BY MARIA ISABEL GARCIA:  NOBEL SCIENCE MINDS 2009

MANILA, DECEMBER 10, 2009
(STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - Today, the formal ceremonies of the Nobel Prize take place. Looking at the achievements of the ones awarded for the sciences, I cannot think of anyone of us who is not, in some way, affected by their discoveries and innovations.

For physics, the Nobel goes to breakthroughs that enable you to rely on the transmission of all that data via telephones, the Internet, television, etc. that most of us take for granted. For chemistry, the prestigious award goes to those who painstakingly studied the structure of the lesser-known worker inside each of our cells called the ribosome. And for medicine, the Nobel goes to scientists who have deeply studied the character of that cellular culprit responsible for aging.

Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith share the Physics prize. One-half of the prize goes to Kao “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication,” while the other half is shared by Boyle and Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit — the CCD sensor.” 

When you want to send a love letter complete with animated pink hearts a-glee through the Internet, you have to compose it on a computer which creates it in digital form (which means that every bit of information that make up your love note is a combination of 0s and 1s). Then these combinations are transmitted as light signals (pulses of light sort of like Morse code) through cables where they are once again transmitted as 0s and 1s, hopefully in the same order as when they were sent so that your love letter remains true. The problem is light is a very difficult thing to contain since it goes all over the place. So the trick was to figure out a material that could contain the light without letting it escape because even a weeny tiny bit of light escaping means loss of information.  

Kao was the one who began the search and later on developed the tool that will enable the transmission of data across continents with very little loss in the form of low-loss optical fiber. Fifty years ago, when the world only transmitted by radio signals, we could only transmit a minute fraction of what we could now. Now, we have fiber optic cables that stretch across the deep waters of oceans that carry a stupendous amount of data that you send and receive through phone lines, the Internet and television faster by a factor of a million compared to those times.

The other half of the Physics prize shared by Boyle and Smith is for the invention of the device that put the photographic film in the realm of nostalgia. They invented the CCD (charge-coupled device) which is a semiconducting device that detects and records images in electronic form. It is sort of like the compound eye of a dragonfly or a moth in that it is made up of a matrix of multiple light-sensitive small cells, or pixels, arranged horizontally in rows and vertically in columns. When light strikes the cells, it is converted into electrons and stored. By reading the intensity of light in each of the pixels, the image could be reconstructed. We owe Boyle and Smith because their invention is found in all digital cameras, scanners, medical devices, satellite surveillance and in instrumentation for astronomy and astrophysics.

For chemistry, the Nobel goes to scientists who did such complex work on a bunch of microscopic bundles called the ribosome. They are Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath.

We all know DNA but we hardly hear about ribosome but without ribosome, DNA will just remain a bunch of unintelligible gibberish. For DNA (genes) to do their role, they have to be “translated” to RNA and the decoder that does this is called mRNA. Now for RNA to be “translated” into the proteins that are the potent molecular forms that are responsible for our body parts and functions, the indispensible decoder is the ribosome. Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath did fundamental research on the very structure and function of ribosome, taking pictures of it through crystallography to know how it turns RNA codes (which came from DNA) to proteins. Knowing this gives us a much deeper understanding into our biological life in its forms, functions and diseases.

For medicine, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize to scientists who figured out how those pairs that we inherited from our parents (chromosomes) are protected by an enzyme. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column entitled “How Long is your Tail?” which tried to explain how the tails of your chromosomes called “telomeres” correspond to how fast you age (not in years but in its manifestation of diseases associated with aging). Drs. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Jack W. Szostak and Carol W. Greider were recognized for their discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Telomerase is a double-edged sword of an enzyme — it maintains the length of your “tails” to keep you from aging but it also could spur the unbridled cell division that cancer is. Understanding telomeres therefore is fundamental in the development of cancer therapies.

From your cells that hold you together in living and aging, to how your digital cameras work to the optical fibers through which you send those images, the science that holds them were brought to you by the Nobel Science Minds of 2009.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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