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 Previous Nobel Prize Lecture Series

Each year in the spring semester a series of talks is sponsored by the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Distinguished SFU faculty members provide insight and clarity on the accomplishments of the newest winners of Nobel Prizes and other international awards.

Click here for the current schedule of lectures.

Click on the presenter for the online streaming video (Quicktime format).

March 3 2005: Nobel Prize in Chemistry- Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko, Irwin Rose, "for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation"

Presented by Professor Michel Leroux, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department

"The need for recycling-at the cellular level" The 35,000 or so different proteins that exist within our bodies perform the majority of the essential work required for individual cells, tissues and organs to function properly. The different proteins are made, one amino acid at a time, by an elaborate cellular 'machine' termed the ribosome, and many proteins attain their correct (functional) shapes by relying on cell components collectively called molecular chaperones. This year's Nobel prize in Chemistry has been awarded for the discovery of a complex cell machinery required for the degradation of proteins into constituent amino acids. The discoveries leading to the Nobel prize illustrate the need for cells to recycle their essential components, much as our society benefits from recycling valuable resources.


March 10 2005: Physics- The Einstein Centenary

Presented by Professor Howard Trottier, Physics Department

The Centennial of Einstein's "Miracle Year:"-Frontier Physics from the Subatomic to the Cosmological

This year marks the centennial of Einstein's 1905 "annus mirabilis," in which he published four papers that transformed our conceptions of space and time, confirmed the existence of atoms and molecules, and revealed a strange quantum duality that rules the microscopic world. Together with a fifth paper, published in 1916, Einstein's legacy can be seen in virtually all branches of modern physics and astronomy. This presentation will offer a glimpse into the meaning of some of Einstein's miraculous theories, and how these ideas are continuing to shape cutting-edge research into nature's vast realms of space and time, from the subatomic to the cosmological.


March 17 2005: Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology- Richard Axel, Linda B. Buck, Fred Hutchinson, "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system"

Presented by Professor Erika Plettner, Chemistry Department

"The secret of smell: unraveling olfaction receptors and odour codes."

The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for 2004 was awarded to Richard Axel and Linda Buck for their discovery of the olfactory receptors. The sense of smell (olfaction) is vital to our everyday life. All animals and even bacteria have chemical senses, which distinguish "pleasant" (attractive) substances from "unpleasant" (repulsive) ones. In animals, smells elicit very clear and powerful behavioural responses. In humans, smell also elicits strong memories associated with an odour. Olfaction is involved in species recognition and even in recognition of individuals. For example, honey bees know the smell of their hive, and they can recognize individual bees that do not belong there. We also each have a unique odour signature, and human babies very accurately distinguish their mother from other women by smell.

Since antiquity, foul smells have been associated with danger or disease, while pleasant smells have been associated with health and comfort, but little was known about the chemical senses (taste and smell). In the Renascence, studies on the senses and on the brain began. In particular, the anatomical arrangement of the senses was explored. For example, Leonardo daVinci has left one of the first detailed drawings of the nasal cavity, where the sense of smell begins, and of the thin layer of bone that separates the nasal cavity from the olfactory bulb (the region of the brain where the processing of information from odours begins). In the 19th century, microscopy studies of tissues, including the brain and the thin layer of nerve cells in the folds of the nasal cavity, began. The nerve cells, responsible for interacting with odours and for transmitting the stimulus from an odour to the brain, protrude into the nasal cavity. They are sustained and protected by other cells and a layer of proteins. The nerve cells have a knob, with a large surface area, at their end. This knob is necessary for the cells to function. By analogy with vision, it was hypothesized for a long time, that the end knob of olfactory nerve cells must contain receptor proteins that bind to the odourants and transmit that information to the interior of the cell. Despite efforts in many laboratories around the world, the olfactory receptors remained elusive until Linda Buck and Richard Axel discovered them in 1991. Their paper is a landmark in our understanding of olfaction. They have since continued working on olfaction and receptors independently and have made many more crucial contributions. In this talk, we will follow an odourant from the air stream through to the processing in the brain and beyond, to deactivation of the odourant. Research in olfaction has flourished since that seminal paper, and could hold the key to many new discoveries, including new pest management strategies and understanding of diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.


March 31 2005: The Royal Swedish Academy of Science Crafoord Prize in Biology 2003- Awarded to Prof. Carl Woese, University of Illinois

Presented by Professor Arne Mooers, Biology Department

"Life, but not as we knew it"

The Crafoord Prize was established to promote basic research in fields not covered by the Nobel, including mathematics, astronomy, geosciences, and the biosciences (particularly ecology).

Back in the fourth century BC, Aristotle organized knowledge of all things for the first time in the Western World. His "Scala Natura" had worms near the bottom (rocks were below) and humans near the top, and it influenced Carolus Linnaeus of Sweden, whose 18th-century system (with two kingdoms) is with us still. Darwin, of course, gave us the concept of a tree of life in 1859. By the late 20th Century, every living species was assigned to one of five 'kingdoms' - to the bacteria, the protists, the fungi, the plants, or the animals. Each kingdom was thought to represent a major branch of life's tree, and a qualitatively different way of making a living.

But in the mid 1970's, Prof. Carl Woese discovered that life actually cleaved into three rather than five major domains: the 'bacteria' are composed of two groups more different from each other than we are from bananas. Most of the most interesting biology occurs in things we did not even really know existed 50 years ago, with much of what we see with the naked eye just variations on a single theme. There are practical uses for all these microbial oddities. However, Prof. Woese's discovery and its aftermath also speak to more fundamental issues, including how life began here, and how likely it is to begin elsewhere.


April 7 2005: Nobel Prize in Economics- Finn E. Kydland, Edward C. Prescott, "for their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics: the time consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business cycles"

Presented by Professor Richard Harris, Economics Department

"Business Cycles and Credibility Dilemmas".

The sources of the business cycle remains one of the most difficult and unresolved problem in economics. Kydland and Prescott, the 2005 wiinners, carried out pathbreaking work in the early 1980's on two potential sources of business cycles--lack of commitment by monetary authorities to inflation guidelines and technological shocks. global economic developments of the post 1985 period have provided substantial justification for their early insights, and remain an inspiration for much contemporary economic research.


April 14 2005: Nobel Prize in Literature- Elfriede Jelinek, from Austria, "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power"

Presented by Professor Paul Matthew St. Pierre, English Department

Who's Afraid of Elfriede Jelinek? Eighty-Eight Keys to the Body of Fear in Her Writings

This lecture explores tropes of the human body in the work of Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, with reference to how the human condition of fear, typically evoked though sex and violence, subverts the body's material structure, as individual, private, and inviolable, and transforms the human person from physical organism to the sounds-in-time of music and text


April 21 2005: Nobel Prize in Peace- Wangari Maathai, from Kenya, "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace"

Presented by Professor Sandra MacLean, Political Science Department

Linking environment, peace and democracy: Wangari Matthai's social activism.

Wangari Maathai is the 7th African to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the first African woman to be so honoured. Dr. Maathai received the award for her work in Kenya to protect the environment, promote peace and democracy, and secure human rights, especially for women. Despite her lifelong struggle in these areas, however, some considered Maathai to be an unlikely recipient since most of the previous winners in this category have been selected for their work involving armed conflict. Yet, there are several reasons why Maathai was an inspired choice. First, her work helps to demonstrate the combination of factors, such as poor governance, poverty, human insecurity, that support conditions in which wars develop. Also, she has demonstrated that one person can make a difference; with energy, insight and courage, she managed to put issues of environment, democracy and gender on the social agenda in a country in which these were not high-priority issues, especially for the authoritarian regime that was in power for most of the years of her activities. Finally, her work shows the strength achieved through social organization; although her personal contributions were extraordinary, many of her achievement were made possible through the Greenbelt Movement she organized and led.

SFU economist Peter Kennedy's talk on the Nobel Prize work of Robert Engle and Clive Granger is available in video (Quicktime format) at http://www.sfu.ca/lidc/broadcast/archive/nobel/.

The presentation of Eric Accili, SFU Kinesiology professor, on work of Rod MacKinnon who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for producing an image of cell membrane channels is available in video (Quicktime format) at http://www.sfu.ca/lidc/broadcast/archive/nobel/Eric_Accili.html.

V.S. Naipaul, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2001
Presented by Professor Chin Banerjee- 2002
Simon Fraser University
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