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Nobel Prizes’ acclaim of basic science

 If you use glasses or contacts, you probably remember the context or even incident that made you aware of your vision defect. For me it was having to sit in the front rows in secondary school classrooms to see the same things that my peers could see clearly from the back rows.

I got corrective lenses about a year or so after secondary school. I still vividly recall how different the world looked, how much sharper objects were and how farther down a street in Port Harcourt I could see. For the next several decades, I wouldn’t leave home without my glasses.

Nearly two years ago, however, I stopped being so dependent on them, thanks to Lasik surgery. It wasn’t out of vanity. I had actually become used to wearing glasses and people around me had become used to seeing me wearing them. I had the surgery to deal with creeping cataract problems. Yet in the process my vision was restored to what it was before my secondary school days.

I am just learning now that it is all thanks to basic research done by Albert Einstein early in the 20th century. At the time he was doing the research he didn’t have eye surgeries in mind. He was studying the properties of lasers with the goal of making them more precise. It was part of his broad studies of quantum physics.

Yet, here I am — like millions of other people — seeing much better than I have since my early teenage years. And the surgery was quick and painless, with no recovery time other than the period it took for the anesthesia to wear off. It is all thanks to Einstein’s basic research dating back to 1917.

Einstein’s paper on the quantum theory of radiation ultimately led to another paper in 1985 that demonstrated how the intense rays called lasers can be used for everything from eye surgery to gene modification. In 2018, the authors of the paper received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

One of them, Arthur Ashkin, was 96 years old. Even then, he was still conducting research — on solar energy — from his home in New Jersey. Research had gone from a career to a hobby. “I tell my wife that’s the only thing I’m really good at,” the Associated Press quotes him as saying.

This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics goes to researchers on black holes. You’ve certainly heard of the Bermuda Triangle of deep space, where stars and other bodies that venture too close get gobbled up in a flash. The Nobel Committee commended the researchers for enhancing our understanding of the universe.

To most of us, however, that sounds exotic. But then so did Einstein’s research on the quantum theory of radiation. But after my Lasik surgery, nothing could be more practical and tangible. The practical values of the research that received the 2020 Nobel awards in medicine and chemistry bear no such explanation. The award in medicine (or physiology) went to researchers who identified and paved the way for the treatment of Hepatitis C. It is the blood disorder that over time damages the liver and causes various other inflammations.

The viruses that cause Hepatitis A and B had for long been isolated and treated. But there remained the mystery of continued hepatitis afflictions that A and B could not account for. For lack of a more precise term, medical researchers labeled the condition “chronic hepatitis.”

But they didn’t give up on trying to find its cause. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a team of researchers was able to isolate the virus. The discovery, the Nobel Award states, “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.” And so, the researchers—Dr. Harvey J. Alter of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta and Charles M. Rice of Rockefeller University—received the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year.

The Nobel in Chemistry goes to two women whose collaboration resulted from a chance meeting in 2011 at a cafĂ© in Puerto Rico while attending a conference. They could have made do with chatting about the weather or San Juan’s gorgeous beaches. Instead the two biologists soon found out that they had a common interest in research on gene splicing. Like black holes and laser surgery, gene splicing also sounds exotic. Yet, within a year, the two published a groundbreaking research paper on Crispr-Cas9. Call it genetic scissors.

It is a discovery that has opened up unlimited possibilities for the cure of afflictions through gene therapy. It enables the alteration of genes that cause a wide range of afflictions, from cancer to sickle cell. For that, the two women—Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley— were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year.

These recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences have one thing in common: they are not people who hanker for instant glory or gratification. Actually, they do hanker for instant gratification, but only to the extent that they find intrinsic pleasure in the tedium of research. That is a good thing because the acclaim and considerable cash rewards of the Nobel Prize eludes a vast majority of great researchers, Einstein being one. The invaluable reward is the intrinsic gratification.

Few people earn the Nobel in the sciences before their 40s. Charpentier (51) and Doudna (56) are among the younger recipients. More typical is Donna Strickland (61), the co-winner with Dr. Ashkin of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. At 96, Ashkin is in the higher end.

At this time, scientists young and old are toiling on discovering the cure for or vaccinations against coronavirus. And their effort is relying on the basic research of years past. An Associated Press analyst summed it up quite succinctly in a preview of this year’s Nobel Prize announcements.

“While the world wants flashy quick fixes for everything, especially massive threats like the coronavirus and global warming, next week’s Nobel Prizes remind us that in science, slow and steady pays off.”  Yes, indeed.

Bibiyobra: Sunday, 11 October 2020 at 10/11/2020 10:43:00 am


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