The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2007 Goes to Gerhard Ertl

As part of my series on this year’s Nobel Prizes, I’m highlighting the winner of each prize.

German scientist Gerhard Ertl won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces”. This is more important than you might think, but as usual, has the information you need. This is intended for laypeople, so you don’t have to have any special knowledge to understand it.

To begin with, editor-in-chief Adam Smith once again has written a wonderful “speed read”:

Exploring Chemistry at the Frontier

Like a successful dinner party, productive chemical reactions depend upon getting the right components to mingle in the right surroundings, and often the best environment for chemistry turns out to be a solid surface. From the cleaning of exhaust fumes in factory chimneys to the reduction of ozone on the outside of ice crystals in the clouds, surface chemistry surrounds us constantly. Developing ways to better understand the detailed dynamics of chemistry at these interfaces has been Gerhard Ertl’s life work.


And a six-page PDF shows us all the ways this field affects our lives. These are great resources for the public to use to stay in touch with science. Use them!

You may also enjoy videos of the announcement or the press release.

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The Nobel Prize in Physics 2007 Goes to Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg for the Discovery of Giant Magnetoresistance

Winning the Nobel Prize is one of the highest honors one can achieve. Winners bring their institutions and their countries prestige. I’d like to highlight this year’s prizewinners.

The Nobel Prize in Physics this year was awarded to French scientist Albert Fert and German scientist Peter Grünberg. They were recognized for their independent discovery of giant magnetoresistance. The concept’s a bit esoteric, but the Nobel Prize site,, has some nice introductory material. In fact, it’s really put together well and you are advised to browse through it for more information about any aspect of the Nobel Prizes.

I especially like their “speed read” summaries. The Physics entry is quite easy to understand and begins as follows:

The Giant within Small Devices

Lying at the heart of the computer which you are using to read this article is a memory retrieval system based on the discoveries for which the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg. They discovered, quite independently, a new way of using magnetism to control the flow of electrical current through sandwiches of metals built at the nanotechnology scale.


And if you have time, you should definitely read a nice 7-page PDF explaining the concept for the layperson, using illustrations and easy-to-understand concepts. I won’t bother going into detail here since the site does such a nice job. There’s no excuse not to know the basics of this discovery!

You can also see videos of the announcement, or read the press release.

Energy and Health: Spotlight on the Lancet‘s Series Covering Climate Change and More

As a human and a resident of planet Earth, I care about my home and the environment, and for the other life that shares it with me. But as a physician, I have a special interest in examining the relationship between the health of our planet and that of human health; I have a strong desire to promote public health. And therefore I am indebted to Inel for bringing my attention (via a comment and a subsequent blog entry) to a wonderfully important series of articles in the Lancet covering the many-faceted relationship between energy and health. At the least, I feel that all physicians are obligated to read this series.

The Lancet is one of the world’s premiere medical journals (along with the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the British Medical Journal). In publishing this series, they are taking on a large, complex issue with significant public health implications that previously have not drawn much attention. Strategies to help ameliorate the problem are well–thought out. The series covers so much detail I’d like to devote a series of my own posts to discuss and analyze them.

Editor-in-chief Richard Horton writes the introductory comment, entitled “Righting the Balance: Energy for Health”:

The current debate about the impact of human beings on our planet—especially with respect to climate change—is one of the most important issues of our time. But that debate is presently unbalanced and too narrow. It neglects a far larger set of issues focused on energy—and health.

Energy is a critical, yet hugely neglected, determinant of human health. Health is an important enough aspect of energy policy to deserve a much greater influence on decisions about our future personal, national, and global energy strategies. Society suffers from a disordered global energy metabolism. Energy is as important as any vaccine or medicine. 2 billion people currently lack access to clean energy: they live in energy poverty and insecurity. International institutions, such as the World Bank and WHO, have repeatedly failed to make the connection between energy and health in their country work.

(continued — free registration required)

Dr. Horton gives examples of changes that we need to make at these three levels, such as changing travel habits at the personal level, designing new urban infrastructure at the national level, and controlling greenhouse gases at the global level. This introduction sets the stage for the in-depth analysis to follow.

While physicians should certainly read these, I also encourage others in the allied health professions as well as anyone with an interest in public health to read them as well. They are written in clear language and do not rely on advanced medical terminology or concepts. I will update this post with links to additional posts on the individual articles as I write them.

Source: Horton, R. “Righting the balance: energy for health”. The Lancet 2007;370:921. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61258-6. Full text available; free registration required.

Alex, the Reasoning Parrot

I just read on CNN about a remarkable African grey parrot named Alex, who unfortunately has suddenly died. Parrots are well-known for their ability to reproduce human speech, but are widely considered to have no comprehension of the sounds they are copying. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins who have considerable intelligence but lack the physical apparatus (such as a voice box) to produce sounds resembling human speech. However, as the CNN article describes,

Alex’s advanced language and recognition skills revolutionized the understanding of the avian brain. After [animal psychologist Irene] Pepperberg bought Alex from an animal shop in 1973, the parrot learned enough English to identify 50 objects, seven colors and five shapes. He could count up to six, including zero, was able to express desires, including his frustration with the repetitive research.

Although one should always remain skeptical—could this be a complicated set of conditioned responses?—my cursory perusal suggest that Alex did possess some understanding of these concepts. His achievements are quite impressive and well beyond what most people would expect birds capable of doing. It’s a shame this remarkable bird has been lost.

For more information, see Wikipedia, Nature News, the Scientific American blog, or a 2004 Scientific American article (PDF) describing Alex. You can also watch video of Alex as part of the Scientific American Frontiers program on PBS (“Entertaining Parrots”, 2001).

Growing Body Parts

There has been some exciting work regarding the growing or re-growing of human body parts.

Some animals have an incredible ability to regenerate missing body parts—a classic example being some species of starfish. However, for the most part, it is not possible to regrow complex organs. In humans, damaged tissue usually is replaced by “generic” scar tissue, if it all. There are several reasons why humans cannot regenerate most body parts. For one, once cells become specialized, they often lost the ability to divide. Another reason is that arms and hearts and so on develop according to a specific pattern during embryonic development in the womb; there is no “program” for starting with part of a fully-developed structure and regrowing the rest. And furthermore, there is some evidence that the ability to regenerate has been sacrificed to avoid cancer. Cancer is essentially uncontrolled cell growth; many checkpoints that help regulate this may also prevent stem cells from recreating damaged tissue. Presumably, this balance reflects an optimum balance for the survival of our ancestors.

But scientists are working to augment this ability. As New Scientist reports, researchers in Japan were able to grow tooth buds in the laboratory, then transplant them to the jaws of mice where they developed into normal teeth; they even developed a blood supply. Also reported in New Scientist is the efforts of American researchers to grow new ligaments in the laboratory. Ligament injuries are quite common, and they tend to heal quite poorly.

Finally, LiveScience discusses regrowth of human fingertips after accidents, and mentions a few notable cases.

Retinal Implant Helps Restore Vision

Diagram of visual prosthesis
The major components of the new prosthesis. The small wearable computer is not included. Credit: Mark Humayun/AAAS. Source: New Scientist.

An article by Gaia Vince in New Scientist reports on a retinal prosthesis designed to help restore vision to blind people. After a prototype was successfully used in six people, further trials are set to begin. While cochlear implants are used to give deaf people some ability to hear, there has been no comparable, practical system for those who cannot see.

The system has several components. The user wears a pair of glasses with a built-in camera. The information is then transmitted to a wireless computer around the size of a mobile telephone that the user must keep with him. This computer processes the data, then transmits it to a receiver implanted in the user’s head. This is connected to a chip on the user’s retina. This all occurs extremely quickly, as discrepancy between perceived movement and visual changes would cause nausea and dizziness.

The device is still preliminary; the resolution is quite limited, naturally. But it is interesting that the brains of the patients seem to adapt to the limited visual input, and their vision improved over time. The article notes one patient’s observation:

At the beginning, it was like seeing assembled dots — “now it’s much more than that,” says Terry Bryant, aged 58, who received the implant in 2002 after 13 years of blindness. “I can go into any room and see the light coming in through the window. When I am walking along the street I can avoid low hanging branches and I can cross a busy street.”

Similar to the cochlear implant, an intact nervous system is required. This prothesis links with the ganglion cells at the back of the eye and the signals travel over the optic nerve to the brain. Damage to any of these components—such as damage to the ganglion cells, injury to the optic nerve, or stroke—will result in blindness that this prosthesis cannot correct. For that, we’ll have to wait for new technology.