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2019 Nobel Prizes: What you can learn from this year's winners
From literature to physics, the annual Nobel Prizes aim to highlight the most groundbreaking achievements in every field.
- Each year, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards six Nobel Prizes.
- The categories are: literature, physics, chemistry, peace, economics, and physiology & medicine.
- The Nobel prizes will be announced each business-day until October 14.
Nobel Peace Prize
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali won the Nobel Peace on Friday for helping to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
Eritrea and Ethiopia, two of the world's poorest nations, fought a war against each other from 1998 to 2000. A peace treaty in 2000 stopped the large-scale fighting, but a stalemate ensued, and both sides have in recent years accused the other of sparking smaller border clashes.
I am humbled by the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. My deepest gratitude to all committed and working fo… https://t.co/xdCOgyp49Q— Abiy Ahmed Ali (@Abiy Ahmed Ali)1570801685.0
But after taking office in 2018, Abiy pursued peace talks with Eritrea.
"In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long "no peace, no war" stalemate between the two countries," the academy wrote.
"He spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country's state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections."
Still, ethnic conflicts within Ethiopia have displaced more than 3 million people in recent years, and critics of Abiy – who's already survived one assassination attempt – argue that his policies will make matters worse.
"No doubt some people will think this year's prize is being awarded too early," the academy wrote. "The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed's efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement."
Last year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman and former captive of ISIS, for helping to combat wartime sexual assault.
Nobel Prize: Literature
The Swedish Academy awarded two writers the Nobel Prize in Literature: The Polish author and poet Olga Tokarczuk received the 2018 award, and the 2019 prize went to Austrian author and playwright Peter Handke.
Last year's Nobel Prize in Literature was postponed due to a sexual assault scandal involving the husband of an academy member. After the scandal, several board members departed and the academy changed the way it chooses winners.
Handke is a 76-year-old Austrian playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet who gained acclaim early in his career for his avant-garde play "Offending the Audience." He's also written many scripts for films, including Die linkshändige Frau (The Left–Handed Woman), which in 1978 was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
But Handke's win is proving controversial. The writer is a well-known apologist for former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused by a United Nations tribunal of war crimes related to wars in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia. In his writings, Handke controversially portrayed Serbia as a victim of the Yugoslav Wars. Although Handke declined Milosevic's request to appear as a witness at his U.N. trial., the writer did eulogize Milosevic after he died in prison awaiting trial.
"I think he was a rather tragic man," Handke said in a 2006 interview. "Not a hero, but a tragic human being. I am a writer and not a judge."
Surprisingly, in 2014 Handke said the Nobel Prize for literature "should be abolished" because it "promotes the false canonization of literature."
A handful of writers and literary organizations have already denounced the academy's decision to award the prize to Handke.
"We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic," the novelist Jennifer Egan, who is president of PEN America, said in a statement on behalf of the organization. "At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature's choice."
"Have we become so numb to racism, so emotionally desensitized to violence, so comfortable with appeasement that we can overlook one's subscription and service to the twisted agenda of a genocidal maniac?" tweeted Vlora Citaku, Kosovo's ambassador to the United States.
Tokarczuk, who also won last year's Man Booker International Prize for her novel "Flights," is the 15th woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The judges described her as "a writer preoccupied by local life ... but looking at earth from above ... her work is full of wit and cunning," and said she possesses "a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life."
Tokarczuk is a controversial figure in Poland, a nation dominated by right-wing populist politics, which she frequently criticizes. After she criticized Poland's history of colonialism in a 2014 interview, some right-wing nationalists called her a "targowiczanin," an archaic term for traitor.
Some of Tokarczuk's works to check out include: "The Journey of the Book-People," "Primeval and Other Times," and the screenplay for the crime film "Spoor", which was nominated for best foreign language film at the 2018 Oscars.
Nobel Prize: Physics
How did the Big Bang produce the swirling galaxies that populate our universe, and how can scientists detect and study planets that orbit stars light-years away from Earth? The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three scientists who helped shed light on these complex questions.
James Peebles, the Albert Einstein professor of science at Princeton, received half of the award, which includes half of the $918,000 prize money. Michel Mayor, an astrophysicist and professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Geneva, and Didier Queloz, a professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University and at the University of Geneva, together share the other half of the prize.
"While James Peebles' theoretical discoveries contributed to our understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz explored our cosmic neighborhoods on the hunt for unknown planets. Their discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world," the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Goran Hansson, said.
BREAKING NEWS: The 2019 #NobelPrize in Physics has been awarded with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical dis… https://t.co/mDyUeJMuf7— The Nobel Prize (@The Nobel Prize)1570528353.0
How Dr. Peebles enriched cosmology
Since the 1960s, Dr. Peebles' work has helped to solidify and enrich cosmology, chiefly by finding ways to learn about the universe from the ancient radiation leftover from the Big Bang.
Some 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled enough for light rays to travel through space. Today, billions of years later, this ancient radiation is still around us, though its temperature is near absolute zero. But Dr. Peebles discovered that the temperature of this background radiation provides clues about how much matter was created by the Big Bang.
The calculations made possible by this discovery also shed light on the matter and processes in the universe that we can't see: dark energy and dark matter.
"The results showed us a universe in which just five per cent of its content is known, the matter which constitutes stars, planets, trees – and us," the academy wrote. "The rest, 95 per cent, is unknown dark matter and dark energy. This is a mystery and a challenge to modern physics."
2019 #NobelPrize laureate James Peebles took on the cosmos, with its billions of galaxies and galaxy clusters. His… https://t.co/Fko2AUZt68— The Nobel Prize (@The Nobel Prize)1570528441.0
Mayor and Queloz: Finding exoplanets
Astronomers detect exoplanets by measuring extremely subtle changes in a star's activity. These changes occur as exoplanets orbit their host star, and the predictability of the changes allows scientists to learn quite a lot about the properties of exoplanets. In 1995, Mayor and Queloz used this approach to discover the first planet outside of our solar system. It might sound surprising to us today, but before their discovery astronomers considered that maybe it was extremely rare for stars to have planets orbiting them, meaning life outside of Earth would be even more unlikely, if not impossible."This discovery started a revolution in astronomy and over 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way," the academy wrote. "Strange new worlds are still being discovered, with an incredible wealth of sizes, forms and orbits. They challenge our preconceived ideas about planetary systems and are forcing scientists to revise their theories of the physical processes behind the origins of planets. With numerous projects planned to start searching for exoplanets, we may eventually find an answer to the eternal question of whether other life is out there."
Nobel Prize: Medicine
Photo by Xinhua/Zheng Huansong via Getty Images
The 2019 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists from the U.S. and U.K. working independently on the same problem: how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University, Sir Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University, and William Kaelin, Jr., of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard University received the 5 a.m. call from Stockholm. The three maintained an ongoing and informal conversation, sharing work and consequentially rocketing the entire field of study forward.
Their research unveiled a genuine textbook discovery. "They've unveiled the series of molecular events that allow cells to assess and respond to changing levels of available oxygen, with implications in the treatment of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, anemia, and other diseases," according to previous Big Think reporting. Read the full article dedicated to the findings here.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.