October 13, 2021

Five Princeton U. Professors, Alumni Win Nobel Prizes

By Donald Gilpin 

The Royal Swedish Academy has been smiling on Princeton University during the past week, with Princeton professors winning the 2021 Nobel Prizes in physics last Tuesday, October 5, and chemistry on Wednesday, October 6;  journalist and Princeton 1986 graduate Maria Ressa awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, October 8; and graduate alumni David Card and Joshua Angrist winning the 2021 Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences this Monday, October 11.

Card, who is currently a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received one half of the economics prize “for his empirical contributions to labor economics.” He earned his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton in 1983, and taught at Princeton from 1983 to 1996.

Angrist, who finished his Ph.D. at Princeton In 1989 and is now a professor at MIT, shares his half of the prize with Stanford University economics professor Guido Imbens “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.”

The Swedish Academy noted that Card and Angrist were being recognized for providing “new insights about the labor market” and showing “what conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from natural experiments.”

Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers and former dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, commented, as quoted in a University press release, “Today’s Nobel in economics recognizes that investing in people — such as paying them living wages and providing quality educational opportunities — is beneficial not only to them but to society at large. It also highlights how economists can utilize natural experiments to analyze the causal impact of public policy, which has been an important advancement for the profession. Much of this work has its roots at Princeton University, and I am very proud to call the winners my friends and colleagues.”

Wolfgang Pesendorfer, economics department chair at Princeton, added, “This is a great prize: David Card, in joint research with Alan Krueger done here at Princeton, changed the way economists think about the labor market, most prominently about how the minimum wage affects employment. Josh Angrist and Guido Imbens made key methodological contributions that changed the way empirical research has been done over the past 25 years.”

Ressa, CEO and executive editor of the Philippines-based online news organization rappler.com, was cited for her efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

The Nobel committee noted that Ressa “uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence, and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines. As a journalist and the Rappler’s CEO, Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression. Rappler has focused critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population. Ms. Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate public discourse.”

Ressa shared her Nobel Peace Prize award with Dmitry Muratov, founder and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazette, a Russian independent newspaper.

Ressa is currently appealing a 2020 conviction in the Philippines for “cyber libel.”  A journalist in Asia for more than 30 years, she was CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta before founding Rappler. She taught in Princeton University’s Program in Journalism in 2000-2001, when she was working for CNN.

Ressa visited Princeton University in April 2019, meeting with students, faculty, and the campus community in large and small gatherings to discuss freedom of the press and how to combat disinformation.

“Maria was an inspiration when she visited us on campus in 2019 — smiling and cheery at a time when her very life and liberty hung in the balance,” said Joe Stephens, founding director of Princeton’s Program in Journalism. “You would never guess that she had just been arrested twice and faced arrest again on her impending return to the Philippines. ‘Heroic’ doesn’t even begin to describe her.”

Ressa is the second Princeton graduate to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The first was Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

“Maria Ressa’s courage, creativity, dedication, and values are an inspiration to the Princeton community,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “She exemplifies brilliantly this university’s commitment to ‘the service of humanity.’ We join the Nobel committee in celebrating her brave commitments to free expression, human dignity, and democratic government.”

David Macmillan, Princeton’s 2021 Nobel laureate in chemistry, was born, grew up, and received his undergraduate education in Scotland. He  joined the Princeton University chemistry department in 2006, served as director of the University’s Merck Center for Catalysis, and was chair of the University’s chemistry department from 2010 to 2015.

“David MacMillan is a brilliant chemist whose transformative insights and accomplishments have enhanced the power of organic chemistry to benefit human health and address other practical problems,” Eisgruber wrote. “He is also a faculty leader who during his time at Princeton has worked with colleagues to build this University’s Department of Chemistry into one of the world’s best.”

MacMillan has focused his research on innovative concepts in synthetic organic chemistry, creating a new tool, through a process known as organocatalysis, which increases the rate of chemical reactions, helping chemists construct catalysts with less impact on the environment and greater speed and precision.

The impact of these organocatalysts and the new drugs and materials they are used to construct reaches from industrial applications to pharmaceuticals to everyday products like clothing, shampoo, carpet fibers and more.

MacMillan shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with German chemist Benjamin List, director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mulheim an Der Ruhr, Germany.

Princeton University’s first 2021 Nobel Prize winner was climate science pioneer and senior meteorologist Syukuro “Suki” Manabe, as reported in last week’s Town Topics. Manabe was awarded the prize in physics for his work in modeling global climate change and climate variations, sounding a warning about global warming some 60 years ago, and contributing to “our understanding of complex physical systems.”