Three Nobels in three fields
When the 2004 Nobel Prize countdown ended this
fall, a frequently updated University of Chicago T-shirt was ready
for another edition. With the addition of two alumni and a former
professor, the newest version will list 78 Nobel laureates who have
studied or taught at the University.
First up was Frank Wilczek, SB’70, who
shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics with David J. Gross of the
University of California, Santa Barbara, and H. David Politzer of
the California Institute of Technology. The award recognized work
that Wilczek, now the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did as a doctoral student
at Princeton University.
The researchers were cited “for the discovery
of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction,”
a finding that has become central to the interpretation of almost
all experimental studies involving modern particle accelerators.
Asymptotic freedom describes how the strong force governs the behavior
of quarks, the smallest building blocks of matter. When quarks are
close to each other, the strong force acts so weakly that quarks
behave almost as if they are free particles. But, like a rubber
band, the force binds the quarks more tightly as they move farther
apart. The strong force is one of four fundamental forces of nature,
along with electromagnetism, the weak force, and gravity.
The research by Gross, Politzer, and Wilczek
helped physicists connect the strong force with electromagnetism,
which governs the behavior of charged particles, and the weak force,
which governs radioactive decay—thus bringing physics nearer
to the long-sought grail: a unified theory.
The day after Wilczek’s award, Irwin Rose,
SB’48, PhD’52, shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry
with Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of Technion (Israel Institute
of Technology) “for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein
degradation.” Rose, a professor emeritus of physiology and
biophysics at the College of Medicine, University of California,
Irvine, and his fellow laureates discovered one of the cell’s
most important cyclical processes: regulated protein degradation.
Starting in 1978 they began to show that the cell functions as a
“highly-efficient checking station, where proteins are built
up and broken down at a furious rate,” according to the Royal
Swedish Academy of Sciences news release. “The degradation
is not indiscriminate but takes place through a process that is
controlled in detail, so that the proteins to be broken down at
any given moment are given a molecular label, a ‘kiss of death.’”
The labeled proteins are then funneled into proteasomes—large,
cylindrical cellular machines that slice proteins into short pieces,
thereby destroying them.
The researchers demonstrated that the kiss-of-death
label is a protein called ubiquitin. Once fastened onto a protein
slated for destruction, the ubiquitin accompanies it to the proteasome,
conveying the message that this protein has been selected for disassembly.
Shortly before the protein is fed into the proteasome, its ubiquitin
label is disconnected for reuse. When ubiquitin-mediated protein
degradation works incorrectly, it can result in disease, and knowledge
of the process offers an opportunity to develop drugs against such
Rounding out the 2004 Nobel list was the October
11 announcement that former economics faculty member Edward C. Prescott
had shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences with Finn
E. Kydland of Carnegie Mellon University. The two men, coauthors
of a ground-breaking 1982 Econometrica paper, were cited
“for their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics: the time
consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business
Prescott, a professor of economics at Arizona
State University and a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of
Minneapolis, was a visiting professor in economics at Chicago (from
1978 to 1979 and during spring quarter 1997) and a professor in
economics (1998 to 1999). The span of his research includes seminal
studies in business cycles, economic development, general equilibrium
theory, and finance. The work has important implications for the
conduct of fiscal and monetary policy and bank regulatory issues.—M.R.Y.