Amazing Gravitational Wave Astronomy

The very first gravitational waves measured directly came from two merging massive black holes – of all things!? Massive black holes were thought to be few and far between – and now when can ‘see’ them merge, in ‘real time’, just as the LIGO observatory becomes sensitive enough? The characteristic signal from 14 September 2015 was detected during a test run, even before Advanced LIGO started its formal observations four days later. Understandably, the researchers had to check and double-check to make sure that the signal wasn’t a secret test signal. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics honours this earth-shaking detection, which is the result of decades of intense research.

In a nutshell: The observatory had just been switched on moments ago, with only about one-third of its planned sensitivity – and finds an event that is expected to be extremely rare. And it is getting even better: A detailed analysis of the signal revealed that these two merging black holes each had masses higher than thirty times the sun’s mass, putting them squarely in the category of massive black holes, not to be confused with supermassive black holes.

 

The very first detection of gravitational waves on September 14, 2015. Signals received by the LIGO instruments at Hanford, Washington (left) and Livingston, Louisiana (right) and comparisons of these signals to the signals expected due to a black hole merger event. Credit: B.P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration) CC BY-SA 3.0

The very first detection of gravitational waves on 14 September 2015: Signals received by the LIGO instruments at Hanford, Washington (left) and Livingston, Louisiana (right) and comparisons of these signals to the signals expected due to a black hole merger event. Credit: B.P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration) CC BY-SA 3.0

 

The black holes that are believed to be most common in the universe are so-called stellar black holes. They are end-products of massive stars that exploded in supernovae after their lifespan and then collapsed to become stellar black holes. The resulting object is thought to have a mass of lower than twenty times the sun’s mass. Thus, the merging black holes from GW150914 were unusually large.

To complicate things more: They were also unusually close together, otherwise they couldn’t have merged. And in less than two years since this measurement, which shook the scientific community, already five black hole mergers have been recorded, and half of these black holes had been larger than twenty solar masses.

True, these findings are exciting, but they also pose some urgent questions: Do scientists need to change the theory of black holes to accommodate their large sizes, their large numbers as well as their proximity to each other? An interesting theory from early 2015, before the first black hole merger signal had been detected, drafts a compelling scenario, formulated by Madrid professor Juan Garcia-Bellido and postdoc Sebastien Clesse from RWTH Aachen University: maybe the universe is crowded with black holes of various sizes, remnants of large density fluctuations during the so-called inflation phase of the Big Bang.

 

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt explaining Einstein's theory of general relativity #LiNo14. In this famous theory, Einstein predicted gravitational waves - but never expected that they could be measured. Photo: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting/Rolf Schultes

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt explaining Einstein’s theory of general relativity at #LiNo14. In this famous theory, Einstein predicted gravitational waves – but never expected that they could be measured. One hundred years after this prediction, their signal was recorded by the two LIGO Observatories. Photo: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting/Rolf Schultes

As Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt explains in his 2016 lecture at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: According to the standard model of cosmology, the universe is thought to have expanded exponentially right after the Big Bang and “things at the quantum scales were magnified to the universal scales, quantum fluctuations were expanded to the scale of the universe.” He continues: “The magnification of the universe from the subatomic to the macro scales seems kind of crazy, but it keeps on predicting the things that we see in the universe.” This short period of rapid expansion is called inflation.

And already in 1971, the famous British physicist Stephen Hawking introduced the idea of ‘primordial black holes’. In the model of Garcia-Bellido and Clesse, these extremely old black holes would have formed in clusters – making it much more likely for surviving specimens to meet and merge. The authors even propose in their recent article for Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German version of Scientific American, that these ubiquitous black holes might account for part of the mysterious Dark Matter.

The standard model assumes that the universe consists of roughly 69% Dark Energy, 26% Dark Matter, and less than 5% atoms – that ultimately provide for stars, galaxies, the earth, humans and everything we know. Without this hypothetical dark matter, the galaxies we can observe would be ripped apart: they’re simply too fast not to lose most of their stars. That this Dark Matter cannot be observed has been a dogma for several decades, but of course scientists are extremely unhappy with anything they can neither observe nor understand. (There have been many attempts to ‘see’ Dark Matter that I cannot describe here.)

What is so fascinating about the primordial black hole theory of Garcia-Bellido and Clesse is that it will be tested with current and future instruments. Finding many black hole mergers in the next few years will be a strong indicator that black holes are not few and far between but many and close together. Garcia-Bellido and Clesse conclude: “Already, the first observations show that black holes are binary more often than expected, and their masses are highly diverse.”

But there is still no proof that these black holes are primordial. The ‘smoking gun’ would be if a black hole in a merger was smaller than 1.45 solar masses: Below this so-called Chandrasekhar limit, no black holes can form after a stellar explosion – it would have to form in another process, making it more likely to be primordial. Unfortunately, many of the very small black holes are thought to have evaporated due to the so-called Hawking radiation.

 

Artist's impression of two merging and exploding neutron stars. Such a very rare event is expected to produce both gravitational waves and a short gamma-ray burst, both of which were observed on 17 August 2017 by LIGO–Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL. Subsequent observations with numerous telescopes confirmed that this object, seen in the galaxy NGC 4993 about 130 million light-years away, is indeed a kilonova. Such objects are the main source of very heavy chemical elements, such as gold and platinum. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser CC BY-SA 4.0

Artist’s impression of two merging and exploding neutron stars. Such a rare event is expected to produce both gravitational waves and a short gamma-ray burst, both of which were observed on 17 August 2017 by LIGO–Virgo. Subsequent observations with numerous telescopes confirmed that this object, seen in the galaxy NGC 4993 about 130 million light-years away, is indeed a so-called kilonova. Such objects are the main source of very heavy chemical elements like gold and platinum. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Also, the Square Kilometre Array SKA, the largest-ever radio telescope being built in South Africa and Australia, will look for characteristic helium radiation from the very early universe that is expected to be found around primordial black holes. And the European LISA space mission will start searching for the characteristic gravitational wave background noise of merging black holes. And more missions are being planned to come to grips with the Dark Matter and Dark Energy problems, among others.

No matter whether the observed black holes are primordial or not: “If LIGO finds that large black holes are far more common than expected, they could help explain the elusive Dark Matter,” says Karsten Danzmann, Director of the German Albert Einstein Institute, which is part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. So even if the theory of Garcia-Bellido and Clesse is not confirmed in every detail, the Dark Matter mystery could be about to be solved.

Yes, gravitational wave astronomy is like opening a new window into the universe, enabling researchers to finally witness binary black hole mergers. But these instruments also open new windows in other fields of astronomy: For instance, on 17 August 2017, LIGO found gravitational waves from a rare neutron star merger. The researchers immediately alerted the astronomical community, resulting in one of the largest observation campaigns ever with 70 participating telescopes. With the help of these other instruments, the exact location of the merger could be determined – but, incidentally, another long-time astronomical mystery was solved: The recorded gamma rays reveal that at least some gamma-ray bursts are caused by merging neutron stars. This was expected theoretically, but now researchers can finally test their theories.

In the next few years, more gravitational wave events will be observed, and they will reveal astounding details about massive object. Moreover, other fields of astronomy will profit on a scale that we cannot foresee today.

The World at Home in Lindau

For nine years, host families from Lindau and the surrounding area have welcomed young scientists from all over the world who are participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Through their engagement, the young scientists avail of the unique opportunity to get to know Lindau and its people in personal surroundings and learn more about their lives and culture first-hand. 

 

Reunited After Six Years – Elom Aglago and His Lindau Host Family

Brigitte Trojan and Hans Schweickert have been participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings as a host family since 2011. They have already welcomed seven young scientists from all over the world (Egypt, Japan, Georgia, Chile, Iran, Lebanon and Togo). In 2011, young scientist Elom Aglago from Togo was their first guest. They have kept in touch during the past six years, and this year, Elom came back to Lindau to meet his host family again.

 

Elom Algago and his host family in Lindau. Credit: Christoph Schumacher/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Elom Aglago and his host family in Lindau. Credit: Christoph Schumacher/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

How did you decide to become a host family?

Brigitte Trojan/Hans Schweickert: We had just moved here to Lindau, into a new house with garden, when we thought that we might welcome a young scientist from abroad. We love being at home, we love living here in Lindau, but we are also open to new cultures and perspectives. In addition, we are very enthusiastic about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. So, for us, it was a perfect opportunity to meet people from all over the world. It is also a great way for us to improve our English.

For us, it was a perfect opportunity to meet people from all over the world

How do you remember Elom’s first stay here in Lindau?

BT/HS: We felt happy and privileged to host Elom here in 2011. We had breakfast together every morning and talked about the daily programme. And every evening, he gave us a briefing about the day at the Lindau Meeting. We got lots of inspiration from him. He always liked to discuss things with us, and we truly appreciate that.

 

How did you stay in contact over the past six years?

BT/HS: We occasionally exchanged e-mails. For example, we wished each other a Merry Christmas each year. We sent him the news from Lindau, told him about the new young scientists, and in return received news from Togo, Morocco or France, depending on where he lived at the time. He shared the progress of his scientific career with us, the papers he published and his most important findings. Two years ago, we had the idea that he could visit us again. Last December, we have planned his visit for this summer – and now he is here again.

 

How was it to see each other again?

BT/HS: We met at the railway station and were happy to see each other again. Immediately, there was the familiar warmth and the same spark. We right away started again to discuss differences and in our philosophies, and to talk about the roles of family and parents in our different cultures and so on. We missed him, and our cat missed him as well (laughs).

 

Is he the same as you remember him?

BT/HS: Yes and No. He is as young and lively as he was then – but also a little bit more serious; it seems as if he has arrived where he wants to be.

 

Elom at the Bavarian Evening during the Lindau Meeting 2011. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elom Algago

Elom at the Bavarian Evening during the Lindau Meeting 2011. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elom Aglago

Elom Aglago: I have become wiser; I’m not as childlike as I was then. I think that my host family contributed in some way to that; they helped me to understand differences in cultures, to respect other cultures and learn from them. I think it all started with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. I experienced for the first time that we are all different but unique and special. We have to take that into account.

 

Are you closer to getting the Nobel Prize now than you were back in 2012?

EA: Personally, getting the Nobel Prize is not on my agenda at the moment (laughs). I would like to take on administrative position from which I can improve the transfer of knowledge, technology and responsibility to Africa. Many Africans get lost in their ambitions, not aware of the correct procedures. I plan to do this and continue with my research at the same time.

 

Did you have such good experiences with every young scientist you welcomed?

BT/HS: It is always a great opportunity to meet people who are able to bring the world forwards. All young scientists were very polite and got along well in our home. They were always very thankful; and were eager to engage in dialogue and to take in all information.

 

 

 The First Access to the World – Host Family Ober

The Ober family has been welcoming young scientists in Lindau since 2013. Thus far, all of them have been from Asia: Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Often, two young scientists stay at their holiday apartment at the same time. Their son David enjoys the company of the foreign visitors and helps his parents as host.

 

Host family Ober with their two young scientists Nopphon Weeranoppanant (“Nop”, left) and Cholpisit Kiattisewee (“Ice”, second from right) and guest Pree-Cha Kiatkirakajorn (“Joe”, right). Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Catharina Ober

Host family Ober with their two young scientists Nopphon Weeranoppanant (“Nop”, left) and Cholpisit Kiattisewee (“Ice”, second from right) and guest Pree-Cha Kiatkirakajorn (“Joe”, right). Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Catharina Ober

 

Why did you become a host family for the Lindau Meetings?

Cathrin Ober: My niece Theresa came up with the idea of acting as a host family for young scientists. We wouldn’t have thought about if it wasn’t for her; she was the driving force behind our decision. She already knew five years ago, when she was 14, that she would become a physicist and had been at various events of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, for example, at the Grill & Chill or at the Matinee. She convinced us to volunteer as a host family and promised to care for the young scientists during their stay. When the first young scientists came to our home, our son, David, also became enthusiastic about the visitors. For example, he prepared the breakfasts for them. He was only five years old! If he wouldn’t have been that committed, we may have stopped after my niece had left Lindau. […] The Lindau Meetings are wonderful for our city. Everything is always working out that well, because everyone plays their part to the full. We are happy to contribute our bit.

Our son also became enthusiastic about the visitors

How is it to be a host family during the Lindau Meetings, especially with a young child?

CO: It is always a lot of fun! We benefit from the tightly packed programme of the young scientists. I mean, my husband and I are both fully employed; we’re doing this alongside our day jobs. Although we don’t have much time, the young scientists were always very grateful. We do have the mornings together, and on the only free evening, we are always cooking a German meal for our guests. This year, we made Kässpätzle, sautéed onions and Sauerkraut. Up to now, the two Thai boys we had here this year have been the most fun, it was amazing with them. They played tabletop soccer with David. They always tried to chat with him. In previous years, it was only sign language, but now he knows a few words in English. I think that it is a good thing for him and the other children in host families. It is his first access to the world. He has always joined when we spent time with them, and it is always him who first finds the young scientists at the train station. He looks at their photos before we pick them up at the station, and he always spots them right away!

During the interview, their son David enters the room, wearing a jumper with the inscription ’Time to go and change the world’. When asked how it is to have young scientists at their home every year, he simply replied: “Quite cool!”

 

Have you stayed in contact with the young scientists you have welcomed here in Lindau?

CO: We have never stayed in contact with any of our guests. I really do think that it is hard if you only get to know each other for one week. But if we’d like to get in touch again, it would surely be possible with all of them. Our young scientists this year were quite direct and said that all hell would break loose if we were to set foot into Thailand without getting in touch with them (laughs). We show them the beauty of Lindau and that’s all. We’re not well versed in natural sciences. That’s why we never really talked about their disciplines. We talked about their countries and customs, about their focuses in life.

The two young scientists were also enthusiastic about their stay at the Ober’s house. They told us about the “incredible experience” (Ice) with “an amazing host family” (Nop). They were particularly pleased with the exchange of their cultures. The conversations during the meals were “very important parts of my memory of Lindau. And Spätzle was my favourite! :)” (Nop)

 

 

Lindau Family for Life – Host Family Heller

Mrs. and Mr. Heller are a host family since 2012. Every year, they welcome at least one young scientist at their home.

 

Host family Heller and Alumna Dissaya in Lindau. Credit: Courtesy of Dissaya Pornpattananangkul

Host family Heller and Alumna Dissaya in Lindau. Credit: Courtesy of Dissaya Pornpattananangkul

 

Why did you decide to host young scientists?

Mr. Heller: I have spent ten years of my life abroad. I know what it’s like to be a foreigner in another country and how nice it is to get access to the local people and to get their support. Everybody wishes to enjoy hospitality: this means that you have to offer it yourself. In that way, you can get to know the world without stepping onto an airplane.
In addition, I do have a special interest in science in general and in astrophysics, medicine and economic sciences in particular.

In that way, you can get to know the world without stepping onto an airplane.

What is it like to be a host family?

H: Being a host family means to be tolerant and open. It implies to be considerate of others and to give someone you don’t know the benefit of the doubt. It is always exciting when a completely unknown person becomes part of your family from one minute to the next. In general, it is always an enrichment to spend time with those guests. The young scientists that come to Lindau are global elite. It is thus not surprising that they are pleasant, interesting, capable and astonishingly mature personalities. Unfortunately, we have not yet succeeded in persuading one of our guests to move to Germany and work here, although each of the scientists would mean an enormous gain for our country.

 

Were there huge differences between the different young scientists you have welcomed in Lindau up to now?

H: In our experience, the young and mobile generation in a global world is coming closer together. Their dreams and wishes are – despite all cultural differences – the same: they want to start a family, to develop professionally, to travel as well as to live in wealth, peace and security. Although there might be a loss of cultural diversity, I believe that the positive impact of this is predominant due to the fact that homogeneity has a connecting effect.

 

Is there a key moment you remember with one of the young scientists?

H: In 2013, we welcomed a young scientist from Thailand: Dissaya. With her, we immediately had a special connection. She really became our friend even though thousands of kilometers are dividing us. During the Lindau Meeting, we had some deep conversations over a glass of red wine. We talked about the important things in life: for example, about what it means to grow old. Those moments were quite touching. I also took her out on a motorcycle tour once to show her the surroundings. A few months later, Dissaya came back to Lindau to stay with us for a two-week vacation. She also invited us to her wedding a few years ago; unfortunately, we weren’t able to go.

 

After the interview with Mr. Heller, we asked Dissaya to also comment on her experience with her host family.

Dissaya Pornpattananangkul: Before meeting with the family, I was only expecting to exchange experiences with the local people. The first time I arrived in Lindau by train, Mr. Heller was there waiting to pick me up. From that moment onwards, my host family took care of me so well. They showed me many places in Lindau. It was one of the most valuable experiences abroad for me. Staying with the host family, I gained a family in Lindau for life. […] The whole time I was there, every moment was very special. Mr. Heller took me out to ride a motorcycle in the mountains. The view was fantastic. It was really one of the most beautiful sceneries I have ever seen.

 

Alumna Dissaya at the motorcycle tour. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mr. Heller

Alumna Dissaya at the motorcycle tour. Photo/Credit: Heller

We thank the Lindau host families for their engagement as well as the open and interesting conversations.

The Hungry Brain

Gut brain Axis Feature Credited

 

Under normal, healthy conditions we eat whenever we are feeling hungry. In addition to the feeling of hunger, we also often have an appetite for a specific kind of food, and sometimes we simply crave the pleasure a certain food like chocolate or pizza may provide us. This pleasure is part of the hedonic aspect of food and eating. In fact, anhedonia or the absence of experiencing pleasure from previously pleasurable activities, such as eating enjoyable food, is a hallmark of depression. The hedonic feeling originates from the pleasure centre of the brain, which is the same one that lights up when addicts ‘get a fix’. Hedonic eating occurs independently of the gut-brain axis, which is why you will keep eating those crisps and chocolate, even when you know, you’re full. Hence, sayings like “These chips are addictive!” are much closer to the biological truth than many realise.  

But how do we know that we are hungry? Being aware of your surrounding and/or your internal feelings is the definition of consciousness. And a major hub for consciousness is a very primal brain structure, called the thalamus. This structure lies deep within the brain and constantly integrates sensory input from the outside world. It is connected to cognitive areas such as the cortex and the hippocampus, but also to distinct areas in the brainstem like the locus coeruleus, which is the main noradrenergic nucleus in the brain and regulates stress and panic responses. Directly below the thalamus and as such also closely connected to this ‘awareness hub’ lies the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is a very complex brain area with many different functions and nuclei. Some of them are involved in the control of our circadian rhythm and internal clock – the deciphering of which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But the main task of the hypothalamus is to connect the brain with the endocrine system (i.e. hormones) of the rest of the body. Hormones like ghrelin, leptin, or insulin are constantly signalling your brain whether you are hungry or not. They do so via several direct and indirect avenues, such as blood sugar levels, monitoring energy storage in adipose cells, or by secretion from the gastrointestinal mucosa.

There are also a number of mechanosensitive receptors that detect when your stomach walls distend, and you have eaten enough. However, similarly to the hormonal signals, the downstream effects of these receptors also take a little while to reach the brain and be (consciously) noticeable. Thus, the slower you eat, the less likely you will be to over-eat, because the satiety signals from hunger-hormones and stomach-wall-detectors will reach your consciousness only after about 20 to 30 minutes.

Leaving the gut and coming back to the brain, the hypothalamus receives endocrine and neuropeptidergic inputs related to energy metabolism and whether the body requires more food. Like most brain structures, the hypothalamus is made up of several sub-nuclei that differ in cell-type and downstream-function. One of these nuclei, the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, is considered the main hub for feeding and appetite control. Within it there are a number of signalling avenues that converge and that – if altered or silenced – can induce for instance starvation. Major signalling molecules are the Neuropeptide Y, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and the peptide hormone melanocortin. The neurons in the arcuate nucleus are stimulated by these and other signalling molecules in order to maintain energy homeostasis for the entire organism. There are two major subclasses of neurons in the arcuate nucleus that are essential for this homeostasis and that, once stimulated, cause very different responses: activation of the so-called POMC neurons decreases food intake, while the stimulation of AGRP neurons increases food intake. And this circuit even works the other way around: researchers found that by directly infusing nutrients into the stomach of mice, they were able to inhibit AGRP neurons and their promotion of food intake.

Given this intricate interplay between different signalling routes, molecules, and areas it is not surprising then that a disrupted balance between all of these players could be detrimental. Recent studies identified one key player that can either keep the balance or wreak havoc: the gut microbiome

 

Bacteria colonising intestinal villi make up the gut microbiome. Picture/Credit: ChrisChrisW/iStock.com

Bacteria colonising intestinal villi make up the gut microbiome. Picture/Credit: ChrisChrisW/iStock.com

 

The gut microbiome is the entirety of the microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract, and they can modulate the gut-brain axis. Most of the microorganisms living on and within us are harmless and in fact are very useful when it comes to digesting our food. However, sometimes this mutually beneficial symbiosis goes awry, and the microbes start ‘acting out’. For instance, they can alter satiety signals by modulating the ghrelin production and subsequently induce hunger before the stomach is empty, which could foster obesity. They can also block the absorption of vital nutrients by taking them up themselves and thereby inducing malnutrition. A new study which was published only last month revealed that Alzheimer patients display a different and less diverse microbiome composition than healthy control subjects. Another study from Sweden even demonstrated that the specific microbiome composition occurring in Alzheimer’s patients induces the development of disease-specific amyloid-beta plaques, thereby establishing a direct functional link between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s disease – at least in mice. Similarly, the composition and function of the microbiome might also directly affect movement impairments in Parkinson’s disease. In addition, there is also mounting evidence that neuropsychiatric diseases such as anxiety or autism are functionally linked to the microbiome

Moreover, even systemic diseases such as lung, kidney and bladder cancers have been recently linked to the gut microbiome. Albeit, in this case, not the disease development and progression seem to be directly related to our gut inhabitants. Instead, the researchers found that if the microbiome of the cancer patients was disrupted by a recent dose of antibiotics, they were less likely to respond well to the cancer treatment and their long-term survival was significantly diminished. It seems that the treatment with antibiotics disrupts specific components of the microbiome, which then negatively affects the function of the entire composition. 

While the cause or consequence mechanisms between these different afflictions and an altered microbiome have not been solved yet, it seems certain that it is involved in more than digestion. Hence, the already intricate gut-brain axis is further complicated by the gut microbiome, which not only affects when and what we eat, but can also determine our fate in health and disease.  

Richard Thaler: No Regular Economist

Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences “for his contributions to behavioural economics”. This column, written by his first behavioural collaborator, provides a personal perspective on the development of three key areas of research to which the new laureate has been a major contributor: people’s limited rationality, their perceptions about fairness, and their lack of self-control.

 

A bowl of cashew nuts inspired Thaler to a thought experiment in behavioural economics. Picture/Credit: Altayb/iStock.com

A bowl of cashew nuts gave Thaler the idea of performing a thought experiment on self-control. Picture/Credit: Altayb/iStock.com

 

Behavioural economist Richard Thaler is the 2017 recipient of the economics Nobel Prize. Yet, despite having been president of the American Economic Association (AEA) in 2016, he is no regular economist. In fact, Stanford economist and past AEA president Robert Hall once characterised Thaler as his “favourite offbeat economist”.

The award marks Thaler’s transition from the fringe to the mainstream. But it is instructive to look back at the time when his views were regarded as offbeat by mainstream economists. To be sure, Hall is a mainstream economist and an excellent one at that. As chair of the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Hall often makes the call on when the US officially enters and exits recessions. His academic work teaches us how to establish equitable and efficient consumption taxation in a world of rational actors.

By contrast, Thaler’s academic work teaches us to beware of the limits of assuming that the world is populated by rational actors. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences identified the following three areas to which he has been a major contributor: limited rationality; perceptions about fairness; and lack of self-control.

In the mid-1970s, I began to work with Thaler on two of these issues and eventually applied his insights to the third. With this as context, I would like to provide a personal perspective on how these three key ideas developed.

Before getting down to details, I need to say something about what Richard Thaler does better than any other economist: he constructs simple and incisive thought experiments. Most economists, including me, are trained to think in terms of formal models. Thaler is more of a qualitative thinker. As I will explain, he is able to pierce through the formality to get right to the soft spot of where those models are unrealistic in key ways.

Lack of Self-Control

Cashew nuts are calorie-rich – and I like them a lot. I have in my office a bowl of cashews, which look very tempting, but fortunately for me, these cashews are not real, but ceramic. I got them as a souvenir at a gathering to celebrate Thaler’s 70th birthday. There is a self-control story behind the cashews.

In the 1970s, Thaler and his wife threw a dinner party for some friends. Before they served dinner, they placed a large bowl of cashews in front of their hungry guests. The guests began to devour the cashews and soon realised that continuing to do so would interfere with their ability to enjoy dinner. But they couldn’t stop. The cashews were too tempting. So they begged Thaler to take the bowl away.

What would you do if you were really hungry, the cashews were in easy reach and you knew that continuing to eat them would ruin your dinner? To a neoclassically trained economist, asking that the cashews be removed is puzzling – and Thaler was trained as a neoclassical economist.

Classical Greek philosophers taught that rational human beings choose the best means to achieve their desired ends. The neoclassical approach formalises ‘choosing the best’ as a problem in mathematical optimisation. In the neoclassical approach, people are assumed to optimise without effort. If they think that eating more cashews is not optimal, they don’t need somebody else to prevent them from doing so; they can costlessly choose to do something other than eat more cashews.

Thaler realised that his dinner guests were not acting rationally in the face of temptation, at least not rationally in the sense of being neoclassically rational. He engaged in one of his thought experiments, asking himself what would prevent him from reaching for more cashews when he didn’t want to eat more cashews. That question led him to think about an internal dialogue within his brain between the part of his brain that was ‘planning’ to stop eating cashews and the part of his brain that was actually ‘doing’ the reaching and eating.

Like Thaler, my interest in self-control also stemmed from issues about eating. But in my case, it was because I became intrigued by my wife’s research on the role of healthcare professionals in treating eating disorders – not as compelling as the cashew story!

In any event, Thaler and I managed to find each other and began to collaborate on a formal economic model that would capture how people make decisions when their internal planners and doers fail to agree (Thaler and Shefrin 1981, Shefrin and Thaler 1988).

Limited Rationality

Some credit unions offer a programme called Christmas Clubs. People who join such a club regularly deposit funds during the course of a year into a special account, with the goal of having a balance at year-end that will fund their Christmas gifts.

When Thaler and I first worked on our self-control model, Christmas Clubs were more popular, offered by many banks and, moreover, did not pay interest, even though interest rates on savings accounts were much higher than they are today. This meant that people who used the clubs to save for gifts earned less interest than they could have by just using a regular savings account.

From a neoclassical perspective, someone who joins a Christmas Club and forgoes interest is operating in the interior of his or her budget set, a clear violation of neoclassical rationality. Were these people that stupid?

Some people choose to have too much of their income withheld to pay income tax, in order to get a large tax refund. Less money withheld means more money to invest for a return. Do people not understand the time value of money? Are they that stupid? How about you? Would you withhold at the lowest rate allowable by law?

In a neoclassical world, the answer to the previous two questions is yes, people are that stupid. But hold on a minute. In a world where planners need to deal with difficult doers, which can lead to a lack of self-control, it might be perfectly sensible for people to join Christmas Clubs and for people to have too much tax withheld in order to receive large tax refunds.

Both behaviours might lead to higher savings than would otherwise occur and, if higher savings is the goal, then such behaviours might be eminently reasonable. In theory, the behaviours might not be neoclassically rational, but in practice they might well be ‘good enough’; and as the late economics Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon noted, going for what’s good enough is “satisficing behaviour” that is “boundedly rational”.

Christmas Clubs and tax over-withholding are not foolproof. People can rob their Peters to pay their Pauls. Someone with a severe self-control problem might borrow heavily during the year using her credit card, to the extent that when the year-end arrives, she finds herself compelled to use the proceeds from her Christmas Club to pay her credit card balance rather than to purchase gifts. Perverse? Yes. Boundedly rational? I don’t think so.

People need enough impulse control to prevent perverse behaviour. There are at least three ways for doing so:

  • The first way is using willpower. Of course, if willpower were easy to exert, then there would be no need for Christmas Clubs or tax over-withholding.
  • The second way is through external enforcement: no credit cards at all, which raises all kinds of issues, not the least being the consequences of not having a credit history.
  • The third way is through internal enforcement, using habits.

Planner-doer theory suggests that people segregate their wealth into separate ‘mental accounts’, such as take-home pay, liquid assets, future income and home equity. Mental accounting habits are ‘pecking order’ rules that specify the order in which different accounts are accessed.

Many people find it easiest to spend first from take-home pay. If they wish to spend more than their take-home pay, the first place they go is to their liquid assets (such as checking or savings account balances, bonds and stocks). If these are insufficient, then people can borrow or, as a last resort, dip into their home equity by borrowing or selling their property.

Mental accounts can be somewhat arbitrary. Their levels are not finely tuned. Therefore, following mental accounting rules can lead people to appear as if they are not operating at the margin. But operating at the margin is not the goal – someone can operate at the margin and overspend very easily.

Thaler pointed out that people use all kinds of mental accounts. One of his thought experiments involves a person who mows their own lawn, but would never mow any part of their neighbour’s lawn for compensation.

Thaler suggests that such behaviour is unlikely to involve operating at the margin by setting marginal benefit equal to marginal cost. By this he means that the property line is arbitrary and, in a neoclassical sense, he might be right. But people might use boundaries as rule parameters, just as much as they use boundaries to separate types of wealth (take-home pay, liquid assets, etc.).

Thaler wrote: mental accounting matters (Thaler 1980, 1985). Now mental accounting might not be neoclassically rational. But given the limits of the human mind, it might be sensible – and good enough. Moreover, striving for perfect rationality might be counterproductive, with the end result being an outcome that is not good enough.

Perceptions of Fairness

In the late summer of 2017, a series of hurricanes struck the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Houston and Florida. After Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida, local residents registered over 8,000 complaints of price gouging with the state Attorney General’s office. These complaints mostly related to excessive prices being asked for water, ice, food and fuel.

Why are Florida residents complaining about price gouging? Do they not realise that keeping a lid on prices in these circumstances means that demand will exceed supply and that, as a result, some would-be purchasers will be rationed? Do they not realise that keeping a lid on the prices of these items lowers incentives to increase supply? From a neoclassical point of view, preventing the increase of prices to perceived gouging levels, irrationally induces rationing and insufficient supply.

Thaler, together with his colleagues Daniel Kahneman and Jack Knetsch, suggest an alternative way of thinking about market clearing prices (Kahneman et al. 1986a, 1986b). The alternative stems from Thaler’s concept of ‘transaction utility’ – the psychological pleasure or pain associated with how good of a deal a person associates with a transaction.

In the fairness framework, people have notions of reference transactions that they deem to be ‘fair’. Media reports indicate that some Florida hotels doubled their hotel rates in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Paying double for the normal price of a hotel room generates the experience of loss – negative transaction utility, if you like – if there is no corresponding increase in the costs that the hotel incurs as a result of the hurricane.

According to the fairness framework, hotels that charge double but do not incur higher costs are acting unfairly. In contrast, hotels that charge double to cover higher costs and do not reap additional profits as a result are acting fairly.

These are the rules of fairness that people follow. Fairness matters, just as mental accounting matters. Many people would rather be rationed and arrange for alternative accommodation than be gouged. If they feel pain from perceived unfair treatment, it is by no means obvious that the maintenance of fair prices that do not clear markets is necessarily irrational.

Conclusion

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 economics Nobel Prize for his work on ‘prospect theory’, a way of understanding how people make decisions under conditions of risk and uncertainty. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that Kahneman had done this work together with the late Amos Tversky. Prospect theory, first published in 1979, was foundational for the development of behavioural economics and finance. That said, without Thaler, I am not sure that prospect theory would have had the traction it ultimately had.

There is much to say about Thaler’s accomplishments, beyond the three specific issues discussed above. Thaler was the first economist to reach out to Kahneman and Tversky, and he did so in the mid-1970s. It was Thaler who saw the connection between his fledgling thought experiments, such as the lawn-mowing example, and prospect theory.

 

Richard H. Thaler. Picture/Credit: By Chatham House, CC BY 2.0

Richard H. Thaler. Picture/Credit: By Chatham House, CC BY 2.0

It was Thaler’s entrepreneurial talents that found ways to bring open-minded economists together with Kahneman, Tversky and their psychology colleagues. In part, he did so through his efforts to secure support from the Sloan Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation and eventually the NBER.

It was Thaler who wrote an ‘Anomalies’ column for the Journal of Economics Perspectives, which regularly piqued economists’ interest about the shortcomings of neoclassical thinking.

It was Thaler who, together with Shlomo Benartzi, ingeniously applied our work on self-control to help people save more, through their Save More Tomorrow (SMT) programme.

And it was Thaler who, together with Cass Sunstein, extended insights gained from SMT to develop ‘nudging’, the idea of using ‘choice architecture’ based on behavioural insights to induce people to make better decisions. This concept has had widespread influence in both US and UK public policy.

Richard Thaler’s accomplishments certainly merit his being awarded the 2017 economics Nobel Prize. For those accomplishments, we are all the better.

 

References

Kahneman, D, J L Knetsch and R H Thaler (1986a), “Fairness and the Assumptions of Economics”, Journal of Business 59(4): S285-300.

Kahneman, D, J L Knetsch and R H Thaler (1986b) “Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking: Entitlements in the Market”, American Economic Review 76(4): 728-41.

Shefrin, H M and R H Thaler (1988), “The Behavioral Life-Cycle Hypothesis”, Economic Inquiry26(4): 609-43.

Thaler, R H (1980), “Toward A Positive Theory of Consumer Choice”, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 1(1): 39-60.

Thaler, R H (1985), “Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice”, Marketing Science 4: 1999-214.

Thaler, R H and H M Shefrin (1981), “An Economic Theory of Self-Control”, Journal of Political Economy 89(2): 392-406.

 

This article was first published by VoxEU.

Immunotherapy: The Next Revolution in Cancer Treatment

Over the past 150 years, doctors have learned to treat cancer with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and vaccines. Now there is a new weapon for treatment: immunotherapy. For some patients with previously incurable cancer, redirecting their immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells has resulted in long-term remission, with cancer disappearing for a year or two after treatment.

 

Lymphocytes attacking cancer cell. Credit: selvanegra/iStock.com

Lymphocytes attacking a cancer cell. Credit: selvanegra/iStock.com

 

Cancer immunotherapy has been used successfully to treat late stage cancers such as leukaemia and metastatic melanoma, and recently used to treat mid-stage lung cancer. Various forms of cancer immunotherapy have received regulatory approval in the US, or are in the approval process in the EU. These drugs free a patient’s immune system from cancer-induced suppression, while others engineer a patient’s own white blood cells to attack cancer. Another approach, still early in clinical development, uses antibodies to vaccinate patients against their own tumours, pushing their immune system to attack the cancer cells.

However, immunotherapy is not successful, or even an option, for all cancer patients. Two doctors used FDA approvals and US cancer statistics to estimate that 70 percent of American cancer deaths are caused by types of cancer for which there are no approved immunotherapy treatments. And patients that do receive immunotherapy can experience dramatic side effects: severe autoimmune reactions, cancer recurrence, and in some cases, death.

With such varied outcomes, opinions vary on the usefulness of immunotherapy. Recent editorials and conference reports describe “exciting times” for immunotherapy or caution to “beware the hype” about game-changing cancer treatment. Regardless of how immunotherapy could eventually influence cancer treatment, its development is a new revolution in cancer treatment, building on detailed biochemical knowledge of how cancer mutates and evades the immune response. Academic research into immunotherapy is also being quickly commercialised into personalised and targeted cancer treatments.

 

T-cells (red, yellow, and blue) attack a tumour in a mouse model of breast cancer following treatment with radiation and a PD-L1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, as seen by transparent tumour tomography. Credit: Steve Seung-Young Lee, National Cancer Institute\Univ. of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center

T-cells (red, yellow, and blue) attack a tumour in a mouse model of breast cancer following treatment with radiation and a PD-L1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, as seen by transparent tumour tomography. Credit: Steve Seung-Young Lee, National Cancer Institute\University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center

Checkpoint inhibitors

Twenty years ago, James Allison, an immunologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, was the first to develop an antibody in a class of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors. These treatments release the immune system inhibition induced by a tumour. The drug he developed, Yervoy, received regulatory approval for the treatment of metastatic skin cancer in the US in 2011. By last year, Yervoy and two newer medications had reached 100,000 patients, and brought in $6 billion a year in sales.

In general, immunotherapy tweaks T-cells, white blood cells that recognise and kill invaders, to be more reactive to cancer cells. Tumours naturally suppress the immune response by secreting chemical messages that quiet T-cells. Cancer cells also bind to receptors on the surface of T-cells, generating internal messages that normally keep the immune system from attacking healthy cells.

One of those receptors is called CTLA-4. Allison and his colleagues blocked this receptor on T-cells with an antibody, and discovered that T-cells devoured cancer cells in mice. Since then, other checkpoint inhibitors have been developed and commercialised to block a T-cell receptor called PD-1 or its ligand PD-L1, present on some normal cells as well as cancer cells.

In the US, PD-1 and PD-LI inhibitors have been approved to treat some types of lung cancer, kidney cancer, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And the types of potentially treatable cancers are growing: Currently, more than 100 active or recruiting US clinical trials are testing checkpoint inhibitors to treat bladder cancer, liver cancer, and pancreatic cancer, among others.

 

CAR-T

Another type of cancer immunotherapy, called CAR-T, supercharges the ability of T-cells to target cancer cells circulating in the blood. In August, the first CAR-T treatment was approved in the US for children with aggressive leukaemia, and regulatory approval for a treatment for adults came in October.

To produce CAR T-cells, doctors send a patient’s blood to a lab where technicians isolate T-cells and engineer them to produce chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs. These CARs contain two fused parts: an antibody that protrudes from the surface of a T-cell to recognise a protein on cancerous B-cells (commonly CD-19) in the blood and a receptor inside the T-cell that sends messages to cellular machinery. When the antibody binds to a tumour cell, it activates the internal receptor, triggering the CAR T-cell to attack the attached cancer cell.

In clinical trials, some patients treated with CAR T-cells for aggressive leukaemia went into remission when other treatments had failed. But several high-profile trials had to be suspended because of autoimmune and neurological side effects, some leading to patient deaths.

To improve the safety of CAR-T treatment, researchers are now engineering “suicide switches” into the cells, genetically encoded cell surface receptors that trigger the cell to die when a small molecule drug binds them. If doctors see a patient experiencing side effects, they can prescribe the small molecule drug and induce cell death within 30 minutes.

Other safety strategies include improving the specificity of CAR T-cells for tumour cells because healthy cells also carry CD-19 receptors. To improve CAR-T tumour recognition, some researchers are adding a second CAR, so that the engineered cell has to recognise two antigens before mounting an attack.

 

As seen with pseudo-coloured scanning electron microscopy, two cell-killing T-cells (red) attack a squamous mouth cancer cell (white) after a patient received a vaccine containing antigens identified on the tumour. Credit: Rita Elena Serda, National Cancer Institute\Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine

As seen with pseudo-coloured scanning electron microscopy, two cell-killing T-cells (red) attack a squamous mouth cancer cell (white) after a patient received a vaccine containing antigens identified on the tumour. Credit: Rita Elena Serda, National Cancer Institute\Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine

Neoantigens

 A third type of immunotherapy aims to target mutated proteins that are a hallmark of cancer. Cancer cells display portions of these mutated proteins, called neoantigens, on their surface. Researchers are studying how to use tumour-specific neoantigens in vaccines to help the body mount an immune response targeted at the cancer.

Results from two recent small clinical trials for patients with advanced melanoma suggest that neoantigen vaccines can stop the cancer from growing, or in some cases, shrink the tumours with few reported side effects. But it’s too early in clinical development to know if the vaccines will extend the lives of cancer patients.

There are two steps to making a neoantigen vaccine: first, identify mutated proteins unique to most of a patient’s cancer cells and second, identify portions of those proteins that could most effectively stimulate an immune response.

To identify mutated proteins, researchers sequence the genome of cancer cells and compare it to the sequence in healthy cells. Next, they identify which mutations lead to the production of altered proteins. Finally, they use computer models or cellular tests to identify the portions of proteins that could be the most effective neoantigen.

This last step of predicting neoantigenicity is the most challenging part of developing a new neoantigen vaccine. Lab experiments to confirm the activity of multiple neoantigens are time consuming, and current computer models to predict antigenicity can be inaccurate due to low validation.

A few principles of cancer biology also make developing neoantigens for long-lasting treatment difficult. Some cancers may have too many mutations to test as potential neoantigens. Cancer cells also continue to mutate as tumours grow, and some cells may not display the neoantigens chosen for a vaccine. Finally, cancer cells may naturally stop displaying antigens on their surface, as part of their strategy for evading an immune response.

However, identifying neoantigens can still be useful as cancer biomarkers. Or if used in a vaccine, they may be most effective in combination with other drugs: a few patients in the small clinical trials whose cancer relapsed after the trials responded to treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor.

Cancer has been a common topic in Nobel Laureates’ lectures at many Lindau Meetings. Learn more about these lectures, as well as Nobel Prize winning research related to cancer, in the Mediatheque.

Resistant Bacteria vs. Antibiotics: A Fiercely Fought Battle

Antibiotics are an integral part of today’s medicine, not only to treat a strep throat or an ear infection – they also play a huge role in routine operations like appendecotomies or cecareans, and they are indispensable as co-treatment for many chemotherapies.

If you take an antibiotic today, it has most probably been developed and approved of in the last century. And since “bacteria want to live, and they are cleverer than us,” as Nobel laureate Ada Yonath describes them succinctly, many pathogens have become resistant to these common drugs. In September 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) published an urgent appeal to increase funding for research into new antibiotics: not enough new drugs are in the ‘pipeline’ to combat the growing problem of multi-resistant strains. Currently, an estimated number of 700,000 patients die from infections with these strains every year – and this death toll might rise.

The WHO and other experts are especially concerned about multi-resistant tuberculosis that causes about 250,000 deaths per year, and less than half of all patients receive the necessary treatment that can take up to 20 months. The problem is that disrupted treatment inevitably leads to more resistances. Another very worrisome development is the emergence of multi-resistant Neisseria strains that cause the STD gonorrhoea. Neisseria gonorrhoeae are gram-negative bacteria, meaning that their surface is not coloured by gram staining. This resilient surface is also the reason why it is hard to treat gonorrhoea infections in the first place, even without resistances. Only this year, there have been several outbreaks of this multi-resistant variant around the world.

 

Antibiotic resistance tests: the bacteria in the culture on the left are sensitive to all seven antibiotics contained in the small white paper discs. The bacteria on the right are resistant to four of these seven antibiotics. Photo: Dr Graham Beards, 2011, CC BY-SA 4.0

Antibiotic resistance tests: the bacteria in the culture on the left are sensitive to all seven antibiotics contained in the small white paper discs. The bacteria on the right are resistant to four of these seven antibiotics. Photo: Dr Graham Beards, 2011, CC BY-SA 4.0

 

This brings us to another problem: resistant bugs travel fast. No matter where they develop, with modern travel they can spread around the world within days. The WHO also published a list with 12 pathogens that pose the greatest risks. This list includes Neisseria as well as the well-known and much-feared ‘hospital bug’ methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

 

Imaging technologies help to develop new drugs

Relief from this dire situation might come from unexpected sources, like the technology honoured by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017: cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM. With the help of this new method, researchers can ‘see’ “proteins that confer resistance to chemotherapy and antibiotics”. This method was difficult to develop, and it leaned heavily on the experiences from X-ray crystallography and classic electron microscopy.

Often in research, being able to ‘see’ something is the first step of understanding its function, hence the strong interest in imaging technology in the life sciences: if a researcher can ‘see’ the workings of a resistance-inducing protein, he or she can start working on strategies to inhibit this process. Cryo-EM is especially good at depicting surface proteins, i.e., the location where infections or gene transfers usually start.

At the same time, optical microscopy is moving ahead as well, being able to ‘watch’ proteins being coded in living cells.  The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 was dedicated to the breaking of the optical diffraction limit. Stefan Hell developed STED microscopy, American physicists Eric Betzig invented PALM microscopy, and both were awarded the Nobel Prize, together with William E. Moerner, “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”. Shortly after receiving the most prestigious science award, Stefan Hell combined STED and PALM microscopy to develop the MINFLUX microscope: the very technology that can show proteins being coded. All these methods together will result in a “resolution revolution” that may contribute to the development of new classes of antibiotics.

 

Nobel laureate Ada Yonath during a discussion with young scientists at the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photo: LNLMM/Christian Flemming

Nobel laureate Ada Yonath during a discussion with young scientists at the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Yonath has been studying bacterial ribosomes for many years. Photo: LNLM/Christian Flemming

Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome“ with X-ray crystallography, is currently researching species-specific antibiotics. Her starting point is that many antibiotics target bacteria’s’ ribosomes, “the universal cellular machines that translate the genetic code into proteins.” First, her team studied the inhibition of ribosome activity in eubacteria, i.e., ‘good’ bacteria. Next, she extended her studies to ribosomes from multi-resistant pathogens like MRSA. Her goal is to design species-specific drugs, meaning specific to a certain pathogen. These will minimise the harm done to the human microbiome by today’s antibiotics, resulting in a more efficient cure and a lower risk of antibiotic resistance, because fewer bacteria are affected.

 

Finding new drugs in unexpected places

Another attack strategy is to look for new antibiotic agents in places that never seemed very promising. For example, in 2010 the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Jena (Germany) published a new antibiotic agent found in the soil bacterium Clostridium cellulolyticum. It belongs to the group of anearobic bacteria, a group that has long been neglected in the search for antibiotics. “Our research shows how the potential of a huge group of organisms has simply been overlooked in the past,” says Christian Hertweck, head of Biomolecular Chemistry. Just recently, scientists at the Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have treated resistant Gonorrhoea bacteria with Closthioamide, the agent from Jena. They found that even small quantities were highly effective in the Petri dish; clinical trials will follow.

Yet another research strategy is to make antibiotics more ‘resistant’ to resistance formation. For instance, it has taken 60 years for bacteria to become resistant to vancomycin. Now, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have successfully tested an improved version of vancomycin on vancomycin-resistant Enterococci that are on the WHO list of the most dangerous pathogenes. This improved drug attacks bacteria from three different sides. The study was led by Dale Boger, co-chair of TSRI’s department of chemistry, who said the discovery made the new version of vancomycin the first antibiotic to have three independent ‘mechanisms of action’ to kill bacteria. “This increases the durability of this antibiotic,” he said. “Organisms just can’t simultaneously work to find a way around three independent mechanisms of action. Even if they found a solution to one of those, the organisms would still be killed by the other two.”

 

Drug resistance can ‘jump’ between pathogens

Unfortunately, researchers and bacteria are not the only combatants, and this fiercly fought battle is not confined to clearly marked battlegrounds. Increasingly, multi-resistant bacteria can be found in our food, mostly due to the use of antibiotics in animal farming, and even in our natural environment. One such troubling example is Colistin, an antibiotic from the 1950s, which had never been widely used in humans due to toxic side-effects; however, in recent years it has been rediscovered as a last-resort antibiotic against multi-resistant bugs. Since it is an old drug, it’s also inexpensive and widely used – on pig farms in China.

As expected, Colistin-resistant bacteria developed in pigs, which was first discovered and published in 2015. But what makes this resistance perilous is the fact that the relevant gene is plasmid-mediated, meaning it can spread easily from one bacterium to another, possibly even from one species to another. In 2015, this resistance gene, called mcr-1, was also found in pork in Chinese supermarkets and in a few probes from hospital patients. Only 18 months later, 25 percent of hospital patients in certain areas in China tested positive for bacteria with this gene: resistances start spreading at unprecedented speeds.

Another highly disturbing example are large quantities of modern antibiotics and antimycotics found in the sewage from pharmaceutical production in India. In warm water, many bacteria find ideal conditions not only to live, but also to adapt to these novel antibiotics by quickly becoming resistant. Already travellers returning from some developing countries are considered a potential health threat, because many of them are unwitting carriers of multi-resistant pathogenes.

Since the discovery of Penicillin in 1928 by Nobel Laureate Alexander Fleming, the battle between bacteria and antibiotics is fierce and ongoing. This battle is fought in the laboratories, the hospitals and doctors’ offices all over the world, with some people seeming about as determined and creative as their opponents.

But resistance-breeding grounds like Chinese pig farms or sewage pipes from pharmaceutical companies present yet another battleground and call for a strategy that needs to be innovative as well as multifaceted. Only last week, a United Nations ad-hoc group met in Berlin to discuss these challenges. To sum it up: most of us do not live next to Indian sewer pipes, but the resistant bacteria bred there may reach us all.

 

Sign by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC how antibiotic resistances occur - you use them and you lose them. But in this graph, large-scale pollution with resistant bacteria is not even included. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013 Public Domain

Sign by the US Centers for Disease Control CDC how antibiotic resistance occurs: “you use it and you lose it”. Sewage pollution with resistant bacteria from pharmaceutical production is not included in this graph. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013 Public Domain

“Lindau Was a Lesson in Building Courage and Confidence”

Devaki_Slider

When submitting my application for the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, I said that it would give me a platform to interact, exchange ideas and build collaborations with the best minds in the world: young enthusiastic people from across cultures and geographies. I now know that whatever you write, it is going to be an under-statement: my experience of Lindau was truly life changing, continuing to inspire me in my everyday life.

Lindau gave me the courage to believe in my dreams. It is very motivating to discover that there are so many young scientists who are working towards the common goal of making the world a better place to live.

I met people who have identified new economic problems brought about by the rapidly changing environment and who are using innovative ways to address issues of food wastage, environmental degradation and economic inequality. I now know that when I say that these are the causes that led me to study economics, I speak for many young people.

Lindau is the place to talk freely about your ideas and get valuable feedback from people who share your vision. This is the time and place to build networks that are already a step towards turning your ideas into actions.

The meeting is designed to create plenty of opportunities for informal conversations with Nobel Laureates over lunch or drinks. James Heckman spoke to us about his struggles in graduate school to come up with a research idea, in the process of which he read about a wide variety of topics. He told us: ‘Nothing I have learned has ever been non-useful.’ Bengt Holmström emphasised the role of serendipity, as opposed to luck, in his life: luck is random, but serendipity – that is, how well you use your luck – is not, he said.

I cannot tell you what you are going to experience because it will exceed all your expectations in one way or another.

The frontiers of science are often pushed by borrowing from other disciplines. I had a conversation with Nobel Laureate in Physics, Brian Schmidt, who had many insightful suggestions about the way we, economists, do research and how we can improve our techniques. Being an experimental physicist, he believes in the scientific use of data to answer important research questions and hopes that, in the future, more empirical economists will be honoured with the Nobel Prize.

One of the defining moments of my Lindau experience was being selected as a panellist alongside Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin and Howard Yana-Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars Incorporated, to discuss problems and solutions to economic inequality in a globalised world. I seized the opportunity to draw on my own experience to talk about the problems of inequality in my home country, India.

In this respect, Lindau was a lesson in building courage and confidence: you have to speak what you believe in. The experience was rewarding. After the talk, many economists came forward to share their views on some of the issues I had raised.

Vladimir Petrov, a PhD student at University of Zurich, spoke about his experience of being involved in a start-up that is leveraging blockchain, an artefact of the new financial system, to build projects to save the environment. Carl Schramm, economist and entrepreneur, encouraged my initiative of building data to study entrepreneurship in developing countries. Discussions with Romesh Vaitilingam, writer and media consultant, taught me many important lessons about communicating economics to a broader audience without losing it in jargon.

 

Laureate Eric Maskin, Devaki Ghose and Howard Yana-Shapiro

Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin, Devaki Ghose and Howard Yana-Shapiro were on a panel discussing economic inequality at the Mars Science Breakfast during #LiNoEcon.

 

Interactions with Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub from Mars Incorporated contributed to my understanding of how collaborations between industry and academia can help address issues of economic importance, such as helping deprived communities. Lack of social and human capital in historically deprived communities hinders their participation in economic activities and restricts their purchasing power to buy goods from the market. Community-level interventions to invest in human capital can be beneficial for different stakeholders, starting from members of the community, policy-makers and multinationals.

As a confluence of ideas from both industry and academia, Lindau is different from any regular academic conference. It is not only about listening to seminars and raising questions. It is also about exchanging ideas with some of the brightest and most passionate young economists, drawing inspiration, engaging in conversations with Nobel Laureates and, most importantly, learning to express your own ideas.

My experience at Lindau opened windows of opportunities that I did not even know existed. It led me to foster connections with people who are deeply passionate about science and believe in using science to solve many of the world’s problems.

I highly encourage every young scientist to apply to the Lindau Meetings. I cannot tell you what you are going to experience because it will exceed all your expectations in one way or another. Oh, and did I not tell you that these five days are also packed with many fun activities, including music, dance and a boat trip to the pristine Mainau island?!

Integrating Economics With Psychology – Prize in Economic Sciences 2017

Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago has been awarded this year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel ‘for his contributions to behavioural economics’.

‘Thaler’s contributions have built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making’, the members of the Prize Committee said in their announcement of this year’s laureate. Speaking by telephone to the press conference, Thaler summarised the main impact of his work as being that ‘Economic agents are human and economic models have to incorporate that’. When asked whether he will act ‘humanly’ in spending the prize money, he joked ‘I will try to spend it as irrationally as possible!’

 

Econ FeatureRichard H. Thaler, laureate of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2017. Picture/Credit: Nobel Media, Illustration by N. Elmehed

 

Thaler’s research incorporates psychologically realistic views into analyses of economic decision-making, relaxing what was once the standard assumption that everyone in the economy is rational and selfish. The Nobel citation focuses on three areas of achievement: ‘by exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes’.

Limited rationality: Thaler has developed the theory of mental accounting, which explains how people simplify financial decision-making by creating separate accounts in their minds. He also showed how ‘loss aversion’ explains why people value the same item more highly when they own it than when they don’t.

Social preferences: Thaler has shown how people’s concerns about fairness may stop firms from raising prices in periods of high demand, but not in times of rising costs. With colleagues, he devised the ‘dictator game’, an experimental tool for measuring people’s attitudes to fairness.

Lack of self-control: Thaler has demonstrated how succumbing to short-term temptation is an important reason why we fail in our long-term plans to save for old age or make healthier lifestyle choices. His idea of ‘nudges’ is intended to help people exercise better self-control.

 

 

Originally from East Orange, New Jersey, Thaler attended Case Western Reserve University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1967. Soon after, he attended the University of Rochester where he received a master’s degree in 1970 and a PhD in 1974. Since 1995, he has been at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he is Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics and director of the Center for Decision Research.

Alongside Robert Shiller, co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Thaler is co-director of the Behavioral Economics Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. He is co-author with Cass Sunstein of the bestselling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) in which the concepts of behavioural economics are used to tackle many of society’s major problems. And he has even made an appearance in a Hollywood film, explaining the ‘hot hand fallacy’ in The Big Short.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings offers sincere congratulations to the new laureate and hopes to hear from him in person about his research at the next Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in 2020.

Towards a Nuclear-Free World

 

The Nobel Peace Prize 2017 is awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.

 

Press release by the Norwegian Nobel Comittee:

“We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time. Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea. Nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to humanity and all life on earth. Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against land mines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition.

Through its work, ICAN has helped to fill this legal gap. An important argument in the rationale for prohibiting nuclear weapons is the unacceptable human suffering that a nuclear war will cause. ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations from around 100 different countries around the globe. The coalition has been a driving force in prevailing upon the world’s nations to pledge to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. To date, 108 states have made such a commitment, known as the Humanitarian Pledge.

Furthermore, ICAN has been the leading civil society actor in the endeavour to achieve a prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law. On 7 July 2017, 122 of the UN member states acceded to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As soon as the treaty has been ratified by 50 states, the ban on nuclear weapons will enter into force and will be binding under international law for all the countries that are party to the treaty.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is aware that an international legal prohibition will not in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon, and that so far neither the states that already have nuclear weapons nor their closest allies support the nuclear weapon ban treaty. The Committee wishes to emphasize that the next steps towards attaining a world free of nuclear weapons must involve the nuclear-armed states. This year’s Peace Prize is therefore also a call upon these states to initiate serious negotiations with a view to the gradual, balanced and carefully monitored elimination of the almost 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Five of the states that currently have nuclear weapons – the USA, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China – have already committed to this objective through their accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1970. The Non-Proliferation Treaty will remain the primary international legal instrument for promoting nuclear disarmament and preventing the further spread of such weapons.

It is now 71 years since the UN General Assembly, in its very first resolution, advocated the importance of nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapon-free world. With this year’s award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to pay tribute to ICAN for giving new momentum to the efforts to achieve this goal.

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has a solid grounding in Alfred Nobel’s will. The will specifies three different criteria for awarding the Peace Prize: the promotion of fraternity between nations, the advancement of disarmament and arms control and the holding and promotion of peace congresses. ICAN works vigorously to achieve nuclear disarmament. ICAN and a majority of UN member states have contributed to fraternity between nations by supporting the Humanitarian Pledge. And through its inspiring and innovative support for the UN negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons, ICAN has played a major part in bringing about what in our day and age is equivalent to an international peace congress.

It is the firm conviction of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that ICAN, more than anyone else, has in the past year given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour.

Oslo, 6 October 2017″

Kazuo Ishiguro Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

Nobel Prize Literature 2017 Ishiguro

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2017 is awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Ishiguro, born 8 November 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, grew up in the United Kingdom, where he first graduated in English and Philosophy at the University of Kent, and later went on to study Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982. Already in his early works, his writing deals with the themes of memory, time and self-delusion. Among his most renowned works are the novels The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), which were turned into films, as well as When We Were Orphans (2000). In several of his works, including in his collection of short stories Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009), music plays an important role. Ishiguro published his seventh and latest novel The Buried Giant in 2015.

This post is based on the biobibliographical notes provided by the Swedish Academy.