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From Clocks to Crops, Nobel Science That Affects Everyday Life

If you think you have no stake in the new Nobel prizes in science, think again. The arcane research these prizes honor can reach out and touch people.

Take the physics prize, for example. It goes to Steven Chu of Stanford University in California, William Phillips with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji at Collge de France and cole Normale Suprieure in Paris. They won it for learning how to chill atoms to within a few millionths of a degree of absolute zero and trap them using laser beams and magnetic fields. As basic research goes, that's literally and figuratively pretty cool. It also has some "cool" benefits.

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The chilled atoms move very slowly. Dr. Chu has found a way to make atoms almost motionless for brief moments. During those standstills, microwave signals can extract information from the atoms' internal structure to boost the precision of an atomic clock a hundredfold. The best of these clocks, whose timing is linked to atomic processes, has been accurate to one second in 32 million years. Chu's technique boosts that to one second in 3 billion years.

An atomic clock paces the National Institute of Standards and Technology's radio time signals by which many ordinary clocks are set and many precision processes timed.

Such precise timing can be important for such activities as space navigation. Chu adds that it can improve the accuracy of the satellite-based global positioning system. This navigational system is used, among other things, to monitor ground movements in earthquake-prone areas and ground distortion around active volcanoes.

The Nobel committee notes that this new ability to study slow-moving atoms has "opened the way to a deeper understanding" of very low temperature gases. It adds that it has led to the development of so-called atomic lasers "which may be used in the future to manufacture very small electronic components."

Energy currency

Meanwhile, three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for showing how biological organisms use what biochemists call a kind of chemical "energy currency."

This facilitates the biochemical processes of organic life just as our monetary system makes the economic world go around. Jens Skou of Aarhus University in Denmark gets half of the $1 million prize. Paul Boyer at the University of California in Los Angeles and John Walker with the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, share the other half.

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This energy currency is adenosine triphosphate - ATP for short. The laureates' work has shown how chemical catalysts called enzymes take part in the energy currency conversions in living systems. ATP is what chemists call a "high-energy" compound. It can load up on energy in one place and drop it off in another in a form that living cells can use. We use a lot of it.

According to the Nobel committee, "At rest, an adult [human] converts daily a quantity of ATP corresponding to about one half [his or her] body-weight, and during hard work the quantity can rise to almost a ton."

Efficiency on the farm

Business people, government planners, and you and I need to know how money flows through our respective economic activities if we are to be successful. Agricultural scientists need to know how biological energy flows through the farm. The efficiency of that flow affects the efficiency with which crops and livestock use feed and fertilizer.

The medical prize recognizes work that is equally basic but also timely. It goes to Stanley Prusiner at the University of California in San Francisco.

In the face of considerable skepticism among colleagues, Dr. Prusiner identified a new class of agents that he calls prions. These are certain normal proteins in mammals that, he says, sometimes alter their shape to become pathogenic.

Prions are the agents that researchers have linked to the "mad cow disease" that has alarmed beef consumers in Britain and many other parts of Europe.

The Nobel committee says that Prusiner's work "establishes a foundation for drug development and new types of medical treatment strategies."

Writing in the Oct. 10 issue of the journal Science, Prusiner notes that his work also has opened up a line of research that could lead to development of prion-free sheep and cattle.

The award is unusual in that there still are uncertainties about Prusiner's theory of prions. However, Nobel committee deputy chairman Ralf Pettersson, as quoted in Science, calls Prusiner "a trailblazer" who has "captured the imagination of a huge segment of the scientific population."