Guest Column | October 20, 2023

I'm Going As A Nobel Prize Winner For Halloween

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


This year’s batch of Nobel Laureates all seem to be fine scientists, researchers, authors, and leaders who don’t seem to have anything to do with Halloween. But don’t worry, we found some past award winners who do!

Every October, the Nobel Foundation awards six Nobel Prizes* recognizing an individual or organization for groundbreaking work in physiology or medicine, physics, chemistry, economic science, literature, and peace work.

The award for physiology or medicine was awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman and Jon Fosse was awarded the award for literature. Narges Mohammadi and Claudia Goldin were awarded the awards for peace and economic science, respectively.

Three scientists — Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier — were awarded the award for physics for their work on electrons. The award for chemistry was awarded to Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Alexei I. Ekimov for the discovery and development of quantum dots, nanoparticles so small that their size determines their properties.

* For a very informative podcast on the history of the Nobel Prize, check out this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. If you’re interested in learning about Nobel Laureates you also can listen to the Nobel Foundation’s official podcast, Nobel Prize Conversations.

A New Perspective Into A Previously Unexplored Domain

“Physics was the prize area that Alfred Nobel mentioned first in his will from 1895”, writes the Nobel Foundation. “At the end of the nineteenth century, many people considered physics as the foremost of the sciences, and perhaps Nobel saw it this way as well. His research also was closely tied to physics.”

Agostini, Krausz, and L'Huillier received recognition for their experiments that resulted in new methods to explore the world of electrons inside atoms and molecules. They have demonstrated a technique to generate extremely short pulses of light, which can be utilized to measure the swift processes involved in the movement or alteration of electrons' energy.

“Think of a rotating fan at its highest speed: each blade is a blur,” The New York Times explains. “But if you point a strobe light at the fan, every flash will illuminate a frozen moment in time. As the flashes get shorter, more information about the fan is revealed.”

“We can now open the door to the world of electrons. Attosecond physics allows us to understand mechanisms that are governed by electrons. The next step will be utilizing them,” says Eva Olsson, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

There are numerous potential applications for attosecond pulses across various fields. For instance, in electronics, it is crucial to comprehend and regulate the behavior of electrons in a material. Additionally, attosecond pulses have the potential to distinguish between different molecules, making them useful in medical diagnostics.

Squeezed So Tight They Barely Have Room To Breathe

“Chemistry was the most important science for Alfred Nobel’s work,” the Noble Foundation explains. “The development of his inventions as well as the industrial processes he employed were based upon chemical knowledge. Chemistry was the second prize area that Nobel mentioned in his will.”

Bawendi, Brus, and Ekimov were awarded their prizes for the discovery and development of quantum dots, tiny particles that have unique properties and now spread their light from television screens and LED lamps. They catalyze chemical reactions, and their clear light can illuminate tumor tissue for a surgeon.

“Why does it matter ... that we can make tiny particles that nobody can see, but they have colors?,” asked Pernilla Witting-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel committee that awarded the prize according to The Los Angeles Times. “This is used today both in medicine and technology. But we have displays on TVs, in your cellphone, that use quantum dots inside to make just brighter colors.”

Nanoparticles that emit blue, red, or green light are called quantum dots. The color they produce depends on their size, with larger particles emitting red light and smaller ones emitting blue light. This color variation is due to how electrons behave in different confined spaces. Although scientists had predicted this property of quantum dots back in the 1930s, it took five more decades for them to be able to create quantum dots of specific and controlled sizes in the lab.

Brus said he was hoping that, when he started his work decades ago, the practical applications of quantum dots such as creating the colors in flat-screen TVs would be a possibility. “Basic research is extremely hard to predict exactly how it’s going to work out,” Brus said. “It’s more for the knowledge base than it is for the actual materials. But in this case, it’s both.”

Halloween Genes, Ectoplasm, And Sugary Coatings: Tales Not Too Spooky To Tell

The Nobel Foundation has never, to the best of my knowledge, never awarded a Best Halloween Costume award. Seems like a missed opportunity but they probably know what they’re doing. Still, despite this seemingly anti-Halloween stance, there are connections between past Nobel Laureates and All Saints’ Eve. **

** Looking for a physics-themed Halloween costume? My favorite is number four.

I Was Working In The Lab Late One Night

“Back in 1984, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and her collaborator, Gerd Jürgens, published a study identifying and naming several embryonic lethal Drosophila mutants from a large-scale mutation screen that caused a variety of deformities,” writes Kailos Genetics.

Drosophila researchers commonly named genes after the physical appearance of mutants. Jürgens followed this tradition and gave spooky names to the mutants, such as naming the mutant with no differentiation of the cuticle and head skeleton disembodied, the one with only the head skeleton visible haunted, and the third one with poorly differentiated mouth parts and denticles mummy. In 1995, Nüsslein-Volhard, Edward B. Lewis, and Eric. F. Wieschaus were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions in identifying embryonic Drosophila mutants.

A few years later, geneticist Michael O’Connor named disembodiment, ghost, and mummy – as well as haunted, shroud, phantom, spook, and shadow Halloween genes, according to Science. But the Halloween/Nobel Prize connection doesn’t end there.

Lewis was a friend of O’Connor’s who said, “Ed was a big Halloween person. He’d spend all year making his Halloween costumes.” Science notes Lewis was a fan of Belgian surrealist René Magritte and “would dress as characters from his paintings, including the man in a leopard print caveman garb holding a barbell in Perpetual Motion and the man with a birdcage chest and straw hat in The Therapist.”

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Charles Robert Richet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1913 for his work on the occasionally lethal set of allergic reactions known as anaphylaxis. But Richet, according to Digital Dying, had several other scientific interests, namely ghosts.

Richert ran with some of the early 20th century’s most renowned occultists, including German psychic researcher Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, British poet and founder of the Society for Psychical Research Frederic William Henry Myers, and Gabriel Delanne, a French electrical engineer and author of the book, Le Phenomene Spirite (The Spiritist Phenomenon).

“Richet believed there was a physical explanation for paranormal phenomena,” writes Digital Dying, quoting him as saying ‘The simplest and most rational explanation is to suppose the existence of a faculty of supernormal cognition setting in motion the human intelligence by certain vibrations that do not move the normal senses.’”

A man of science, Richert believed in a sixth sense and believed, “If there was a spiritual world invisible for most of us here in this world, and if entities were passing back and forth between the two worlds, then there would have to be some physical evidence of that connection,” Digital Dying writes. “There would have to be some object that enabled the people of this world to connect with the people of that other world. And Richet came up with a name for that object: ectoplasm.”

Richert described ectoplasm as a spiritual energy that allows the spirit world and mediums to communicate. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle agreed, adding that ectoplasm was “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes.”

Fellow researchers believed that ectoplasm was part of a larger concept called ectenic force, which referred to a psychic or supernatural force connecting the living world to the other world. French statesman Count Agenor de Gasparin and natural history professor M. Thury of the Academy of Geneva conducted experiments on ectenic force, claiming to have found evidence of its existence. However, their findings were never independently verified.

Physical investigators began looking into medium’s claims of possessing physical ectoplasm and determined it to be muslin or a substance formed by regurgitating textile products smoothed with potato starch. “Helen Duncan, the famous Scottish medium who in 1944 was one of the last people in Britain convicted of being a witch, was found to use an ectoplasm made of regurgitated cheesecloth and doll heads,” notes Digital Dying.

Richet’s theory that a physical substance connects the living with … whatever comes next … was weakened by these investigations. “But even today modern science leaves us with some puzzling gaps,” Digital Dying writes. “For one, NASA estimates that 70 percent of the universe is composed of dark matter, and yet we can’t see this matter and can’t say much at all about where or how it exists.”

Weird Science In Berkeley

A trio of spooky-but-not-to-spooky stories out of the University of California, Berkeley, starting with sugar coatings.

“Cells are like M&M’S; they have a sugar coating,” Carolyn Bertozzi, Ph.D. said by way of explaining her work. In 2022, Bertozzi became the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a method she dubbed biorthogonal, according to the Cal Alumni Association. Bertozzi originally discovered and applied bioorthogonal reactions to study glycobiology — those sugars that coat the outside of cells.

Bioorthogonal chemistry is a type of chemical reaction that is applied to living organisms and is based on the concept of “click chemistry,” which was developed by fellow Nobel Laureates K. Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal. According to Bertozzi, bioorthogonal chemistry involves chemical reactions that do not interact with or interfere with the biology of the cell. In other words, the reactions take place without disrupting the normal chemistry of the cell.

Up next, John Clauser, a Nobel laureate in Physics who experimented on quantum entanglement during his postdoc at Berkeley in the early 1970s. His work on quantum entanglement involves a phenomenon where the state of one particle in a pair affects the state of the other, even if they are separated by a great distance. This concept was famously referred to by Albert Einstein as “spooky action at a distance” due to its bizarre nature. Clauser’s research on this subject continues to be significant in the field of Physics.

Finally, let’s do the Time Warp again! And travel back to 2010 when Svante Pääbo, a former postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his successful sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. This groundbreaking research led to the creation of a new scientific field called paleogenomics, which sheds light on how ancient genes transferred to modern humans.

The transfer of these genes has significant physiological implications, such as affecting how our immune system responds to infections. “By revealing genetic differences that distinguish all living humans from extinct hominins, his discoveries provide the basis for exploring what makes us uniquely human,” the Nobel Assembly press release reads. “Pääbo accomplished this by isolating and analyzing DNA from the bones of three female Neanderthals who lived 40,000 years ago,” writes the Cal Alumni Association. “We hope their ghosts didn’t come back to haunt this past Halloween.”