For a scientist such as myself, it’s always a fun time of the year to see what gets recognized. Today was the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, which went to Robert Edwards, for developing in vitro fertilization (IVF). This one seems very well deserved to me, though it caught me off guard because it is such applied medicine. If you look at the past winners, you will see that lately they have overwhelmingly gone to more basic science research (for example: discoveries of telomerase, of the viruses that cause HIV and HPV, of gene targeting/knockout mice, and of RNA interference were the last four years of winners.)
Each year ThomsonReuters makes their list of predictions for the scientific prizes, based largely on analyzing paper citations. You can see that they didn’t have Robert Edwards listed, which goes to show that these things are hit and miss (though they got several winners right last year). Their main predictions this year for Medicine were three people involved in discovering stem cells and for turning adult cells into induced pluripotent cells. I’m sure this field will get recognized, but it seems a bit premature to do it now before stem cells have really started to pay off with medical benefits. Absent from their list are the two people I had predicted for the award this year, Craig Venter and Francis Collins. They are the two figures most associated with sequencing the human genome. There is little doubt that this achievement will result in a Nobel, and has already made a huge impact, so I don’t know why they don’t just get it over with already.
Tomorrow’s prize is for Physics, which I know very little about. For chemistry (Wednesday), they predict Pat Brown, a scientist at Stanford who developed DNA microarrays. The postdoc who did a lot of the work in Brown’s lab to develop this technology is currently a professor (on my floor) at my school, and based on things I’ve heard him say it doesn’t seem like a very good choice. Microarrays were very powerful for a time, but they are largely being replaced by so-called “next generation” DNA sequencing technologies. Microarrays allow for the comparison of sequence profiles from two different samples, but directly sequencing samples is a much more powerful way to learn something. This professor I mentioned was once the keynote speaker at a meeting for scientists who primarily use this method. He says he saw a lot of unhappy faces when he called microarrays a “dead technology.” Which makes it seem like a weird choice for the chemistry prize.
I have no idea who will win the Peace Prize on Friday, but let me suggest one potential winner for the Literature Prize on Thursday: the author of Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama.