The Nobel Prizes are given every year to those who have benefited mankind the most in one of six fields: peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. It is a high honour – and you get a good bit of money too: more than a million dollars American (113,000 crowns).
Here are the Nobel Prize winners for 2007:
Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for spreading the word about global warming: that the earth is getting dangerously warm because mankind is burning too much oil and coal. The IPCC pulled together the work of 2000 experts and made the science understandable for government decision makers. Al Gore, the former American vice president, took the IPCC’s findings and made a film about it to explain it to ordinary people. It did surprisingly well. Even before the film, Gore has been warning us about this for years.
Doris Lessing, whose best books are “The Grass is Singing” (1950) and “The Golden Notebook” (1962). She was born in Persia and grew up in Africa in the last days of the British empire. In 1949 she went to London to become one of the best British writers of the late 1900s.
Martin Evans, Oliver Smithies and Mario Capecchi for their work in gene targeting. They discovered a way of breeding mice so that they are born without a particular gene. This is called gene knockout. Genes are the instructions your body has for making itself. You have thousands of them, most of them also found in mice. What most of them do no one knows. But by having mice that are born without this or that gene, you can find out what the gene was for, what effect it has. This helps science to learn about the nature of disease and medicine.
Peter Grunberg and Albert Fert for their discovery in 1988 of giant magnetoresistance. They found out that a weak magnetic field, if it is in material that is prepared the right way, can still be read by a computer. This is why an iPod can hold thousands of songs, not just one.
Gerhard Ertl for his work in surface chemistry. Before Ertl no one knew just what effect surfaces have on chemical reactions. He patiently found out how it all works. Because of him the air is cleaner (catalytic converters) and the ground more fertile (getting nitrogen out of the air to put into the soil).
Leonid Hurwicz, Eric Maskin and Roger Myerson for their work in mechanism design theory. They used game theory to find out what rules work best in things like elections and selling public property to private companies. Game theory studies how people act and think in order to win, but it assumes that they are guided mainly by reason and (imperfect) knowledge, like they are in The Economist, not by love, fear and anger, like they are in Shakespeare.
For those at home who are keeping score:
- America: Gore, Maskin, Myerson, Hurwicz, Capecchi, Smithies
- Britain: Evans, Lessing
- Germany: Grunberg, Ertl
- France: Fert