announcement but didn’t fully understand what was being recognized by the prize and why it mattered. As I launched into an explanation about autophagy, I sent a mental note of gratitude to Alfred Nobel.

The electron micrograph shows autophagy, the subject of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, in action. IMAGE PROVIDED BY SHARON TOOZE

In 1896, the relatives of the Swedish gunpowder magnate Alfred Nobel opened up his will after his death on Dec. 10 and were horrified to discover that the man had bequeathed his wealth in the most unusual way. In his extraordinary will, Nobel stipulated that his wealth would be used to give out prizes in five areas that were of personal interest to him: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. He also stipulated that there couldn’t be more than three winners for each of the prizes.

The Nobel Prizes, like all prizes, are imperfect. In the modern era of multidisciplinary science that involves teams of people, the Nobel Prizes for science can appear anachronistic by choosing a few individuals for fame and glory.

Almost every year, when the Nobel Prizes get announced, there are grumblings about those who lost out on proper recognition. This year’s controversial literature prize to Dylan is a perfect example, as many took offense that a songwriter who’s already won Grammy Awards got the prestigious prize instead of a writer of literary fiction or a poet.

The Nobel Prizes in science have their fair share of complaints. Just take the Nobel Prize in chemistry, which always sparks a lot of soul-searching about what chemistry really is because biologists seem to keep getting the prize. When Roger Kornberg of Stanford University won the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on RNA transcription, a Nature News story questioned whether the work even was bona fide chemistry. The same thing happened last year. The 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry was given to Tomas Lindahl at the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in the U.K.; Paul Modrich at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University School of Medicine; and Aziz Sancar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. When the announcment was made that the discoveries of DNA repair mechanisms were being recognized, the response was much like that of 2006: “Is this truly chemistry?”

This year, wisecracks swept through Twitter when the chemistry prize was announced to go to Jean-Pierre Sauvage at University of Strasbourg, France; Sir J. Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University; and Bernard L. Feringa at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, for developing molecular machines. An NPR editor, Geoff Brumfiel, tweeted, tongue-in-cheek, “But wait, I’m confused. They seem to have given the chemistry prize to actual chemists... For doing chemistry... #NobelPrizeInBiochem”

And then there is the issue over the ones who were ignored. I used to be a reporter for the journal Analytical Chemistry. Controversy broke out in the field of analytical chemistry over the 2002 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Part of that prize went to John Fenn at the Virginia Commonwealth University and Koichi Tanaka at Shimadzu Corp for developing a mass spectrometric technique. No one disputed that Fenn deserved the prize, but many felt, in light of Tanaka’s work, that Franz Hillenkamp at the University of Münster in Germany and Fred McLafferty of Cornell University were left out unfairly. Rosalind Franklin’s name still comes up in the context of the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, because of her contributions to the discovery of the DNA double helical structure.

But imperfect as they are, there is one thing that the Nobel Prizes do exceedingly well. Every October, without fail, the prizes turn the world’s attention to science. All major media outlets run a mention of the prizes, even if it’s just a 30-second clip about who won.

The prizes give us an opportunity to talk about seemingly esoteric niches of science and describe their wonders to people who normally are not plugged into science. I couldn’t help but appreciate this fact at my son’s birthday party. It’s not every day that I get asked by a pilot and a therapist to describe autophagy and all the different facets it affects in cell biology. We only stopped talking about autophagy when we heard a light saber go “Whack!” and a child began to cry.

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the managing editor for ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter.