Nobel Prizes

Relations between the two men are cool, bordering on icy, as could be expected between leaders who represent opposite sides in the religious and political struggle that has bathed Northern Ireland in blood for three decades. Yet for years, Catholic political leader John Hume and his Protestant opposite number, David Trimble, have sought to find a way out of recurring patterns of violence. With other leaders, they played prominent roles in securing a fragile peace under the Good Friday agreement hammered out in Belfast on April 10. Later, when all the signs suggested the No side would triumph in the May 22 referendum on the accord, Hume and Trimble appeared on a Belfast stage with the Irish rock star Bono, who hoisted the men's arms into the air. That moment created an indelible image of hope that is credited with helping the Yes side to its ultimate victory.

In honor of their dogged efforts, a committee of Norwegian judges in Oslo last week named Hume and Trimble joint recipients of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. Gen. John de Chastelain, Canada's former chief of the defence staff who is in charge of efforts to negotiate disarmament among Ulster's hair-trigger militants, declared: "It's serendipitous - I think this award will be helpful to the peace process. Things are happening in Northern Ireland now that would have been unthinkable a short time ago - and they keep on happening. I think it's going to work out in the end."

The Oslo committee described the 61-year-old Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's Catholic Social Democratic and Labour party, as being "the clearest and most consistent of Northern Ireland's political leaders in his work for a peaceful solution." And it praised Trimble, the 54-year-old head of the Protestant Ulster Unionist party - who pursued peace despite deep doubts within his own party - for "great political courage." Hume and Trimble, who will share about $1.4 million as part of their prize, had been widely predicted as winners. But the Nobel committee did not include a third politician who many had expected to share the award - Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the legal political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

The two Peace Prize winners expressed hope that their award would prove a harbinger of accord in their troubled land. "While we know that we have got the makings of peace," said Trimble, "it is not wholly secure yet. I hope it does not prove premature." Hume's tone was more optimistic. The announcement in Oslo, he told reporters, showed "a very clear and powerful statement of approval for the peace process." The challenge now, he added, "is to harness that international goodwill for the benefit of all our people, particularly our young people." With any luck, that wish will be borne out as Northern Ireland continues along its troubled road to peace.

Nobel committees in Stockholm also announced the recipients of the annual prizes in economics, medicine, chemistry and physics, as provided for in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who died in 1896. The winners:

Economics:

The prize went to Amartya Sen, a 64-year-old Indian expert on the economics of developing countries whose lifelong concern for the impoverished peoples of the world is reflected in his attention to such issues as famine, poverty, gender inequality and the economics of the family. The Nobel committee said that Sen, who is master (principal) of Trinity College in Cambridge, England, "by combining tools from economics and philosophy has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems."

In a milestone work, Sen concluded after studying conditions in Third World nations that famines are not necessarily triggered by food shortages, but by rising prices, unemployment and poverty. He also investigated male-female population imbalances in developing nations and, in 1990, estimated that as many as 100 million women were "missing" and presumed dead - the victims of policies that deprived them of adequate medical treatment, education and political and economic rights. Sen's work is "tremendously important," said Rhoda Howard, a sociologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, "because he is an economist who is also a philosopher - and he cares about people."

Medicine:

Three American researchers - Robert Furchgott, Louis Ignarro and Dr. Ferid Murad - shared the prize for their discovery that a gas molecule plays a crucial role in a wide range of human physical functions, including the widening of blood vessels. The gas is nitric oxide, a chemical cousin of the anesthetic nitrous oxide. Besides pointing the way to new directions in heart disease and cancer research, the findings played a role in the development of Viagra, the wildly successful tablet that can help men overcome erectile dysfunction. A spokesman for New York City-based Pfizer Inc., which developed Viagra, acknowledged that the scientists' work provided "an important piece of the puzzle our scientists had to put together." U.S. regulators approved Viagra for distribution in March, but health officials in Ottawa have not yet cleared the tablet for use in Canada.

The chain of discoveries began in 1980 when Furchgott, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York's health science centre in Brooklyn, identified a substance he called EDRF that was instrumental in relaxing blood vessel muscles. Ignarro, another pharmacologist who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles, subsequently showed that EDRF was actually nitric oxide and, in 1986, the two announced at a scientific meeting that the gas was a principal player in warding off the potentially fatal narrowing of arteries that can trigger heart attacks. Murad, a physician and expert in clinical pharmacology at the University of Texas medical school in Houston, concentrated on determining how nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels by increasing the flow of a substance called cyclic GNP.

Chemistry:

In the science prizes, the Nobel committee honored five scientists whose work centred on quantum theory, the abstruse discipline that seeks to explain the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles. The chemistry prize went to a pair of U.S.-based scientists, Austrian-born Walter Kohn, who studied at the University of Toronto before going to the United States, and John Pople, a Briton, for work that contributed to the development of new drugs by shedding light on the interplay between proteins and molecules. Pople, who teaches at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was cited for developing a computer program used in universities around the world to simulate chemical reactions.

Physics:

Two Americans - Robert Laughlin and Daniel Tsui - and Horst Stormer of Germany shared the prize for discovering that electrons in strong magnetic fields and low temperatures can condense into new subatomic particles. Laughlin said the finding was important because "it has to do with why the universe is the way it is."

Maclean's October 26, 1998