BunsenBwog: Race for the (Nobel) Prize

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This week on BunsenBwog, our double feature puts the Homeric dichotomy of city of peace and city of war to shame. Zach Kagan brings you the stories of how the Nobel prize relates to sweet-toothed Swedes and the legitimacy of North Korean nuclear tests.

Oh the irony

This week Columbia celebrates the addition of CC and College of Physicians and Surgeons alum Robert Lefkowitz to its list of 95+ “Columbia affiliates” who have been awarded a Nobel prize. Lefkowitz won this year’s Chemistry Nobel for his work with Brian K. Kobilka on G-protein coupled receptors (or GPCRs). His original interest was studying the mechanisms that control heart contractions. Knowing that certain hormones such as adrenaline can increase heart rate, Lefkowitz and Kobilka set out to characterize the so-called beta-adrenergic receptors responsible for reacting to such hormones. The researchers were able to clone these receptors and in doing so, they created new avenues to study GPCRs in general. Their result proved influential in pharmaceuticals as well, where it led to the development of groundbreaking cardiovascular medications.

Columbia continues to hold the world record for number of Nobel laureates, that is counting all current and former alumni, faculty, and mathematical geniuses who choose to work as university janitors. What gives Columbia an edge over runner-ups such as University of Chicago or Cambridge? According to Columbia Prof. Franz H. Messerli, the answer might lie in the amount of chocolate consumption. Messerli ranked countries by number of Nobel laureates per capita, and then cross referenced that list with the average amount of chocolate consumption per person in that country.

The result turned out to be a “close, significant linear correlation between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons.” Messerli’s regression line suggested that it requires about 0.4 kg of chocolate per capita per year in order to produce an extra Nobel laureate. There was only one major outlier: Sweden. The Scandinavian nation that awards the Nobel prizes also seems to win several of them, without a suitably high level of chocolate consumption to match. Messerli provided the following explanation: “the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.”

Speaking of Sweden, this past spring, Swedish scientist Lars-Erik De Geer published a journal article proposing that 2010 measurements of airborne nuclear material suggest that North Korea had detonated at least two nuclear weapons that year. The results understandably caused some concern in the international community and soon, rumors began to fly when a German defense official suggested that the nuclear tests may have been conducted for the benefit of Iran’s nuclear program. Tensions were high, suffice it to say.

Thankfully, a team of seismologists from Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory decided that De Geer’s results needed a little peer review. North Korea has previously tested nuclear explosives in 2006 and 2009, and in both cases, these explosions created measurable seismic waves. The second and more powerful of the nuclear explosions is generally accepted to be on the scale of 2-4 kilotons (that’s equivalent to detonating about 1250-2500 tons of Alfred Nobel’s own explosive, dynamite). Meanwhile, the 2010 tests supposedly measured at whopping 50-200 kilotons- according to De Greer’s article. His hypothesis was based off of increased levels of xenon and barium particles collected in South Korea, Japan, and Russia during the early spring of 2010. But did the seismic data support the idea of a nuclear test?

While most seismic recording stations around North Korea produce data that is unavailable to civilian scientists, the Lamont-Doherty team were able to access a Chinese facility. There, they scoured the records, comparing seismic activity during the months in question with data collected during North Korea’s earlier nuclear tests. In the end, they concluded there could not have been any nuclear detonations in 2010. That is, unless they hollowed out a large enough spherical cavern underground, which could have been used to mask seismic waves caused by such a blast. That is not very likely. Knowing Kim Jong Il toward the end of his life, though, you cannot rule anything out.

Nobel’s dirty little secret via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Henri Nestle

    The colossal cranial enhancements of chocolate are well known. Steve Jobs was a notorious cocoahead and his many disciples continue that practice (see http://www.cocoaheads.org/). Your Professor Messerli should also look for a seasonal effect as overall intelligence, I believe, rises with the use of Swiss Miss which peaks in the Winter months. Then, there is the undeniable chocolate-induced brilliance of animals such as Farfel the talking dog (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZi2og1YQJA ). For this we need statistics?

  2. Anonymous

    Congratulation to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for the great award for the great work.

  3. Julian Assange

    What motivates the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and in particular seismologists Paul G. Richards, David P. Schaff and Won-Young Kim, to follow supposed nuclear testing on the Korean peninsular? Could it be that funding for that prestigious institution of scientific learning is now coming from the CIA resulting in the subversion of their once lofty academic mission?

  4. Anonymous

    Hey, that song is a dynamite :=)

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