GLOBAL: Nobel prizes for science and economics

Seven distinguished scientists have received Nobel prizes for science this year although one of them, Canadian Professor Ralph M Steinman (pictured), died of pancreatic cancer three days before the news reached him. It is the first time a Nobel prize has been awarded posthumously, although this is against the Nobel Foundation's statutes. On Monday the economic sciences prize in memory of Alfred Nobel went to two US macro-economists.

Australian National University astrophysicist Professor Brian Schmidt and his one-time Harvard classmate, Professor Adam Riess from the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, along with Professor Saul Perlmutter from the University of California at Berkeley, won this year's Nobel prize for physics by discovering that the expansion of the universe was accelerating and not slowing down.

The prize for chemistry went to Dr Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasicrystals. The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was divided, with one half awarded jointly to professors Bruce A Beutler and Jules A Hoffmann for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity, and the other half to Steinman for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.

Astrophysicist Schmidt was leading a supernova research team 13 years ago and with his collaborators used the brightness of supernovae, the most distant exploding stars, to measure the vast distances of interstellar space.

Looking back to the universe's early times, they reported that instead of continuing to expand as a result of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago while slowing down under the force of gravity exerted by the millions of galaxies, these great conglomerations of stars were actually speeding further apart. That is, the universe was expanding faster.

The report was greeted with outright scepticism among many astronomers, but as the Australia-US team continued to study the far-off exploding stars, the conclusion of an accelerating expansion driven by a mysterious force called 'dark energy' appeared stronger. Today, while the search for the secret of dark energy continues, the finding is accepted by the astronomical community as one of the most remarkable discoveries in astrophysics.

Winner of the chemistry prize, Dan Shechtman, is the Philip Tobias professor of materials science at the Technion - Israel's Institute of Technology - and a professor of materials science at Iowa State University.

Between 1981 and 1983 he was on sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University where he studied rapidly solidified aluminum transition metal alloys and discovered the Icosahedral Phase, which opened the new field of quasiperiodic crystals.

Shechtman endured several years of hostility toward his non-periodic interpretation, including from Linus Pauling who said he was "talking nonsense - there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists", before others began to confirm and accept the discovery.

Through Shechtman's findings, several other groups were able to form similar quasicrystals and found the materials to have low thermal and electrical conductivity while possessing high structural stability. Quasicrystalline materials could be used in a large number of applications, including the formation of durable steel used for fine instrumentation, and non-stick insulation for electrical wires and cooking equipment.

The Nobel prize for physiology or medicine was shared between American Bruce A Beutler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre and the Scripps Research Institute in California; Luxembourg-born Jules A Hoffman who worked at research institutes in France; and Canadian Ralph M Steinman who was affiliated with Rockefeller University, New York.

Commenting on the prize, the Nobel Assembly said of Beutler, Hoffmann and Steinman that "this year's Nobel Laureates have revolutionised our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation".

"Scientists have long been searching for the gatekeepers of the immune response by which humans and other animals defend themselves against attack by bacteria and other microorganisms," the assembly said.

"Beutler and Hoffmann discovered receptor proteins that can recognise such micro-organisms and activate innate immunity, the first step in the body's immune response. Steinman discovered the dendritic cells of the immune system and their unique capacity to activate and regulate adaptive immunity, the later stage of the immune response during which microorganisms are cleared from the body.

"The discoveries of the three Nobel Laureates have revealed how the innate and adaptive phases of the immune response are activated and thereby provided novel insights into disease mechanisms. Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases."

On Monday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Sveriges Riksbank prize in economic sciences, in memory of Alfred Nobel, to Thomas J Sargent of New York University and Christopher A Sims of Princeton University "for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macro-economy".

The academy said that although Sargent and Sims conducted their research independently, their contributions were complementary. "The laureates' seminal work during the 1970s and 1980s has been adopted by both researchers and policy-makers throughout the world. Today, the methods developed by Sargent and Sims are essential tools in macro-economic analysis."

Sims said that his research could help countries decide how to respond to the economic stagnation and decimated budgets left by the financial crisis, according to The New York Times. "The methods that I've used and that Tom [Sargent] has developed are central for finding our way out of this mess," he said.

* Last Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard presented the Prime Minister's Prize for Science to Professors Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon from the the University of Melbourne.

The A$300,000 (US$298,000) prize recognises their work in reinventing polymer science by devising a means of custom building plastics and other polymers for plastic solar cells, drug delivery, paints, adhesives, lubricants and everything in between.

Their discoveries are employed in the laboratories and factories of DuPont, L'Oréal, IBM, 3M, Dulux and more than 60 other companies while their work has been cited more than 12,000 times in the scientific literature and is integral to more than 500 patents.