2020 Nobel Prizes

The Nobel Prizes are awarded every October, recognizing outstanding contributions to humanity in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology or medicine; there’s also a prize in economic sciences. Here’s a round-up of this year’s winners in the sciences and some of their Annual Reviews papers.

This year’s prize in physiology or medicine was awarded jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus, which causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world. For a deep dive into the research, see: “Turning Hepatitis C into a Real Virus” in the Annual Review of Microbiology; “Interferon-Stimulated Genes: A Complex Web of Host Defenses” in the Annual Review of Immunology; and “New Methods in Tissue Engineering: Improved Models for Viral Infection” in the Annual Review of Virology.

The chemistry prize was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the discovery and development of the genetic scissors called CRISPR-Cas9, which allow researchers to precisely alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms. For more of their research, see some of Dr. Doudna’s papers in the Annual Review of Biophysics: “CRISPR-Cas9 Structures and Mechanisms” and “Molecular Mechanisms of RNA Interference.”

This year’s prize in physics was awarded for work on black holes. Half of the award went to Roger Penrose for demonstrating that black holes were mathematically possible, and the other half was jointly awarded to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their discovery of a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. To dive into the research, see “The Evolution of the Star-Forming Interstellar Medium Across Cosmic Time” and “Extragalactic Results from the Infrared Space Observatory” in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The 2020 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, both of Stanford University, for their work on how auctions work, as well as their development of new types of auctions that have maximized revenue for sellers while saving buyer and taxpayer money. For more on their research, read Dr. Milgrom’s 2019 article “Auction Market Design: Recent Innovations” in the Annual Review of Economics.

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Photographing a Black Hole

Using the EHT, scientists obtained an image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

A team of astronomers published the first photograph of a black hole. The “monster,” as they’ve called it, is 40 million kilometers across (about 3 million times the size of Earth), located at the center of a galaxy known as Messier 87, about 500 million trillion kilometers away.

The image was captured by a network of eight telescopes named Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), and assembled with an algorithm developed by young computer scientist Katie Bouman.

Dr. Eliot Quataert is the Director of the Theoretical Astrophysics Center at UC Berkeley and an Editorial Committee Member of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophyics. His research focuses in part on black holes and galaxy formation. He spoke to Annual Reviews about this breakthrough.

What do you make of this announcement?

This is an incredibly exciting result. I was expecting something good but was even more amazed and impressed by the results than I had expected to be. It really is a testament to the hard work of hundreds of people over decades that we have been able to take this first real picture of what it looks like close to a black hole.

What new paths for research do you expect this will open?

The observations will continue to get better as the technology improves and new telescopes are added across the Earth, and maybe even in space. This will enable even better pictures of what the gas looks like close to a black hole. Over time, I think this will allow us to develop a better understanding of what is happening not only near the black holes that EHT can observe, but of all black holes across the Universe. This will impact a huge range of problems in astrophysics, from our understanding of how galaxies form and are affected by black holes to our understanding of the warped strong gravity very close to the event horizon of a black hole.

What articles can you recommend for readers who want to learn more about black hole research?

An older one, but famous, is “Black Hole Models for Active Galactic Nuclei,” by Martin J. Rees, in the 1984 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Two recent ones on the role of black holes in galaxy formation are “The Coevolution of Galaxies and Supermassive Black Holes: Insights from Surveys of the Contemporary Universe,” by Timothy Heckman and Philip Best, and “Coevolution (Or Not) of Supermassive Black Holes and Host Galaxies,” by John Kormendy and Luis Ho, respectively in the 2014 and the 2013 volumes of the same journal.

We’ve made all three of these articles freely available for 30 days.

Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics Co-Editor Ewine van Dishoeck Wins Kavli Prize, NAS Medal

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.13.24.pngCongratulations to Ewine van Dishoeck, of Leiden University, who won the 2018 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and the National Academy of Science James Craig Watson Medal.

The Co-Editor of the Annual Review of Astrophysics received the Kavli Prize “for her combined contributions to observational, theoretical, and laboratory astrochemistry, elucidating the life cycle of interstellar clouds and the formation of stars and planets.”

The James Craig Watson Medal was awarded to her “for improving our understanding of how molecules, stars, and planets form.”

Dr. van Dishoeck has co-edited the journal with Sandra Faber since 2010. You can find her articles about planet, star, and molecule formation here.

Vera Rubin, Who Proved Dark Matter’s Existence, Dies

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-13-54-41Dr. Rubin stood as a constant reminder of the sexism that is still such a problem in many scientific fields. There were petitions and protests and demands that she be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her discoveries, and now she never will be.

This is how the autobiographical article she wrote for the 2011 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics begins:

My life has been an interesting voyage. I became an astronomer because I could not imagine living on Earth and not trying to understand how the Universe works. My scientific career has revolved around observing the motions of stars within galaxies and the motions of galaxies within the Universe. In 1965, if you were very lucky and interested in using telescopes, you could walk into a research laboratory that was building instruments that reduced exposure times by a factor of 10 and end up making remarkable discoveries. Women generally required more luck and perseverance than men did.

The full text is available for free:

MIT Astrophysicist Sara Seager Profiled in NYTimes

Sara Seager, astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and contributing author of the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, was interviewed in The New York Times Magazine of Dec. 7, 2016.aa480631-f16

Dr. Seager’s work has taken her to seek exoplanets—planets that orbit stars outside our own solar system—and, more specifically, exoplanets that would share characteristics with Earth. A rocky planet that would be far enough from its star that its water would be liquid and life on it possible.

Her research allowed for the discovery of the first exoplanet atmosphere. Using light, she is able to identify the elements and gases that exist in these atmospheres. The ultimate goal, she says, is to determine whether we are alone in the universe.

Read Dr. Seager’s article for the 2010 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics:

Seven Annual Reviews Authors Win Breakthrough Prizes

The 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to Kip S. Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), and Rainer Weiss, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They lead the LIGO Project with CalTech’s Ronald W.P. Drever, also a recipient of the prize, and they share this honor with the other 1012 who were part of this research. Together they were the first to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein.

Find Dr. Thorne’s article in the 1972 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics:

Find Dr. Weiss’ article in the 1980 Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics:

Five Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences were awarded in 2017, to the following laureates:

Stephen Elledge, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “for elucidating how eukaryotic cells sense and respond to damage in their DNA and providing insights into the development and treatment of cancer.”

Dr. Elledge is scheduled to write an article for the 2017 Annual Review of Cancer Biology.

Harry F. Noller, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, “for discovering the centrality of RNA in forming the active centers of the ribosome, the fundamental machinery of protein synthesis in all cells, thereby connecting modern biology to the origin of life and also explaining how many natural antibiotics disrupt protein synthesis.”

Find Dr. Noller’s articles in the Annual Review of Biochemistry:

Roeland Nusse, of Stanford University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “for pioneering research on the Wnt pathway, one of the crucial intercellular signaling systems in development, cancer and stem cell biology.”

Find Dr. Nusse’s articles in the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology:

• Yoshinori Ohsumi, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, “for elucidating autophagy, the recycling system that cells use to generate nutrients from their own inessential or damaged components.” This comes two months after Dr. Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Find Dr. Ohsumi’s articles in the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology:

Huda Y. Zoghbi, of the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “for discoveries of the genetic causes and biochemical mechanisms of spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome, findings that have provided insight into the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative and neurological diseases.”

Find Dr. Zoghby’s articles in the Annual Review of Neuroscience, the Annual Review of Physiology, and the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics: