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Nobel laureates lauded

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UD researchers, scholars explain this year’s prize-winning work

​​University of Delaware faculty members gathered to discuss the research and impact of the 2022 Nobel Prize winners, and how it connects to work at UD. ​

In what organizers described as a celebration of not only the work that was awarded this year’s Nobel Prizes but also the depth and breadth of research and scholarship at the University of Delaware, six UD faculty members spoke at a Nov. 1 symposium to explain the importance and impact of the 2022 laureates.

The annual event, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences for some 15 years, offers interested members of the community an opportunity to learn more about the prize-winning work than is usually presented in the popular press.

This year, those who attended the symposium in the Patrick T. Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory heard faculty experts discuss topics ranging in time from Russian war crimes occurring today in Ukraine to the genetic legacies of Neanderthals, an extinct relative of modern humans who lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago. The speakers also described award-winning scientific experiments that have transformed their disciplines, leading to new ways of simplifying chemical reactions and to support for what a UD physicist called the “weirdness” of quantum mechanics.

The Nobel Prizes represent “the most important and impactful research” being conducted, said Eric Wommack, the University’s senior associate vice president for research, who welcomed the audience to hear from “this exceptional group of scholars.”

The following are the prizes highlighted at the symposium.​

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Literature

Bruno Thibault, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of French Literature, spoke about the French author Annie Ernaux, whose 50-year career as a writer was recognized for what the Nobel organization called “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

The media often refers to Ernaux as a novelist, but Thibault said that’s incorrect. Instead, her books reflect “a kind of hybrid genre” that mixes fiction and memoir, he said. “She’s always asking how she can be sure that her memories are correct.”

She has written about such diverse topics as sweeping political and social changes in France and her own experience with abortion.

Ernaux’s work includes many books, some of them quite short, but she considers only three of them to be novels, Thibault said. Although she writes about her life, he said, she insists that her experiences are far from unique as she pursues “a personal quest for truth and accuracy.”

Her books include The Years, which covers six decades of social and personal history beginning during World War II and ending in 2006, which Thibault called her best work. Of her novels, he recommended especially Do What They Say or Else.

“Ernaux speaks to the brain, but she also speaks to the heart,” Thibault said.​

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Chemistry

Unless you’re a chemist, you probably don’t often think about chemical reactions, Joseph M. Fox, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, told the audience at the Nobel Symposium, but he pointed out that those reactions touch every aspect of modern life.

“Essentially, everything we interact with has been made or modified using chemical reactions that were created by people,” said Fox, who is the director of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on Molecular Discovery at UD, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. He went on to explain the work that led Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless to be awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of what is called click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.

The Nobel committee, in announcing the awards, said the laureates’ work “is about making difficult processes easier.” Sharpless and Meldal developed click chemistry, in which molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently in simple reactions, and Bertozzi has expanded the use of click chemistry into living organisms.

Sharpless and Meldal independently developed a particular reaction using click chemistry, which Fox said is extremely versatile and has gained widespread use, leading to more than 75,000 unique reactions.

“You really can’t overstate the impact of this,” he said. Chemists, he said, need reactions “that always work [and] that work anywhere.” By using click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry, he said, molecules that were previously unthinkable can now be constructed.

“We think these reactions will continue to develop into tools capable of delivering new drugs, creating new materials and answering biological questions,” Fox told the audience.

Fox’s ow​​n work was noted in the Nobel committee’s scientific background press release explaining the foundational chemistry behind the prizes, specifically his group’s 2008 development of a chemical reaction called tetrazine ligation.​

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Physiology or Medicine

“Whoever thought that an anthropologist would win a Nobel Prize!” Karen R. Rosenberg, professor of anthropology, said in beginning her talk about the 2022 prize in medicine, which was awarded to Svante Pääbo for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct human ancestors and human evolution.

The award was even more notable, she said, because Pääbo’s work until recently had seemed almost like science fiction.

The Nobel committee, in announcing the award, seemed to reflect Rosenberg’s sense of wonder about the work, saying that Pääbo had “accomplished something seemingly impossible: sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal.” He also, the committee said, “made the sensational discovery of a previously unknown hominin, Denisova.”

Hominins are today’s humans, known as Homo sapiens, and all our extinct direct relatives, including Neanderthals and Denisovans. Neanderthals and Denisovans are considered the closest relatives to modern humans.

Rosenberg, a biological anthropologist with a specialty in paleoanthropology, explained some of the many technical challenges Pääbo faced as he sought to sequence the genome of Neanderthals. After a long process to obtain tiny samples of ancient DNA and eliminate contamination, he eventually was able to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome.

In 2008, using a tiny piece of a finger bone from remains found in a cave in Siberia, he sequenced that genome and discovered a previously unknown hominin, known as Denisovan. Rosenberg noted that Denisovan was identified entirely from this genetic work rather than from complete fossils. “We don’t know anything about them anatomically,” she said.

Pääbo’s work also established a new scientific discipline, paleogenomics. The genomes he sequenced show that today’s Eurasian population derives 1% to 4% of its DNA from Neanderthals, Rosenberg said.

“So there was gene flow” through interbreeding, she said. “Humans have always been interconnected with gene flow between regions.”​

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Physics

Marianna S. Safronova, professor of physics and astronomy, described the experiments — called “groundbreaking” by the Nobel committee — that were conducted by this year’s laureates in physics, Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger.

The three researchers investigated particles that are in what are called “entangled” states, meaning they act like a single unit even if they are far apart. For some time, a key question in quantum mechanics has been how particles can exist in entangled states.

By conducting and refining a long series of experiments, the laureates explored that question and showed that quantum mechanics works, Safronova said.

Quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory in physics that describes the properties and behavior of atomic and subatomic particles, is sometimes described as strange and counterintuitive. Safronova termed it “weird” as she explained such concepts as entanglement and the way a particle can be in two states at the same time. In addition, she said, quantum mechanics can’t make specific predictions but only gives probabilities.

The prize-winning research is especially important because, in order to move forward with emerging computer, sensing and encrypted communication technology, “Quantum mechanics has to work,” Safronova said.

This new era of quantum technology is growing rapidly. At UD, for example, Safronova pointed to the new interdisciplinary graduate program in quantum science and engineering. The program, which offers master’s and doctoral degrees, is designed to train a “quantum workforce” for what is seen as a technological revolution.​

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Peace

The human rights activist and organizations that were awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize are notable for their combined decades of work and “incredible courage” in recording and resisting human rights abuses, Polly Zavadivker told the Nobel Symposium.

The assistant professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies described some of the work done by Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties as they have taken on the tasks of documenting abuses and war crimes from the time of Stalin to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries,” the Nobel committee said in its announcement. “They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. … Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

Zavadivker began by discussing the organization Memorial, which was established in the former Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure that victims of communist oppression wouldn’t be forgotten. It continues to uncover information about victims of Stalin and later regimes and to disseminate that to the public.

“They’ve been doing this work for many decades,” including creating memorials to millions of previously unknown victims who disappeared, Zavadivker said. The Peace Prize, she said, is important in “commemorating these people who are doing the work of memory.”

She went on to talk about Bialiatski, who founded an organization in Belarus to aid those protesting the authoritarian government. His group now tracks political prisoners, operating a website and database to give the public information and “to make it harder for the state to disappear people,” Zavadivker said.

Bialiatski has been imprisoned for long periods and is currently detained without trial.

The third Peace laureate, the Center for Civil Liberties, was founded in Kyiv in 2007 to advance human rights and democracy in Ukraine. It has now shifted its focus to what Zavadivker called “this completely unprecedented and monumental task” of identifying and documenting evidence of war crimes during the Russian invasion.​

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Economics

Laurence Seidman, Chaplin Tyler Professor of Economics, began his talk about the 2022 laureates in economic sciences by outlining the history of banks and, especially, of the runs on banks that have occurred in the past when panicked depositors demanded their money back, often leading to the institution’s collapse.

He described steps that have been taken to avoid such situations, including the establishment of the Federal Reserve System and, when that was unable to head off bank failures during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

This year’s recipients of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences, Ben Bernanke, Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig, were recognized for their research on banks, how to make them less susceptible to collapse and on how such collapses make financial disasters worse.

Seidman quoted the announcement of the prize, which said that research conducted by the three laureates has “significantly improved our understanding of the role of banks in the economy, particularly during financial crises. An important finding is why avoiding bank collapses is vital.”

Seidman discussed the 2008 recession, which occurred while Bernanke was chairman of the Federal Reserve, and noted that, with bank accounts insured against loss, there were no runs on banks by individual depositors. But, he said, there was what he termed an invisible or electronic “run” on Lehman Brothers, the huge financial services company that abruptly went bankrupt in 2008, contributing to the recession.

“This is still looming over us,” Seidman said of the kind of major financial collapse like Lehman Brothers, which was not bailed out in 2008. “It can happen again.”​

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About the Nobel Symposium at UD

The symposium, an annual event that is free and open to the public, was launched in 2007 by Doug Doren, now a retired UD administrator and professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

In recent years, it’s been organized by Karen Rosenberg, professor of anthropology and director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, and John Jungck, professor of biological sciences and of mathematical sciences.

This article includes information from the Nobel Prize Organization.​

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