News-wise, saying this year has been busy would be a massive understatement. So, you would be forgiven for missing the Nobel Prize announcements in October. Therefore, I implore you to take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with the work of the amazing people who have been awarded this year’s science prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine. These prizes were set up on instruction of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor known for dynamite, on his death in 1896, with the first prizes being announced in 1901.
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Physiology or Medicine: Yoshinori Ohsumi.
“For his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.”
Autophagy literally means self-devouring, and it has been observed that this is exactly what cells do. Autophagy is the process whereby cells recycle themselves. Parts or whole components of the cell are surrounded by membranes and are taken to ‘recycling centres’ within the cell, called lysosomes.
Ohsumi discovered a method for understanding how this mechanism takes place, originally in yeast, and was also able to identify the genes responsible for the process. It has since been observed that similar processes take place within other cells, including human cells.
Autophagy is an essential function in cells and if this process was to fail there would be serious health implications. Having an in-depth understanding of this process is integral in understanding cancer and various neurological diseases.
Physics: David J. Thouless, F. Duncan, M. Haldane and J. Nichael Kosterlitz.
“For theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”
This one did make the news headlines, if only because someone tried to explain it using their lunch! If you haven’t seen the video then it’s worth a watch, however baffling it may seem – you will never see a bagel the same way again.
Matter tends to exist in one of three states: gas, liquid or solid. These are the states that everyone is comfortable with, and the states that people interact with daily. However, matter is not limited to these three states and under extremes alternate states can be observed. This is not new science and has been known about for quite some time.
The work of these three scientists was to attempt to describe and predict new and different states that matter could take, all of which don’t seem to apply to the conventional laws of physics. This area of physics could have a huge number of applications in electronics and futuristic materials.
Chemistry: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa
“For the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”
‘Molecular machines’ may sound like something straight out of a science-fiction novel, however I can reassure you that we are not going to be taken over by tiny robots any time soon. These molecular machines are in fact an amazing chemical tool, which will be put to use for the benefit of mankind. To give some context as to scale, the machines themselves are approximately a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.
They are described as machines, as they have been made to move in a certain manner or direction when energy is provided. Different molecular machines exhibit a range of different movements. Some of the molecular machines are rings wrapped around a ‘track’ that they follow, stopping at distinct points. These points can more easily be explained as molecular bus stops.
Feringa is also responsible for creating the world’s first molecular motor which rotates when it is excited by UV radiation. These molecular machines will without a doubt grow more complex and obtain more functionality, thereby having a huge number of applications.
One of the most exciting potential applications is the role they could play in drug delivery within the body, transporting drugs exactly where they need to be and hopefully making treatments more effective.
This year’s awards have not let us down, and without a doubt are some of the most exciting aspects of science. Nobel wanted these prizes to award the achievements of science in bettering mankind, and it is easy at times to lose sight of that. Nobel Prizes exist to inspire people and to show that science is a fundamental driving force for good.
Watch out for the award ceremonies on the 10th December when the Laureates will receive their awards in Stockholm, from the King of Sweden.