The 2020 Nobel Prizes in Physics & Chemistry

The annual Nobel prizes celebrate, in part, the very best of the latest research and discoveries in physics and chemistry. With previous winners, including household names Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, there is no doubt about the prestige which comes with winning such an award. This year saw 5 laureates across the two fields, with three winning the physics prize and two claiming the chemistry one.

Roger PenroseReinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez were this year’s winners in physics. Penrose claimed half the prize for his discovery that the formation of black holes is a “robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”. Genzel and Ghez split the remaining half for their discovery of a “supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” It also worthy of mention that Ghez is the fourth woman to have won this award.

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Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez

Bringing Einstein’s Theories to Life

Einstein himself, the man whose theories of relativity Roger Penrose worked on, did not believe in the existence of black holes. However, a decade after Einstein’s death Penrose was able to show that black holes can indeed form and even described their properties. For many years, solutions to Einstein’s theory were considered to be speculative, but Penrose was the first to find a realistic one.

It is not possible to see into a black hole. But one can still discover its properties, by studying the huge gravity and how it effects surrounding stars. Since the 1990s both Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez were leading a team of astronomers. Their focus? An area in the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. Using stars and their orbits to guide them, the two uncovered an invisible, astoundingly heavy and condensed mass that is making these stars swing around rapidly. This is the most persuasive evidence that such an object exists. It’s the one solution to what the object could be is indeed a supermassive black hole. Both teams developed and built special equipment in order to pierce through all the cosmic dust and see the centre of the Milky Way.

It’s all relative…

While these advances have proved very important in understanding our universe, there is still a way to go. Despite Penrose revealing that the general theory of relativity proves the existence of black holes, the theory does not hold when considering an ‘infinitely strong gravity of singularity’. Genzel and Ghez’s work will now greatly aid in the future understanding of more strange predictions of the general theory of relativity.

New Ways of Doing Science

The two winners of chemistry were Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. They made history by being the first two women to win the prize together for their revolutionary new method in genome editing. This discovery is said to be one of the ‘sharpest tools’ in gene technology’s toolbox and is called the CRISPR or Cas9 genetic scissors.

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Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier

What does this new method mean for science? Gene functions can now be studied more easily. Plants can now be given specific qualities that will help them survive better in their changing climates. Its medicinal value is very high , with contributions to not only immunotherapies for cancer but even the potential to cure inherited diseases. Trials are in fact taking place. New techniques for fixing genes in organs such as the brain are also in development.

Keeping Ethics in Mind

However, as with all technology, there is the opportunity for abuse. Ethical issues come hand in hand with many advances in science, and anything involving genes is no exception. The genetic scissors could be used to genetically modify embryos.

Although there are laws and rules which are in place to control the use of genetic engineering, any experiment that will involve humans or animals has to be allowed by ethical committees first. Nonetheless, this is still certainly a tool which could help in solving several problems that humanity faces.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not reflective of ‘A Bird’s Eye View’ as a whole.


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