Half a dozen Texas A&M professors from around the university offered their perspectives on the 2017 Nobel Prizes and their significance Friday -- touching on topics ranging from behavioral economics to observing the collision of two black holes -- in the auditorium of the Interdisciplinary Life Science building.
Now in its second year, the lecture event took a look at the six prizes awarded -- in the areas of medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, literature and peace, respectively -- the work done by this year's laureates, the history behind their research and how they moved their respective fields forward.
Addressing topics such as the ongoing efforts to push for a world not under the threat of nuclear war, the speakers each found a way to present the work of the recent laureates that was understandable to the general public as well as fellow members of the A&M community who attended.
In a galaxy far away
Distinguished professor of observational astronomy Nicholas B. Suntzeff said for astronomers, their greatest limitation has long been being restricted to what they can see of the universe from Earth. He said the scope of what scientists can now observe, however, has greatly expanded thanks to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- as evidenced by the work of Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne in observing black holes using the new equipment.
"This discovery has radically changed the field in which I work," he said. "... When they turned LIGO on, within a couple of weeks, they discovered the merging of two black holes."
Suntzeff said the discovery was particularly triumphant because many had doubted the system's ability to produce results for years.
"For most of the life of LIGO, physicists and astronomers believed they wouldn't detect anything," he said. "... Because of really the genius of Ray Weiss, this experiment did come to fruition."
The three men were chosen specifically to receive the Nobel Prize in physics "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves," according to the award's official page. Suntzeff said while the trio certainly deserves their recognition, the thousands of fellow scientists who also contributed to the project should be celebrated for their collaboration as well.
Since the award, similar technology has been used to observe the collision of two neutron stars for the first time -- an event in which Texas A&M University astronomer Jennifer Marshall was among a handful of scientist to participate.
Nudging toward retirement savings
With a much more human focus closer to home, Daniel Fragiadakis -- an assistant professor in the Department of Economics -- said the work selected for the 2017 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel tied directly to why many people put off saving for retirement and how a new system may help encourage better habits.
Using the example of how many often choose to put their goals or unpleasant tasks -- such as beginning a new diet or exercising -- off "until tomorrow" instead of today, Fragiadakis said the 2017 laureate sought to use that human impulse for positive means.
Richard Thaler was selected "for his contributions to behavioral economics," according to the award's official page, and Fragiadakis said the laureate's "Save More Tomorrow" program showed promising results in its early test.
Fragiadakis said the program, which gives people the opportunity to commit a portion of their future earning increases toward retirement savings, showed that average savings increased from 3.5 percent to 13.6 percent of the 40-month test period.
He said Thaler refers to this practice as "nudging people to make better decisions."
"You can nudge people to make better decisions about their wealth or health or happiness," Fragiadakis said. "There are tons of ways we can get people to make better decisions."
Another arms race
Joshua Shifrinson, assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, closed out the program with a presentation on the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded this year to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons "for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons," according to the award's official page.
Shifrinson said with the growing trend of world powers pushing to modernize their respective nuclear arsenals, as well as the emerging threat posed by North Korean efforts to establish itself as a nuclear state, he believes the nongovernmental organization's selection for the award is a message encouraging more support for its cause internationally.
He said while the work being done by the group "almost certainly" won't lead to the end of nuclear weapons, it could be a catalyst for greater individual involvement.
"What the peace prize is doing is inviting all of us to be part of this conversation," Shifrinson said. "... This campaign to abolish nuclear weapons is unlikely to succeed, but that doesn't mean ICAN's activities themselves are useless, fruitless or foolish. The nuclear arms race itself is beginning to heat up again, and because arms races create opportunities for some states or individuals to aggress against one another, [leaving] other states insecure and fearful of such activities, arms races themselves are a source of instability."
"By inviting individuals into the conversation and bringing attention to what nuclear weapons can do in the modern world, ICAN is calling for all of us to rise to the fore and try to push back on this burgeoning arms race," he said. "That more than the actual abolish seems to be the most valuable aspect of the ICAN campaign."