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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 maladies.

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 cycles.”

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.


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