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Explaining the 2021 Nobel prizes: how touch works, a better way to make medicine and the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah – podcast

Woman touching radiator.
Our sense of touch is actually lots of different senses rolled into one. Yevhen Prozhyrko/Shutterstock

Six prize announcements later, 12 men and one woman from 11 countries are now settling down to their new lives as Nobel laureates. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we delve into the scientific discoveries around touch and organic catalysts awarded the 2021 prizes in medicine and chemistry. And we talk to a friend and collaborator of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian writer awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

What’s actually going on in your body when you touch something? The answer to that question had eluded scientists until breakthroughs by the two newest Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine: David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. We spoke to Kate Poole, associate professor in physiology, at the University of New South Wales in Australia, to explain how transformational their research has been on the way we understand touch – and pain. Poole has used their discoveries in her own work exploring “how individual cells in your body might actually be able to have a sense of touch of their own”. She explains what else may lie in store from what they unlocked.

Next, we turn to chemistry and the work of Benjamin List and David MacMillan, awarded the 2021 Nobel prize in chemistry for designing a safer, cheaper and faster way to build molecules and make medicine. We speak to David Nagib, once a PhD candidate in MacMillan’s lab and now associate professor of chemistry at the Ohio State University in the US, about the laureates’ development of asymmetric organocatalysis – and why it matters. “It’s really incredible when you learn about the simplicity of the chemical mechanism,” Nagib tells us. “It seems like we should have discovered this ages ago.” (At 16m20)

From science to literature, we discover more about the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian writer awarded the 2021 Nobel prize in literature for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Susheila Nasta, emeritus professor of modern and contemporary literatures at Queen Mary University of London, is a friend of Gurnah and worked with him on Wasifiri, the literary magazine she founded in the 1980s. (At 31m20)

Read more: Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah's fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness

Nasta believes his work “has been little known for too long and really deserves recognition”. Gurnah’s fiction largely takes place on the island of Zanzibar where he was born, and Nasta says his vision “is a cosmopolitan one before cosmopolitanism became a kind of trendy term”.

Read more coverage from across The Conversation of the 2021 Nobel Prizes here.

Plus, Ina Skosana, health editor at The Conversation in Johannesburg, recommends some recent analysis on a huge breakthrough for the African continent: the approval of a malaria vaccine. (At 41m30)

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email on You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

Clips from the Nobel Prize announcements in this episode courtesy of #nobelprize.

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