Monday, October 16, 2006

American Heroes

This year's Nobel Prizes have been announced. Citizens of the United States have earned 4 of the 6 prizes, including all 3 (hard) science prizes. These 5 individuals should be known and admired by all Americans, but most of us don't even know their names, let alone what they did. I'm going to do what I can to remedy that.

The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for their discovery of "RNA interference [PDF]—gene silencing by double-stranded RNA." It should be easy to remember these guys' names; what goes better together than Fire and (marsh)Mello? Yeah, I know it's lame, but you'll remember these two for a while now. What did they do, exactly? They figured out that adding essentially "backwards" copies of genes that are being made into proteins to a cell causes the cell to stop making those proteins. This helped explain some things we didn't understand, and opened up several new possibilities for therapy and research. Their technique is helping us figure out exactly what genes do, and could also be used to turn off genes that are doing bad things. This is all kinds of neat, so remember: Fire and (marsh)Mello!

The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics: John C. Mather and George F. Smoot "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." Basically, they devised and carried out experiments using NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) (well, and, to be clear, led the devising of COBE itself). These experiments led to a greater understanding of the events near the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe. Their map of the cosmic background radiation—essentially the leftovers of the Big Bang—helped us understand a bit more about how galaxies and stars form. So, here's their mnemonic: while they mapped fluctuations in the background radiation, these fluctuations are tiny, on the order of a hundred-thousandth of a degree. In other words, their map is rather smooth, or Mather Smoot. Wow, that might be even cornier than the last one!

The 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Roger D. Kornberg "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription." His father, Arthur Kornberg, won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Severo Ochoa) "for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid." The neat thing about this one is that Roger essentially helped to finish the work of his father. In cells, generally speaking, DNA stores information, RNA is used to make "working copies" of that information, and proteins are used to do the actual work of running the cell. DNA is copied into RNA, and RNA is translated into proteins. Arthur Kornberg helped figure out how cells make DNA and some of the basics of how that DNA is copied into RNA, and Roger D. Kornberg helped figure out how eukaryotes (non-bacteria, including most everything you think of as alive, from yeast to flowers to humans) transcribe (copy) DNA into RNA. I'm going to take an easy way out on this one: my mnemonics for these great minds are corny, doubly so when we're trying to remember the two Kornbergs!

Fire, Mello, Mather, Smoot, and Kornberg. Remember them. Treat them, and the other unsung scientists that are working to make the world a better place, as the heroes that they are.

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