Briton shares Nobel prize for his work on ageing

A Briton was among those who won the Nobel Chemistry prize awarded yesterday, while the Physics prize went to a group whose work on methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light could lead to the design of more precise atomic clocks, crucial for accurate satellite navigation. Margaret Rogerson reports.

The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm took the unusual step of splitting the Chemistry award. Half went to Jens Skou from Denmark, and the remainder was split between John Walker and Paul Boyer from Britain and the United States respectively.

Mr Boyer has been professor emeritus at the University of California since 1990 and Mr Walker has been a senior scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge since 1982. Mr Boyer and Mr Walker received the award for their work on how the enzyme ATP Synthase uses energy to recreate itself. Mr Skou was the first to show that enzymes can promote the transport of substances through a cell membrane.

Mr Walker and his team found that a running down of the mechanism of ATP Synthase could play a key role in diseases related to ageing. Our ability to convert food into ATP diminishes irreversibly as we age, and such problems could play an important part in diseases which occur in later life such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The fact that a British scientist has been included in the scientific Nobel prizes will bring some comfort to British scientists who have become increasingly despondent about government spending on scientific research and development. Since 1986, only three British scientists have won scientific Nobel prizes. By comparison, in 1946-56 British scientists won 10 Nobel prizes, and in the following three decades 11, 12, and eight respectively .

The Nobel Physics prize, worth pounds 600,000, went to Steven Chu, of Stanford University, William D Phillips, of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, of the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure of Paris.

"The new methods of investigation that the Nobel laureates have developed have contributed greatly to increasing our knowledge of the interplay between radiation and matter," said the official citation.

The citation explained the complicated work by comparing an atom to a stone sliding along ice. If the atom meets a photon - the particles that make up a light beam - travelling in the opposite direction, the photon's energy is transferred to the atom, slowing it down. If this is done enough times, the atom's speed will be reduced significantly. The laureates have developed ways of using lasers to cool gases to within a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, -273C , the point at which all motion theoretically stops.

Peter Bance, an atomic physicist at Oxford University, said yesterday: "Their work on `optical molasses' forms the basis of many experiments in atomic physics done today. It has allowed a whole new realm of incredibly low temperatures to be explored and exploited both in the lab and in the market place. The recent spectacular success of American groups in achieving a new state of matter called BEC was a direct result of techniques pioneered by this years prizewinners."