About 130 University of Michigan students and community members joined five University professors Thursday afternoon to learn about this year’s Nobel Prizes just ahead of the award ceremony in Stockholm next Monday. Hosted by Center for Complex Systems at Weiser Hall, the event featured a series of presentations followed by audience questions, one for each of the five awards.
The symposium began with Ted Norris, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who discussed the physics prize. This prize was awarded to former Bell Laboratories scientist Arthur Ashkin as well as U-M professor emeritus Gérard Mourou and his student Donna Strickland.
Ashkin is being honored for developing optical tweezers, which use light radiation to move physical objects such as particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells without hurting them. The other half of the award is shared by Mourou and Strickland for their invention of chirped pulse amplification, a technique that generates the shortest and most intense manmade laser pulses to date.
This marks the 25th University-affiliated Nobel Prize, ranking the University in the top 30 universities for number of Nobel Prize winning faculty or alumni worldwide. Strickland is the first woman in 55 years and the third female ever to win the physics prize.
Along with explaining the work of each laureate, speakers also discussed the broader impact of the work within its discipline and on society.
For example, in her talk on the economics prize, Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, chief economist of the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama administration, emphasized the far-reaching social and political implications of the winners’ work. The awards honored the macroeconomic analyses of William D. Nordhaus, the founder of climate change economics, and Paul M. Romer, a giant in the study of the impacts of technological innovation. When discussing Nordhaus’ findings, Hughes-Cromwick noted his work on the social cost of carbon signals not only the need for policy change but could also influence the nature of the market.
“Don’t forget that these signals are not just what we do when we have to respond to pay for the so-called free lunch of our environment; it’s also that it sets in motion investment in clean technology, because now we’re seeing the signals out to innovators, inventors, and they in turn will foster new industries” Cromwick said.
To close the event, political science assistant professor Ragnhild Nordaas, senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, talked about the peace prize awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their leadership in the fight against sexual violence as a weapon of war. In Congo, the “rape capital of the world,” Mukwege, a gynecologist by trade, operated on thousands of sexual violence survivors and initiated various empowerment and healing programs. Murad, only 24 years old, escaped from the Islamic State and now heads activism against the sexual slavery she experienced.
Nordas presented an overview on sexual violence in war, discussing how the contributions of Mukwege and Murad fit in the historical and current context of this problem. She also highlighted how important it is that the Nobel Prize sheds light on the issue of sexual violence, serving to continue pushing forward progress.
“The peace prize is definitely needed to keep up the pressure to do something about this problem, so this award is an important injection of new energy into this fight,” Nordas said.
LSA senior Nicholas Hollman said it was valuable to students for making the Nobel Prizes understandable and for the exposure it offers across academic fields.
“An event like this really makes the prizes accessible to people because you do not need prior background to understand the talks,” Hollman said. “I think it can also be really valuable to a student in a variety of disciplines because this was framed as a multidisciplinary event.”
Other speakers included James Bardwell, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, who discussed the chemistry prize won by Frances H. Arnold for the first directed evolution of enzymes and George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter for developing phage display, a technology to evolve new proteins. Weiping Zou, professor of pathology, immunology, biology and surgery, also presented on the medicine award won by James P. Allison and Tasuku Hongo for their work on immune system inhibitors in cancer therapy.
CORRECTION: The Daily originally wrote that the event was hosted by the Center for Complex Studies. It was actually hosted by the Center for Complex Systems. We apologize for the error.