Nobel Prize laureates on the future of life

What will the future look like? For many Nobel Prize laureates, this is the type of question that keeps them up at night and drives their research. 

“We need to care about and for life on our planet,” 2001 medicine laureate Paul Nurse says. “To do that, we need to understand it.”

If somebody were to ask you what the future of life looks like what would you say? Would you think about our planet, our societies or even our own bodies? From biodiversity to new technology, humanity’s future faces many challenges – as well as opportunities. It’s a topic many of our laureates’ work touches on, and that the Nobel Prize subjects – across literature, science and peace – may help us to address.

While trying to answer this question, 2001 medicine laureate Paul Nurse pondered the work of 1933 physics laureate Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger had the idea that physics could help solve biological riddles and unlock the secrets behind the structure of DNA.

For other laureates, these questions are urgent – especially when related to topics like climate change. For 1997 physics laureate and former United States energy secretary Steven Chu, climate change is one of the biggest issues impacting the future of life on earth.

Chu received the physics prize for his pioneering research in cooling and trapping atoms using laser light, but became interested in energy research and technology. Today, Chu spends much of his time working on new solutions to tackle climate change.

“If we don’t change direction, we may end up where we’re headed,” Chu said.

At the 2022 Nobel Week Dialogue, some laureates approached the question of ‘what is the future of life’ with how to look forward.

For 2020 physics laureate Andrea Ghez, introspection is key: “I think it’s interesting to ask: how capable are we of thinking about the future from what we know today?”

Ghez shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel, for their discoveries relating to black holes.

2018 chemistry laureate Frances Arnold notes that you cannot predict details of the future. When trying to peer into an uncertain future, Arnold believes that society needs to work together.

“We underestimate people’s ability to understand uncertainty. We have to hedge our bets in ways that spread across the scientific enterprise and society,” Arnold said. “It means we have to work together to do that. Let 100 flowers bloom, but then focus on the ones that really solve the problems.”

Arnold’s own research focuses on the future. Arnold used the same principles of evolution – genetic change and selection – to develop proteins that solve humankind’s chemical problems. The uses of her results include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels.

Experts and students also joined laureates at Nobel Week Dialogue 2022 to add their expertise and understanding to the what the future can look like.

“We’re living in a world that’s simultaneously massively utopian and dystopian. At the same time, it mixes. It’s not like oil and water. It actually emulsifies in this complex world we’re living in,” University of Oxford research fellow Anders Sandberg said.

Even with these serious topics, laureates still manage to keep hope.

“Fear is not going to move anything forward,” Arnold said.

Explore ‘The Future of Life’ at the Nobel Week Dialogue 2022

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