The first Nobel prizes announced this year honour fundamental discoveries of the processes which run the universe and living things in it. Both also look ahead to a better and more interesting future. William G Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J Ratcliffe and Gregg L Semenza have won the prize for physiology or medicine for discovering the pathways by which cells adapt to oxygen availability. Of considerable medical use, it is perhaps the most significant step towards understanding cellular respiration since 1937, when Hans Adolf Krebs and William Arthur Johnson discovered the cycle mediated by adenosine triphosphate, which powers life.
Half of the prize in physics went to James Peebles, whose theoretical framework describing the universe from the Big Bang to the present underpins all of physical cosmology. Most evocative, both for the layperson and the scientist, is the conclusion that we can sense only 5 per cent of the universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy, whose presence can only be inferred by their influence on phenomena. These remain areas of mystery, and will prove to be fertile breeding grounds for future physics laureates. The other half of the physics Nobel prize is shared by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, for the discovery in 1995 of the first exoplanet, orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. Their technique, using Doppler spectroscopy, supplemented the traditional transit method, and has led to the discovery of 4,000 planets circling distant suns.
Is there life on exoplanets? Peebles appears to be convinced that even if there is, we may not recognise it, because it may not use Hans Krebs’ cycle at all. And anyway, we are unlikely to encounter it in the gulf of space. Unless, of course, we adapt to long space journeys on low or no oxygen. The possibility does seem remote.