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`Microscopic' thread links Nobel Prizes. Small-scale observations yield insights that range to the cosmic

IT may be stretching a point to read a theme into this year's Nobel and related prizes in the natural sciences. But it's a striking fact that the awards all honor work in which studies that focus on microscopic details yield insights of macroscopic -- sometimes even cosmic -- signifcance. Consider the chemistry prize. Dudley R. Herschbach of Harvard University, Yuan T. Lee of the University of California at Berkeley, and John C. Polanyi of the University of Toronto share the award for developing ways to study how chemical reactions work, molecule by molecule. Chemists call this ``reaction dynamics.''

Herschbach and Lee work with carefully directed and well-defined beams of molecules. By studying how these molecules interact where the beams cross, they can define their behavior with a detail that's impossible to see in the chaos of a test tube. Polanyi, on the other hand, uses the emission of infrared light from a newly formed molecule to find out precisely what happens when individual molecules collide in the jostling crowd of billions of molecules in a liquid or gas.

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Such basic study gives chemists insight that should be useful on far larger scales, from laboratory flasks to industrial plants.

The medicine award also focuses on the microscopic. Rita Levi-Montalcini of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, who holds dual US and Italian citizenship, and Stanley Cohen of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., share the prize for discovery of so-called growth factors. These are chemicals that scientists say promote the growth of living cells and help regulate that growth.

Understanding these factors on the scale of cells and molecules helps biologists learn how organisms develop on bodily scales that range from microbes to elephants. It illumines the subtle processes that govern growth of such specialized tissue as nerves or brain material. It also helps in understanding what happens, physiologically, when cell growth processes go awry.

Because of this, the work of Cohen and Levi-Montalcini is of fundamental importance both to biology in general and to medicine in particular. That's why these scientists have not only received the Nobel Prize but, last month, they also won the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award -- a prize of comparable stature.

Meanwhile, the physics prize has gone to three ``toolmakers'' who have provided one of the most powerful instruments we have ever had for peering into the world of atoms and molecules.

Half a century ago, Ernst Ruska, now at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin in West Germany, invented the electron microscope. It focuses beams of electrons, instead of beams of light, to produce images virtually on a molecular scale.

Then, in recent years, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of the IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich revolutionized electron microscopy with a technique that enabled them to produce the first images of individual atoms. They call their instrument a tunneling electron microscope. By measuring changes in the flow of electrons between a tiny, needle-like point and the surface of an object -- a flow physicists call a ``tunneling current'' -- the instrument traces a profile of the surface, atom by atom.

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The ability to take pictures on such a scale underlies much of the progress in biology and the science of materials in this century.

There's one aspect in which the Nobel Prizes are weak. They provide no categories for achievement in such fields as astronomy, biology, geophysics, or mathematics. A companion award -- the Crafoord Prize, also given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences -- now helps to fill that gap.

This year, it went to Claude J. All`egre of the University of Paris and Gerald J. Wassenburg of the California Institute of Technology, who have pioneered a technique for analyzing and dating geological materials. It's called ``isotope geology'' because it's based on the fact that atoms of a given chemical element come in several different varieties called isotopes. By studying the relative abundances of different isotopes of such elements as samarium and neodymium, the scientists have helped trace the origin and history of Earth and the Solar System.

As the academy noted when it announced the award last March, their work enables geophysicists to infer what's going on deep inside our planet. And it has raised the intriguing possibility that the birth of the Solar System was triggered by the explosion of a nearby star. That's quite a cosmic range of insight to be gained from studying details on an atomic scale.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.