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Nobel Prize Science Winners Made Important Contributions to Understanding of our World


On Sunday, (December 10, 2006) this year's Nobel Prizes are being presented in Stockholm, Sweden. The annual awards are given to people who have made outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, literature, peace, economics, and medicine or physiology.

Americans received four of the six Nobel Prizes. Recently, VOA's Deborah Block spoke with several of the winners in science about their breakthroughs -- ranging from an exciting new discovery in genetics, to a new look at the start of the universe.

People have long wondered when the universe began -- how the galaxies started, where the stars came from. Most scientists agree with what is known as the "Big Bang" Theory -- almost 14 billion years ago the portion of the universe we can see today was only a few millimeters across. It has since expanded from a hot, dense state into the vast and much cooler cosmos.

Scientists John Mather and George Smoot won the Nobel Prize in physics for showing further evidence that the Big Bang occurred. Smoot is a Professor of physics at the University of California in Berkeley. He says, "We now have something that's essentially globally accepted by everyone as testable, reasonable. You can reason it through, you can test it with observations, a story of how the universe developed."

Smoot and Mather based their findings on measurements of what's called blackbody radiation -- a remnant of the earliest radiation in the universe. Instruments onboard a satellite called Cobe measured that radiation. According to the Big Bang theory, as the intense heat from the blackbody radiation gradually cooled, the universe expanded.

Mather is with the U.S. Space Agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in the state of Maryland. He says measuring the radiation's spectrum of color and brightness was key. “And so the spectrum measurement basically confirmed that the Big Bang Theory is basically the best theory we have for the origin of the universe -- that the whole universe that we're in now came from a volume no bigger than a golf ball about 13.7 billion years ago. And with the Cobe satellite we saw the hot and cold spots in this radiation that are density fluctuations left over from the Big Bang itself. And we believe that those particular regions are the ones that made galaxies and clusters of galaxies form so that we could exist."

Craig Mello and Andrew Fire received a Nobel Prize in the category of Physiology or Medicine. Both are genetics experts who discovered a mechanism in cells that can control the flow of genetic information by shutting down individual genes.

Known as RNA interference, it can be found in plants, animals and humans. Fire is a genetics professor at Stanford University. "There was evidence of this very effective force in biology, essentially, that could shut genes down and the question is what triggered it. And we were looking for clues about that and what we actually found was a very, very specific unique structure."

By controlling genetic information, RNA interference can provide a defense against viruses and control genes, which cause diseases like cancer.

Craig Mello is a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says he is hopeful RNA interference, or RNAI, will become one of several methods to control disease in the future. "It's not going to be a blockbuster drug right away. It's not going to cure everything. It's only going to work in certain cases at first. And I think we have to keep our hopes down in terms of its actual potential use in the clinic. But I do think -- I'm guardedly optimistic -- about the potential for RNAI getting into the clinic."

George Smoot thinks this year's American Nobel Prize winners in science will have an impact on young people who are considering becoming scientists. "This will encourage more young people to go into it. But if you just look globally, you'll see that science has gotten to be strong in very many countries and it's coming up very impressively in China and India also."

Smoot says he is now on a new scientific quest -- to find out what happened before the Big Bang.

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