Nobel Prize for Physics, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, A Whale of an Imitation, Rethinking Autism

 

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Nobel Prize for Physics

cmbmap.jpg The winning map. What our universe looks like when you take away the galaxies - Courtesy, George Smoot

Written across the sky is the history of the universe, literally. The light from the stars we see has been traveling for years, sometimes millions of years, before it reaches us here on earth. Even further away is the radiation left over from the dawn of time. It's known as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB). Analysis of this can tell us what the universe looked like in the first few seconds of existance. However, since it's so faint, it's hard to make out the details contained in this radiation. It wasn't until the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite was launched that we got a good map of what the early universe looked like. Dr. George Smoot of UC Berkeley was one of the investigators involved with COBE. Along with Dr. John Mather from NASA, he won this year's Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with COBE to establish what the CMB actually looks like, and how it contains the seeds of the galaxies that formed much later.

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Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

fire.jpg Dr. Andrew Fire - Courtesy, Linda Cicero-Stanford News

Every time we think we've worked out what's going on in our cells, biology throws a new curve ball. Take, for example, how cells make proteins. The traditional idea is that DNA gets copied into RNA and then the RNA is used by the cell to make a protein. Logic would argue that, if this is true, when you want to make more protein the best way would be to add more RNA. Except that, when you add more RNA to a cell something strange happens. Instead of getting more protein, the cell shuts down production. This phenomenon is called RNA interference, and it's a radical shift in our understanding of how cells work. It's also the discovery that won this year's Physiology or Medicine Prize from the Nobel committee. Dr. Andrew Fire, from Stanford, along with his colleague Dr. Craig Mello, from the University of Massachusetts, were the first to describe the mechanism behind the phenomenon. Dr. Fire thinks the potential application of RNA interference is huge in the field of medicine.

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A Whale of an Imitation

Luna.jpg Luna - Courtesy, Rachael Griffin

Remember Luna? He was the young killer whale runaway who took up residence in Nootka Sound, off Vancouver Island. He gained fame for seeking out the company of boats, sea planes and local people, and all attempts to lure him back to sea and reunite him with his pod were in vain. Eventually he got into an accident with a tugboat propeller and died. But because Orcas are such social creatures and tend to stay with their family pods their whole lives, Luna's behaviour when he was alone gave scientists an opportunity to learn more about the implications of social living. Andrew Foote, a biologist from the University of Durham, studied hours of recordings of Luna and compared them to the recordings of Luna's family pod. Part of his goal was to figure out, not just what killer whales are saying, but how they learn to speak. He thinks Luna's vocal legacy, which includes not only his family's sounds, but also those of other family pods and even imitations of sea lion barks, is good evidence that killer whales aren't born with a full repertoire of sounds, but actually learn them from their surroundings.

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Rethinking Autism

dsm-iv.jpg Does Autism belong in this manual?

In the big dictionary of mental disorders known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM for short, autism is listed as a mental illness. According to the psychiatric manual, people with autism don't communicate well, have trouble interacting with others, and often have some unusual and repetitive behaviours. Scientists have been very interested in understanding what causes autism -- mostly with an eye to curing it.

Now, two autism researchers in Montreal are arguing that maybe autism isn't something that needs to be cured. Maybe it isn't even a mental disorder.

The two researchers make an unlikely team. One is Dr. Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist and cognitive neuroscientist at the Riviere-des-Prairies Hospital. He has been studying autism for 25 years. The other is Michelle Dawson, who is autistic. Ms. Dawson has never been to university, but is working at the level of someone with a PhD. For the last couple of years, these two have been collaborating on research into autism. They argue that autism should be recognized as a different way of being human, rather than as a disease or series of defects to be eradicated.

We sent freelance science journalist Alison Motluk to Montreal recently, to speak to the two researchers.

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