This is a guest editorial by Chris Gorski, C&EN’s science news editor.
As every October arrives, so do the announcements of the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry. The announcements are covered broadly across media, including wire services, general-interest websites, and publications with specialized audiences like ours. Articles and conversations predicting the likely prizewinners are popular—as we can confirm by looking at the heavy traffic to our yearly webinar and follow-up stories. These stories about research that is often decades old can be rare pieces of science news that nonscientists also seek out.
This year’s awards, perhaps more than those in other years, celebrate the discoveries and findings that made important modern technologies possible. The laureates’ research enabled the creation of vaccines for COVID-19, made it possible to observe what happens to electrons at fantastically short timescales, and helped researchers fabricate nanoparticles so small that quantum effects determine their colors. Stories about the prizes begin on page 4 of this issue.
I’ve watched these announcements as a reporter and editor many times before. But this is my first year looking at the prizes specifically through the lens of chemistry.
Many people say the awards don’t perfectly reflect modern science, and that’s true. The language of Alfred Nobel’s will limits the committee to recognizing three scientists per prize. That focus on a few bright stars doesn’t always mirror the teamwork and collaboration that exemplify modern science. Moreover, a great number of the awarded scientists have been White and male. Critics have pointed out the committee’s lack of recognition of several notable findings by women in particular. Those caveats are important. It’s also still true that the Nobels recognize important research.
In March, I began serving as the acting science news editor at C&EN, and I now fill that role in an official capacity. My job is to help our talented and versatile reporters select and refine their news stories for our website and print magazine. As a relative newcomer to this operation, I was struck by two main ideas during the adrenaline- and coffee-charged Nobel week.
First is the adaptability and capability of our team as we responded to the challenges of constructing and publishing stories under tight deadlines. We tried to meet our standards for web presentation, art, and writing while beginning work well before dawn in the US—where many of our staff live and work. In a rarity, we adjusted our workdays to match the schedules of our colleagues in Europe.
Second, each of this year’s Nobel Prizes is closely tied to the work that chemists do—crossing traditional disciplines to find the molecular answers to scientific problems. In fact, the most popular prediction for this year’s chemistry prize, both in our webinar and many other presentations, was the work that led to messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. That research won the prize for physiology or medicine.
Our staff has written numerous times about how attosecond laser pulses—the subject that won the physics prize—are used by chemists in their research. And finally, quantum dots, subject of the chemistry prize, are present in not only labs but also in television screens, lamps, and more.
The applications of the discoveries that this year’s prizes recognize will continue to proliferate, perhaps in ways the new laureates can’t yet imagine. I was reminded of that as the Nobel committees and the sources our reporters spoke with shared their excitement about the potential of quantum dots and attosecond science. And soon after writing this editorial, I’ll have a sharp reminder of what mRNA can do: I’ll receive a COVID-19 booster injection.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.