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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Oct. 12– Dr. Brown: NOTL’s Nobel series explores important territory
Dr. William Brown Supplied

The Nobel series, an annual November-December review of the year’s Nobel Prizes announced in October, has been a success for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library since it began in 2017.

Sometimes it’s possible to guess upcoming winners, especially in 2020, given how hot gene editing had been for a decade.

In the same year, black holes were highlighted because in 2019 the first-ever black hole was photographed – concrete proof they actually exist.

The tragedy was that Stephen Hawking, who made several important discoveries about black holes (including that they leak and probably fizzle out), missed out on a share of the Nobel Prize.

He died before the prize was awarded and the Nobel committee does not award posthumous prizes unless the winner dies between the announcement and the ceremony.

Looking back over NOTL’s Nobel series, several prizes stand out because of the originality of the body of work required to solve some of nature’s major mysteries.

A prime example was the 2017 physics prize shared by Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”

The gravitational waves referred to are wave-like ripples in the space-time fabric of the universe triggered by major events in the universe, such as the collision of two black holes in 2015.

But so far, no gravitational waves have been found related to the explosive inflationary period of expansion of the universe within a tiny fraction of the first second of the Big Bang.

Gravitational waves were one of many outcomes of Einstein’s equations for general relativity in 1915-16. However, many physicists, including Einstein, thought any signals generated by such waves – however violent their beginning – would be too faint to be detected.

That was true at the time, but the three laureates, with the help of hundreds of scientists and engineers around the world, built devices that were sensitive and accurate enough to detect gravitational waves.

The whole project took more than 30 years and consistent funding from the U.S. Congress – no easy matter then and more far more challenging in these divided times.

Like so many products of Einstein’s fertile mind (such as black holes and gravitational lensing which made it possible to see stars and even galaxies otherwise hidden from view), it took the efforts of many later scientists to exploit his discoveries, which Einstein didn’t always initially welcome.

My second favourite year was 2020, when the Nobel in chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work on gene editing.

Their work on the molecular systems of bacteria led to development of a relatively simple and highly accurate tool for modifying genes and offers enormous potential for treating many hereditary and acquired diseases in humans.

In the same year, the Nobel in physics was awarded to mathematician and theoretical physicist Roger Penrose for his work building on that of Einstein and others related to black holes.

Physics has always been my favourite Nobel Prize because of the scales on which physics operates – from the level of the universe and even multiverses to subatomic physics and the realization that physics underpins everything else.

Quantum mechanics is at the heart of chemistry and by extension all of biochemistry – and hence life itself.

That perspective and the fact physics has two parents, one theoretical (personified by the likes of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Born) and by experimenters (such as the Curies, Rutherford and Chadwick in the first generation).

Such division persists to this day and was highlighted by last year’s Nobel in physics, which was a successful experimental challenge to Einstein’s much earlier challenge to quantum mechanics based on his notion that “entanglement of two or more particles at a distance” made no sense.

By that he meant a change in the property of one particle in an entangled pair, was instantaneously accompanied by an identical change in other entangled particles, no matter the distance between them.

Einstein may have been wrong on that one but rarely have other physicists thought as deeply as Einstein, and in the end, he may turn out to be correct. Quantum mechanics may not be the whole story and Einstein’s insistence on causality may eventually trump Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.”

That’s a small taste of what’s in store this year. The series gets better each year because the material becomes more familiar and the culture of science a little less opaque. Science is an acquired taste and rewards its pursuers generously.

That’s been my experience and hopefully will be yours.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.

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