4 UC Berkeley professors named on firm’s list of top Nobel contenders

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UC Berkeley Nobel laureates enjoy perks including reserved parking

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Geoff Marcy says he has spent his career chasing the “stuff of science fiction.”

Marcy, a professor in the campus department of astronomy, is one of four UC Berkeley researchers who may have a shot at this year’s Nobel Prize, according to Thomson Reuters, a firm that annually predicts contenders for the award.

Winners of the Nobel Prize, one of the most coveted awards in research, will be announced by the Swedish Academy starting Monday. Prizes will be awarded in the fields of medicine or physiology, chemistry, literature and physics. A Nobel Peace Prize will also be awarded, as will the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences.

In anticipation of this year’s Nobel laureate announcements, Thomson Reuters analysts released their 2013 list of “Citation Laureates,” 28 scientists who they believe are at the forefront of global research and deserve to win prizes in their respective fields.

This year, UC Berkeley boasts four names on the short list: economics professor David Card, astronomy professor Geoff Marcy and chemistry professors Bruce Ames and Paul Alivisatos.

“I feel scared,” Marcy said of the prospect of winning. “I’ve heard people say that your life gets kind of turned upside down, and everybody wants you to give a speech at their fundraising event. I’m worried that I’ll get asked to go everywhere else but Berkeley.”

To assemble the list of potential candidates, Thomson Reuters analysts use the firm’s Web of Science, a citation index for scholarly literature, said David Pendlebury, a Thomson Reuters analyst. They then determine which authors’ research papers in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine and economics have been cited most frequently — sometimes tens of thousands of times for a single paper.

After compiling the list of researchers with the most citations, the analysts make final decisions based on candidates’ positions at academies or universities and past prestigious awards.

Alivisatos, a UC Berkeley professor who was included on the list for his work in the field of chemistry, has received more than 6,400 citations on just one of his papers. He specializes in nanoscience and nanotechnology, and he pioneered research in the 1990s regarding the versatility of DNA and its ability to unite with nanoparticles to form compounds.

Alivisatos’ colleague Bruce Ames was also included in the list for the field of chemistry. Ames’ research focuses on human health and mutagens, bodily agents that cause mutations. In the 1970s, he pioneered the Ames test, a method of determining whether a chemical can cause cancer in humans.

Today, Ames researches the connections between individuals’ diets and the deterioration of their bodies. His research has determined that vitamins and minerals such as magnesium are crucial to longevity and that when the body is “starved” of sufficient amounts of these nutrients, it must sacrifice other crucial functions such as brain activity.

“Over half the country is aging themselves faster than necessary by causing insidious damage (to their bodies),” Ames said. “People think that their brain is separate from their food supply, but it really isn’t.”

While Alivisatos’ and Ames’ research focuses on the human body, Marcy spends his time studying the stars. Marcy is viewed as a Nobel Prize contender for his research on stars during the 1990s. Along with two other researchers who were also named on Thomson Reuter’s list, Marcy helped prove the existence of extrasolar planets, which are planets orbiting other stars in the universe. His team made the discovery after observing stars that “wobbled” due to a gravitational pull.

His current research focuses on discovering the prevalence of Earth-like planets in the universe. Finding planets with Earth-like conditions will allow scientists to explore the possibility of other life forms, he said.

“As a kid, the universe seemed so enormous, so huge, but also so exquisitely accessible,” Marcy said. “Maybe it is our destiny as Homo sapiens to explore and travel among the stars.”

David Card, a UC Berkeley professor of economics, is also named on the list. Card’s most prominent work includes research on how the minimum wage affects employment levels. He is currently examining the effects of gifted-education programs in Florida schools.

“Most people think economics is about day-to-day stuff, and they always want to ask you about interest rates,” Card said. “That gets the most prominent play in the newspaper. But it really has nothing to do with what 90 percent of economists work on.”

Thomson Reuters has made 27 correct laureate predictions since its first list in 2002, including two UC Berkeley professors: economics professor Oliver Williamson, who won in 2009, and physics professor Saul Perlmutter, who won in 2011. The firm has nominated four other UC Berkeley faculty within the last five years.

Pendlebury said the “Citation Laureate” list is not year-specific, and any researcher nominated in a previous year is still considered a Nobel Prize contender.

Both Ames and Card, however, expressed some misgivings about the validity of such lists.

“There are lots of great, smart people in the world,” Ames said. “I’m not holding my breath. I’ll believe it when I hear it.”

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].