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October 9, 2017

On Monday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics to American economist Richard Thaler, 72, "for his contributions to behavioral economics."

Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, helped bridge "economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making," and his "empirical findings and theoretical insights have been instrumental in creating the new and rapidly expanding field of behavioral economics, which has had a profound impact on many areas of economic research and policy," the Swedish Academy said.

Thaler's pioneering work in behavioral finance included research into the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences in regards to the market effects of consumers' fairness concerns, and how lack of self control can lead to long-term financial and health problems. "In his applied work, Thaler demonstrated how nudging — a term he coined — may help people exercise better self-control when saving for a pension, as well in other contexts," the Swedish Academy said. Thaler responded to his Nobel, and its $1.1 million award, by promising to "try to spend it as irrationally as possible!" And for a discipline known as the "dismal science," that's not a bad quip. Peter Weber

October 6, 2017

On Friday morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international consortium of nongovernmental organizations, for "its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons." In July, 122 United Nations member states signed on to a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons pushed by ICAN, which will be legally binding on signatories once 50 nations ratify it.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that none of the nuclear powers signed the treaty, and said getting their buy-in was the next stage in the fight for global nuclear disarmament. In a news conference afterward, committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen waved off suggestions that awarding the peace prize to ICAN was a message to President Trump, saying it was encouragement for all nuclear-armed powers.

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee is aware that an international legal prohibition will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon," it said in its press release, but five of the original nuclear powers have signed on to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1970, and that "will remain the primary international legal instrument for promoting nuclear disarmament and preventing the further spread of such weapons. ... It is the firm conviction of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that ICAN, more than anyone else, has in the past year given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigor." Peter Weber

October 4, 2017

On Wednesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry to three men, Jacques Dubochet, 75, Joachim Frank, 77, and Richard Henderson, 72, "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution" — or as the Nobel committee said, creating a "cool microscope technology" that will revolutionize biochemistry by allowing people to see the inner workings of biomolecules at the atomic level.

Henderson, a Scot who works at Cambridge, developed a way to examine living molecules under an electron microscope in 1990, and Frank, a German-born U.S. citizen at Columbia, made the technology widely applicable; Dubochet, a Swiss citizen at the University of Lausanne, added water to electron microscopy. Their technique was optimized in 2013.

Thanks to their work, "we may soon have detailed images of life's complex machineries in atomic resolution," the Nobel committee said. Their cryo-electron microscopy technique "has moved biochemistry into a new era," giving scientists a new method that should prove "decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals," like a vaccine against the Zika virus. Peter Weber

October 3, 2017

On Tuesday morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics to three U.S.-based physicists, half to Rainer Weiss, 85, and the other half split between Barry C. Barish, 81, and Kip S. Thorne, 77, all of whom collaborated in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collective. The citation credits the three men with "decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves," realizing a prediction Albert Einstein made 100 years ago.

On Sept. 14, 2015, the LIGO detector in the U.S. observed gravitational waves for the very first time, caused by a collision between two black holes. The faint signal took 1.3 billion years to arrive on Earth, but the observation of them "is already promising a revolution in astrophysics," the Nobel committee said. "The 2017 Nobel Laureates have, with their enthusiasm and determination, each been invaluable to the success of LIGO," with "pioneers" Weiss and Thorne paving the way and Barish bringing "the project to completion" and ensuring "that four decades of effort led to gravitational waves finally being observed." This is the sound of two black holes colliding:

Einstein was convinced that humans would never be able to measure these gravitational waves, the committee noted, and "the LIGO project's achievement was using a pair of gigantic laser interferometers to measure a change thousands of times smaller than an atomic nucleus, as the gravitational wave passed the Earth."

You can read more about gravitational waves and the Nobel-winning discovery at New Scientist, or watch physicist Brian Greene explain them on The Late Show. Peter Weber

October 2, 2017

On Monday, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to three Americans — Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young — for their discoveries on the biological clock that "explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth's revolutions."

The three scientists, studying fruit flies, discovered a gene that controls the body's daily biological rhythm, the Nobel committee said, then "they showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day," subsequently discovering other protein components that makes the biological clock function autonomously. "With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day," the Nobel committee said. "The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism. Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock," and thanks to the trio's research, we now know that "chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases."

"Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing," the Nobel committee said. You can read more about Hall, Rosbash, and Young and their work on the circadian rhythm at the Nobel institute. Peter Weber

October 13, 2016

The Swedish Academy awarded singer-songwriter Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. In a statement, the Academy wrote that Dylan was awarded the honors "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

An American hasn't won the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

Dylan had been rumored as a candidate for the Literature Nobel since at least 2013, although the award is still something of a shock for the literary community as he is the first musician to ever win. In addition to a catalog that includes 36 studio albums and songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin," and "Desolation Row," Dylan has also written a memoir, Chronicles, and been awarded the French Legion of Honor, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jeva Lange

October 7, 2016

On Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos "for his resolute efforts to bring the country's more than 50-year-long civil war to an end." Santos put the peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group up to a popular vote, and in a shocking upset, the voters narrowly rejected the deal. "The outcome of the vote was not what President Santos wanted," the Nobel Committee said, but the result "does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead." Santos "has brought the bloody conflict significantly closer to a peaceful solution," the committee said, and his "endeavors to promote peace thus fulfill the criteria and spirit of Alfred Nobel's will."

"By awarding this year's Peace Prize to President Juan Manuel Santos, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation, and justice in Colombia," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. "The Committee hopes that the Peace Prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task." Santos is the second Colombian to win a Nobel; Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

The Peace Prize is the most anticipated Nobel, and there is always a lot of speculation and second-guessing about the selected laureate. In announcing the prize, the committee said it never comments on those it did not pick, in response to a question about why FARC leaders were not included in the prize. One of the popular favorites to win this year's Peace Prize were the White Helmets, or Syrian defense forces, who grace the cover of this week's Time magazine. They were collectively graceful in being passed over. Peter Weber

October 4, 2016

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics to three British physicists — with half the prize shared by David J. Thouless and F. Duncan M. Haldane and the other half going to J. Michael Kosterlitz — "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter." The three scientists "opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states," the academy explained, using "advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids, or thin magnetic films."

"The Nobel Assembly speaker has brought out a cinnamon bun, a bagel, and pretzel to explain what topology means," report Hannah Devlin and Ian Sample at The Guardian. "He says that if you are a topologist there is only one interesting way in which these pastries differ — the bun has no hole, the bagel has one, and the pretzel has two. Well that makes everything crystal clear then." All three laureates are currently affiliated with U.S. universities: Thouless at the University of Washington in Seattle, Haldane at Princeton, and Kosterlitz at Brown. Peter Weber

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