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Nobel Prizes 2011: The Winners

Nobel Prizes 2011: The Winners main image

The winners of the 2011 Nobel Prizes have been announced – find out which academics, artists and activists have been recognized this year.

Since the inaugural ceremony in 1901, the various Nobel Prizes – awarded in Physiology/Medicine, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and, since 1968, in Economics Sciences – have served as a litmus test of excellence in the disciplines in which they are awarded.

They act as an indication of where some of the most groundbreaking work is occurring in the scientific fields, while the prizes for literature, economics and peace honor the long-term contributions of individuals to fields in which praise can so rarely be so succinctly and concretely recognized.

The winners are each selected by expert bodies, based for the most part in Sweden, homeland of the founder of the awards, Alfred Nobel.

The winner of the Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which is decided by a committee of faculty members at Karolinska Institute (a medical university based in Stockholm), is the first to be announced.

This year, the committee chose to split the award between three winners, with immunity seemingly serving as the overarching theme. One half went to Bruce A. Beutler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre and Jules A. Hoffman of the French the National Centre of Scientific Research “for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity".

The other half went to Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University, New York "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity". Sadly Steinman died three days before the award, of pancreatic cancer, which his prize winning research will help to treat in the future.

The award normally can only go to the living, but in this case the committee decided he should still receive the award posthumously.

The Nobel Prize in Physics, the first mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will (in which he laid out his plans for the awards) is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It was also split three ways, with half going to Saul Perlmutter of Berkeley, and half split between Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University and Adam G. Riess of John Hopkins, "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae".

Also awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Alfred Nobel’s own discipline. In this case the award was taken by a single winner, Dan Shechtman, of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, "for the discovery of quasicrystals", which has apparently had a massive impact on the field of crystallography.

If the nature of prize-winning work has gone over your head somewhat, then perhaps you’ll find the Nobel Prize for Literature a bit more comprehensible. Previous winners of the award have included William Faulkner, Albert Camus, and Seamus Heaney.

Joining this illustrious company this year is Swedish poet Tomas Transtömer, who has been earmarked for success for several years. The award was given to Transtömer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality".

The literature awarde always attracts a lot of attention, but it's the Nobel Peace Prize that really captures the world’s imagination. This is awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

This year the award was split equally between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, all three of them campaigners for women’s rights in Liberia (the former pair) and Yemen (the latter).

Sirleaf is Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Gbowee was instrumental in mobilizing women in efforts to end Liberia’s long civil war (1989-1996, and again from 1999-2003), and Karman has long been the face of the struggle for women’s rights in Yemen. The Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of five people chosen from and by the Norwegian Storting (parliament).

The final prize to be announced is the Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. This year the award was taken by Thomas J. Sargent of NYU, and Christopher A. Sims of Princeton, "for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy", which explores the impact of various economic policies.

A week prior to the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners, the winners of the slightly illustrious Ig Nobel Prizes, the intention of which are to make people laugh, and then to think, were also announced. Though the research involved often seems ridiculous, it sometimes leads to invaluable findings later along the line…though certainly not always.

This year the Physiology Prize was awarded for research that showed that there is no evidence of contagious yawning in red-footed tortoises; the Chemistry for a fire alarm for the deaf which wakes them with airborne wasabi; the Medicine for research showing that sometimes people made better decisions when they needed to urinate – and sometimes not; the Psychology for an explanation of why people sigh; the Literature for an article about how to achieve while procrastinating; the Physics for a study of dizziness in discus throwers; the Mathematics for various predictions of doomsday (as a demonstration of folly); the Peace for showing that the problem of illegally parked cars could be solved by running them over with a tank; and the Public Safety for a series of experiments in which a car was driven on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flapped over the driver’s face.

QS Staff Writer's profile image
Written by QS Staff Writer

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