This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week – we tell about the Nobel Prizes. We also
tell about the winners of the 2006 prizes in chemistry, physics and
The Nobel Prizes are presented each year on December 10. The Peace Prize is
given in Oslo, Norway. The others are given in Stockholm, Sweden.
December tenth is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel. He died in
1896. The Swedish engineer held legal rights to more than three hundred
inventions. One is for the explosive dynamite.
Alfred Nobel left nine million dollars to establish yearly prizes in his
name. He said they should go to living people who have worked most effectively
to improve human life. He said the physics and chemistry prizes should be given
by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. He asked the Karolinska Institute in
Stockholm to present the medical prizes.
The first Nobel prizes were presented in 1901. Each award includes a gold
medal and ten million Swedish kronor. Today, that is worth more
than 1300,000 dollars. The money is shared if more than one person wins a
prize. However, a prize may not be divided among more than three persons.
Scientific groups in Sweden choose the winners from among those nominated by
past winners and specially chosen university professors. How the choices are
made is a secret among the committee members. The names of those nominated are
not made public for fifty years.
The Karolinska Institute this year chose two Americans to share the Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Craig Mello is a professor at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts. Andrew Fire is a
professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto,
The scientists did their prize-winning work in the 1990s for the Carnegie
Institution of Washington, D.C. At the time, the two men worked at laboratories
in Baltimore, Maryland. They performed experiments with very small worms. They
found they could control genes in the creatures with injections of specially
designed ribonucleic acid, or RNA.
All living cells need molecules of RNA and another chemical, called
deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. DNA makes copies of itself for new cells. RNA
makes other chemicals necessary for these cells.
The RNA used in the experiments needed to possess two lists of genetic
orders, or strands. The scientists found that this double-stranded RNA stopped
the action of targeted genes within cells more effectively than other methods.
This discovery of the way cells control individual genes is known as RNA
interference, or RNAi.
The discovery was made just eight years ago. That is considered very recent
for a Nobel Prize. But scientists say the Nobel Committee probably recognized
the work so quickly because it changed the science of genetics. They say
Professors Fire and Mello opened up a whole new area of research.
Later experiments showed that RNAi is present in cells of nearly all
organisms. Scientists have begun working on ways to use it to get cells to
control genes responsible for causing diseases. The discovery already is being
used to develop possible treatments for diseases such as macular degeneration
Two Americans are the winners of the 2006 Nobel Prize for physics. John
Mather and George Smoot won for producing what scientists say is the strongest
evidence yet that the universe began with a great explosion. The two men are
being honored for their work with the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, or
The American space agency launched the satellite into Earth's orbit in 1989.
An instrument on COBE was designed to receive energy waves from the first big
explosion, also known as the Big Bang. It measured the temperature of the energy
waves. The measurements confirmed the main idea of the Big Bang theory -- that
the explosion created a huge number of microwaves that have continued to expand
John Mather is an unusual Nobel Prize winner because he works for the United
States government. He is a top scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, NASA. He was the main investigator in developing the COBE
satellite. George Smoot works at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley,
California. He led the team that studied the information provided by the
Mr. Mather explained their work by calling it an attempt to solve the mystery
of the beginning of the universe. He said COBE found small amounts of the
earliest moment of time. Scientists have used the findings to estimate the age
of the universe as more than 13 thousand million years old.
The chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee for Physics said the two Americans
did not prove the Big Bang theory, but gave it very strong support. Per Carlson
called their work one of the greatest discoveries of the century. He said it
increases our knowledge of our place in the universe.
Still another American won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Roger Kornberg
is being honored for his work in genetic research. The Nobel Prize committee
said he showed how information in the nucleus of genes is copied and moved to
other parts of a cell. The committee said he was the first to show pictures of
this process taking place.
The process involves copying information from a cell's DNA into what is
called messenger RNA. The messenger RNA then moves the information from the
nucleus to other areas of the cell where it builds proteins that control cell
Scientists say this "transcription" is what keeps living things alive. Any
interference causes cancer, heart disease or other disorders.
Roger Kornberg told the New York Times newspaper that his work has influenced
the development of drugs and treatments for medical conditions. He said
understanding transcription is central to research into using stem cells to cure
diseases like diabetes.
Professor Kornberg works at Stanford University School of Medicine in
California. Reports say he is the sixth Nobel Prize winner to have a father who
also won a Nobel. Arthur Kornberg shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959,
also for work in genetics. He and Severo Ochoa were honored for discovering how
cells produce DNA.
Roger Kornberg said he clearly remembers visiting Stockholm when he was
twelve years old to see his father receive the Nobel Prize. And he expressed
happiness that he can take his family there for the ceremonies this year.
It must be noted that Americans won all the scientific Nobel Prizes this
year. An Associated News report says Nobel officials were not surprised. The
permanent secretary for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences reportedly said
the United States is leading Europe in scientific research. Gunnar Oquist also
said European governments are not providing scientists with the money they need
to carry out good research.
Other Nobel Prize committee members said money to pay for research is
extremely important to producing good scientific work. Anders Liljas is a member
of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. He reportedly said American universities
often have more creative environments than those in other countries. He said
American scientists talk to each other a lot instead of working separately.
This is not the first time that Americans have won the Nobel Prizes in
medicine, physics and chemistry all in the same year.
In 1983, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and William Fowler shared the physics
prize for increasing the understanding of the universe. Henry Taube won the
chemistry prize for work on electron transfer reactions. And, Barbara McClintock
won the medicine prize for discoveries in genetics.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach. Brianna Blake was our
producer. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special
English on the Voice of America.