It’s that time of year when outstanding advances in science are acknowledged and celebrated by awarding the Nobel prizes. Here’s all you need to know about the science behind the prizewinners.
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
This year, the Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded to Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi. The 71 year-old prizewinner was recognised for revealing how a cell can break down and recycle its content.
This vital cellular process is called autophagy, meaning “self-eating” in Greek, and is thought to be fundamental in the development of cancer, immunological and neurodegenerative disorders. Many scientists believe that the key to tackling these disorders could therefore be found by understanding more about the mechanisms of autophagy.
Ohsumi and his team have paved the way for this novel field of cell biology, inspiring a new approach to tackling these devastating diseases.
Nobel Prize in Physics
Half of this year’s Physics prize was awarded to David Thouless, with the other half awarded jointly to Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz. The British trio shared the prize for their work on exotic states of matter, which helped to illuminate why some materials have unexpected electrical properties, such as superconductivity.
The trio achieved this by exploring topological concepts: a branch of mathematics studying properties which remain constant under transformations such as bending or stretching.
This pioneering work breaks the ice for investigating materials for use in new technologies such as quantum computers.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
It was a European trio, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, who won the Chemistry Nobel prize year. Together they developed “nano-machines”, which have been described as the “world’s smallest robots”.
The team were able to convert chemical energy into mechanical motion, with the aim of reproducing the function of cellular machinery in synthetic molecules. This advancement triggered the development of the world’s first smart materials which are able to adapt to changes in their environment, similar to the workings of a living cell.
Nano-machine technology is already being applied to medical and engineering practices and has opened up an entire field of molecular machinery.
Sarah Barfield Marks is studying for an MSc in Science Communication
Image: Nobel Prize, Adam Baker