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Knowledge in our daily lives

Among the 2007 prize winners there is research of great practical application

Some of the scientific discoveries honored with a Nobel Prize in 2007 superseded pure academic interest and seem to hold substantial appeal for the general public. Frenchman Albert Fert and German Peter Grünberg won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of giant magnetoresistance. This technology has made it possible to achieve radical miniaturization of hard disks over the last few years, which has helped popularize microcomputers. Fert, 69, is the director of the Mixed Physics Unit of France’s National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS). Grünberg, 68, is a professor from the Jülich Research Center in Germany. Mário Baibich, a professor from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (read the report on the next page) collaborated on the work done in Fert’s laboratory.

Geneticists Mario Capecchi, from the University of Utah, Oliver Smithies from the University of North Carolina and Englishman Martin J. Evans, from the University of Cardiff, won the Medicine or Physiology Prize. Their work led to the creation of a genetic knockout technique that makes it possible to deactivate or modify specific genes in mice, allowing for identification of how they cause disease. In developing the technique, the Nobel prize winners introduced genetic modification into the embryonic stem cells of mice. The cells were injected into embryos and when the animals were born they were crossed with others in such a way as to produce offspring with altered genes.

Gerhard Ertl, a professor from the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Germany, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. According to the prize organizers, Ertl was chosen for “his studies into the chemical processes of solid surfaces”. The chemistry of surfaces has helped us to understand a wide range of phenomena, from how iron rusts to the destruction of the ozone layer, and was fundamental in the development of systems such as fuel cells or vehicle catalysts.

Erik Maskin, Leonid Hurwicz and Roger Myerson, all from the U.S., won the Nobel Prize for Economics. They are the creators of the theory of mechanism design that has “helped economists identify efficient trading mechanisms, regulation schemes and voting procedures”, as the prize committee highlighted. Hurwicz, 90, was born in Moscow and is a professor at the University of Minnesota. Maskin, 56, is a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University. Myerson, 56, is a professor at the University of Chicago.

Writer Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature and, at the age of 87, became the oldest person ever to receive the prize in this category. The Academy highlighted the epic character of  female experience described by the author, who “with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny”. Doris Lessing is the author of dozens of books, including The Golden Notebook (1962), The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), Shikasta (1979), The Sweetest Dream (2001), Under My Skin (an autobiographical work from 1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). She was born in Kermanshah, which was then in Persia and is now in Iran, and at the age of six went to live on a farm in Africa. In 1949 she moved to London where she established herself as a writer.

2007 Ig Nobel winners
The Ig Nobel prizes recognize research that “first make people laugh and then make them think”, in accordance with the award organizer, the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. This year the highlight in the ten categories was the winner of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize: research by the North American Air Force research laboratory to develop a gay bomb, a chemical weapon that would cause enemy soldiers to adopt homosexual behavior. In the linguistics category the winner was a team from the University of Barcelona for showing that rats could recognize the rhythmic differences between Dutch and Japanese sentences, but not if the words were replayed to them backwards. In the nutrition category the winner was Brian Wansink, from Cornell University; he assessed the appetite limits of volunteers when faced with a plate that was never empty. Among other winners were the use of impotence drugs for fighting jet-lag in rodents and the extraction of vanilla from cow dung.