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The 2008 harvest

Scientific prizes are divided by researchers from the United States, France, Germany and Japan

Aequorea victoria: fluorescent protein

Osamu ShimomuraAequorea victoria: fluorescent proteinOsamu Shimomura

The 2008 Nobel prize-giving was marked by two peculiarities: the bookmakers’ favorites were ignored and there was a relative balance between the scientific powers, with prizes being awarded to scientists from France, the United States, Germany and Japan. The Americans had their best performance in the Chemistry prize. Osamu Shimomura, 80, from the University of Boston, Martin Chalfie, 61, from Colombia University and Roger Tsien, 56, from the University of California in San Diego, were awarded for their discovery and for studies carried out into the use of the green fluorescent protein. Also known by its acronym of GFP, the protein was observed for the first time in 1962 by Shimomura in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish that are found in North America. With the help of the GFP, researchers developed techniques for observing processes that previously could not be seen, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or cancer that spreads through the body.

Yoichiro Nambu: symmetry in physics

LLOYD DEGRANEYoichiro Nambu: symmetry in physicsLLOYD DEGRANE

The Physics prize was given to two Japanese scientists, Makoto Kobayashi, 64, from the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Toshihide Maskawa, 68, from the University of Kyoto and an American-naturalized Japanese scientist, Yoichiro Nambu, 87, from the University of Chicago, who are responsible for contributions in the area of particle physics. Nambu described the breakdown in symmetry in subatomic physics while Kobayashi and Maskawa helped explain how the violation of a type of symmetry occurs. The prize for Medicine or Physiology went to two French men who discovered the Aids virus and a German who was responsible for identifying the virus that causes cervical cancer (read the report).

Martti Ahtisaari: peace in Kosovo

HelkamaMartti Ahtisaari: peace in KosovoHelkama

The strength of the United States in Nobel prizes was placed in doubt before the disclosure of the harvest of prizes, thanks to a controversy about the Nobel Prize for Literature, sparked off by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Days before the announcement of the prize, Engdahl told the Associated Press agency that there was a lack of consistency in the United States when it came to challenging Europe as the center of the literary world. “The United States is very isolated and insular. It doesn’t translate enough and in fact doesn’t take part in the great literature dialogue. This ignorance is very limiting”, he stated. The National Book Foundation, which elects the best of American literature in its National Book Award, replied to Engdahl: “We’re going to send you a reading list”. David Remnick, director of the New Yorker, took the opportunity of reminding him that the Swedish Academy had not given prizes to Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.

Le Clézio: more than 40 books

J.Sassier-GallimardLe Clézio: more than 40 booksJ.Sassier-Gallimard

Family history
The winner was Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, 68, a popular writer in his country and reasonably well known outside it. He is the author of an extensive bibliography, with more than 40 books, according to the Nobel Committee. His big breakthrough came with Désert (1980). Recently the writer’s works have dealt with his family history, such as La Qurantine (1995) and L’Africain (2004), published in Brazil. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, 71, who has operated on various continents to solve international conflicts, as in Kosovo in 1999 and Indonesia in 2005-2007.

Paul Krugman: globalization

Denise Applewhite/Princeton UniversityPaul Krugman: globalizationDenise Applewhite/Princeton University

Paul Krugman, 55, a professor of economics from Princeton University and a columnist of The New York Times, won the Nobel Prize for Economics. “Trade and regionalization patterns were always fundamental subjects in economic debate. What are the effects of free trade and globalization? What are the forces behind worldwide urbanization? Paul Krugman formulated a new theory to respond to these questions”, highlighted the Nobel Committee. Krugman is a critic of the administration of American president, George W. Bush, to whom he attributed responsibility for the current global financial crisis, circumstances that might have been decisive in the choice of the Nobel Prize in Economics in the midst of the greatest crisis in capitalism since 1929.

Archaeologist Astolfo Araújo: pieces all shuffled together

personal archiveArchaeologist Astolfo Araújo: pieces all shuffled togetherpersonal archive

Our first Ig Nobel
Study of archaeologist from USP on the impact of armadillos in excavations takes the prize that “first makes you laugh then makes you think”

Two Brazilian researchers have won the Archaeology category of the Ig Nobel 2008, a prize that is famous for recognizing research that “first makes you laugh then makes you think”, as the organizer of the award, the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, proposes. The study published in 2003 by archaeologists Astolfo Mello Araújo, a professor from the University of São Paulo (USP), and José Carlos Marcelino, from the Department of Historical Heritage of the Municipality of São Paulo, showed that armadillos that are skilled at excavating ground can mix up archaeological fragments and disturb the work of researchers.

Astolfo and Marcelino’s study shows that armadillos manage to mix up layers separated by as much as 20 centimeters. “If one of these layers separates 2000 years of history we can find a fragment from a Roman sword mixed up with a cell phone battery by the action of the armadillos”, says Astolfo. The archaeologists buried fragments of items painted in different colors in superimposed layers in a region inhabited by armadillos. Some time later they went to assess what had happened to them. “It’s no surprise that armadillos do this but no one had measured the impact of this action before”, said Astolfo.

Published in the periodical, Geoarchaeology: An International Journal,, the study attracted the attention of the organizers of the Ig Nobel prizes, who sent Astolfo questions on the study. “When I discovered that I was dealing with the Ig Nobel, I had mixed emotions. But later when I found out about the nature of the prize I calmed down”, says Astolfo, who gave his backing to the prize. “They only evaluate research published in serious magazines, with peer-assessment. If a piece of Brazilian research is being read at Harvard, even if it’s because there is something picturesque related to it, I think there’s reason to celebrate”, he says. The archaeologist became a lecturer at USP’s School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, also known as East USP in 2007 when he was 43. But he is transferring to the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at USP after passing a civil service admission exam.