The Nobel Prize and controversy often go hand in hand. Few, however, would grudge this year’s winners in physics and chemistry whose remarkable insights into the physical and physiological worlds obviously deserve no less than the Nobel. Physicists John Mather and George Smoot have been honoured for their revolutionary research that could help answer some of the greatest questions, such as: what is the universe made of? When did it begin, and how? And where is it headed? Accepted theory has it that the cosmic clock started ticking some 15 billion years ago and engendered the universe with a ‘Big Bang’. Cosmologists believe there will be a ‘Big Crunch’ to end it all as the universe implodes some day under the force of gravity.
The only way to verify these theories is to spot the telltale ‘ripples’ left behind by the early universe as it expanded, engendering star clusters, galaxies and edit writers. Although radio telescopes detected hints of this faint microwave cosmic background radiation, it remained undetectable till 1992, when the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite designed by Mather and Smoot spotted these ripples in the CBR. Thanks to their efforts, cosmology has certainly become more of an exact science.
This year’s Nobel for chemistry recognises the pioneering work of Roger Kornberg on how information stored in genes is copied and transferred to other parts of the cell. While dioxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the blueprint for life, ribonucleic acid (RNA) is the actual builder that decodes the blueprint. Although all cells carry a full set of DNA code, each cell must activate, or express, different genes to do their specialised work. Kornberg apparently figured out how this happens, using X-ray crystallography to ‘photograph’ RNA-polymerase, the molecule used by RNA to read and transcribe the DNA code. This groundbreaking work will help researchers better understand the process of transcription, where even minute flaws could lead to illnesses like cancer.