The Nobel Prize established itself as the most prestigious and respected honor in the world almost immediately after its introduction in 1901. They accomplished this by making sure every achievement they honored was thoroughly verified and had lasting impact. Often taking decades, as seen in this years winners, who gave us world-changing discoveries and techniques.

Physiology / Medicine: Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman

Biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Monday for their foundational research showing that a modification to the molecular building blocks of messenger RNA (mRNA) could enable its use for therapeutics and vaccines. And that lead to the rapid development of life-saving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines during the deadly pandemic.

mRNA is made from 4 molecules called bases —adenine (A), cytosine (C), uracil (U), and guanine (G). The team discovered making modifications to one of the bases could keep mRNA from triggering an immune response to the molecule, allowing it to enter the cell.  Then the natural cellular process turns the mRNA into a protein that will soon be a target for immune system. The key is to get the immune system to respond at just the right point in the process, not too soon.

Katalin Karikó has an inspiring story of struggling for sixteen years to try and get funding for this research. She was first demoted then fired from the University of Pennsylvania. But not before she made the breakthrough with her colleague and co-winner Drew. Now the University has hired her back! After she worked on the Covid-19 vaccines that ended the pandemic at BioNTech.

A pulse of light (purple) interacts with a cloud of electrons (green) and emits photons

Physics: Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier

The Nobel prize in Physics went to 3 scientists who gave the world its first glimpse into the superfast world of electrons flying around atoms.

Physicist Anne L’Huillier, French scientist Pierre Agostini and Hungarian-born Ferenc Krausz created attosecond pulses of light, that act like a camera shutter or a strobe light to capture the fastest of movements (attosecond is one billionth of a billionth of a second or 10^-18 sec) Biologic processes like vision and photosynthesis happen on this extremely short time scale. For generations it was thought impossible to measure anything so fast. One of the first discoveries with pulses was that atoms don’t ionize instantaneously, but after a 40 attosecond delay. Intriguing.

L’Huillier, of Lund University in Sweden, is the fifth woman to receive a Nobel in physics. Here’s our story on the 4th woman to win.

each flask has different quantum dots

Three chemists who predicted and were the first to make quantum dots — nanoscale crystals that interact with light — have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Moungi Bawendi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Louis Brus at Columbia University in New York City and Alexei Ekimov at New York City-based company Nanocrystals Technology will each receive one-third of the 11-million-Swedish-krona (US$1-million) prize.

Quantum dots are crystals of a few thousand atoms that can behave as a single atom, and be tuned to emit a single frequency of light. They have practical uses from brighter television screens to imaging biologic systems.  

Literature: Jon Fosse

Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, whose work tackles birth, death, faith and the other “elemental stuff” of life in spare Nordic prose, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”

The popular (in Norway) novelist and playwright said the prize was recognition of “literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations” —  expressed in enigmatic plays, stories and novels, including a seven-volume epic made up of a single sentence. The New York Times guide to Fosse.

The Nobel Peace Prize: Narges Mohammadi

After the Mahsa Amini protests in Iran, Mohammadi has continued to report her experience of abuse as a woman in Evin Prison. [Photo by Narges Mohammadi Foundation/AFP]

The Iranian rights activist won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. She was chosen from 351 nominees.

Mohammadi, who has been has served multiple prison sentences for the past two decades, is best known for her fight for freedom and against oppression of Iranian women.

“Woman, life, freedom,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She recited the slogan that is now associated with the women’s movement in Iran as she announced Mohammadi as the winner.

One Nobel Prize remains. That one will be announced on Monday.

The candidates and winners are selected by an international committee of advisors, and presented by:
• Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Economic Sciences)
• Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute (Physiology or Medicine)
• Swedish Academy (Literature)
• Norwegian Nobel Committee (Peace)

Every Prize winner receives a custom certificate

The time difference between Sweden and the location where the winners live results in the tradition of the newly minted winners being awakened in the middle of the night by what they can only assume is some practical joker claiming they just won the Nobel Prize!

A number of opinion pieces by scientists in recent years have urged the Nobel Academy to change its rules and award the science prizes to teams of researchers instead of individuals. Most modern science is done by international teams. Yet this year is a good example of how the theory and experiments are usually begun by a small group or single researcher, and then developed by teams. Maybe they need to honor both.

Fascinating Fact – About 1/3 of all Nobel Prize winners are immigrants. A great scientist can be born anywhere.


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.