[Science Solitaire] Aliens encounter the Nobel Prizes 2012
If I had to be a travel guide to aliens who just landed on Earth with a quick mission to rate our understanding of our own nature and how we have acted upon this understanding, there are a few places I will make sure we avoid like the plague.
The Congress and the Senate would surely be among them as the speeches on the RH bill, including the latest ones, made it seem like we were still in the Dark Ages with most of the members sounding like card-bearing members of the Inquisition.
But I will certainly lead the aliens to those spaces where amazing breakthroughs have happened and a deep understanding of nature has really moved us forward. I will take the alien to the places where the stories leading to the latest Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry and physiology/medicine have started and developed.
In physics, there is an area where physicists have, for the longest time, agreed that they may have to be content with reliable results from equations and not directly need to observe what is happening. This area is inside the atom called quantum physics and nothing in everyday experience resembles it. There, a particle such as an electron could be everywhere at the same time until you measure it and it somehow ends up “sitting” in a specific spot so you can tell where it is. But before that, every spot inside the atom is fair play to this dancing particle.
You may say, “Why should I care if the inside of an atom does not at all echo my personal experience?” Well, you should because everything is made up of atoms including your stubborn brain, so this should at the very least intrigue you. Two physicists Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland have broken that once unmarked ground.
They received the Nobel Prize for Physics 2012 for having “independently invented and developed ground-breaking methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature, in ways that were previously thought unattainable.”
They not only did it independently but they covered both ends of the process. Haroche was able to trap photons (particles of light) and send atoms to probe the photons while Wineland trapped atoms and used laser light to control them. This has implications on how far more we can take the rate of our computing power.
With this, we would be able to simultaneously have a number of states that result when 2 is multiplied by itself repeatedly, depending on the number of particles, from the current binary system of “0” and “1” which is the basis of all digital technology now, including how you are able to read this column on an online news site.
The aliens would probably see me as one coherent entity but if the aliens are as smart as expected, considering they found a way to reach us, the aliens would know that the thing that makes me whole is a slew of biological processes I do not even have to be aware about to perform.
Among these processes is how my cells can sense what is going on outside my body that they are able to respond to them. The reason that the aliens and I should avoid Congress and the Senate is because my blood pressure rises when I think about what goes on in those spaces. But how do my cells know how to react when I think about those places?
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2012 was awarded jointly to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka "for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors" or GPCRs. These receptors are the sensors of the cells and they stay at the surface of the cell waiting for cues like exceptionally alert security guards.
Lefkowitz and Kobilka mapped how these sensors work, including a discovery of the gene that does this, to guide the cell metabolism to act according to the signals received by those sensors. Life is a sensory feast of light, odor, flavor and a host of stimuli that make us feel. This is made possible by a grant from nature called GCPRs.
You can detect the flux and vibrancy of nature and culture, including light from the screen of your computer, because of these GCPRs. Because we have understood how these sensors work, we have designed medicine to target these mechanisms to guide our cells.
The secrets of the cell were also the subject of The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012. It was awarded jointly to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent." Before this discovery, it was thought that only the fertilized egg could be the source of pluripotent cells, i.e., cells that could develop into other organs except those that form the placenta and amniotic sac.
Gurdon proved it using a tadpole, emptying its egg cell of genetic material and replacing it with intestinal cells from another tadpole. These were “intestinal cells” that were placed there and yet, these developed into other tadpoles, proving that cells have it in them to become other kinds of cells.
Yamanaka, only 50 years old now, has engaged in research that identified 4 genes that could reverse engineer a mature cell to become pluripotent. The works of Gurdon and Yamanaka have given way to many current methods of stem cell treatments in medicine. With this knowledge, we can go down to that cellular stage where our cells are somehow rebooted and they can start anew before they have malfunctioned, giving rise to many of our illnesses.
I think the Nobel Prizes for 2012 will bring up humanity’s scorecard for “discovery and understanding,” as far as my alien friends are concerned. That is, as long as they do not wander into Congress and the Senate. - Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com.