January 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Nobel Prizes 2019: understanding our metabolism, our place in the universe, and...charging our phones?

Welcome to the first I, Science News Roundup of the 2019-20 academic year!

It’s been a big week for science as the 2019 Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine have now all been awarded. Let’s take a look at who and what was recognised this year.

Physiology or medicine

The way cells adapt to changing oxygen levels claimed the first prize of the week. William Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter Ratcliffe, and Gregg Semenza were jointly awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine for their research that revealed the mechanism behind one of life’s most essential adaptive processes.

We’ve understood the importance of oxygen to life for centuries, but thanks to this work we now know much more about how varying oxygen levels regulate essential biological processes. This isn’t just useful for knowing how humans live at altitude (which it is) but has also paved the way for promising strategies to tackle various diseases including cancer.


Nobel Prize

Two very different types of discovery were honoured with the Nobel prize for physics this year, but both gave new perspectives on our place in the universe. The award was split between James Peeble, whose work showed we have no idea what 95% of the universe is made of (dark matter), and Michel Meyer and Didier Queloz, who discovered the first-ever exoplanet – a planet outside our own solar system.

Both discoveries led to revolutions in their fields; Peeble’s work is the basis of our modern ideas of the universe, and there have now been over 4,000 exoplanets discovered since Meyer and Queloz announced finding the first.


Last but not least, this winner may now be commonplace but it has changed our world and potentially saved our future. The lithium-ion battery is lightweight, powerful and rechargeable and used globally for portable electronics. Their ability to store energy also means they are the foundation of fossil fuel-free future as they can do so from renewable energy sources including solar and wind.

Three men are credited with their introduction to our world: Stanley Wittingham, who laid the foundations and the first (if unstable) lithium-ion battery; John Goodenough, who built upon this and made it more powerful; and Akira Yoshino, who then went on to create the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.

Food for thought

You may have noticed that all the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prizes in science are men. Whilst last year both the chemistry and physics prizes were awarded to women, it seems it may have been a blip on the record (only 20 science Nobel Laureates have been women since their inception).

It could be argued that current winners are a reflection of the science landscape two or three decades ago when fewer women were in science. However, even when factoring this in, women are still heavily under-represented among science Nobel Laureates.

This doesn’t even touch on the western bias, which is also obvious from a quick look at the Laureate demographics. The Nobel Prizes are a highly respected and influential institution, but they need to do more to reflect the modern scientific landscape if they are to remain relevant.

This week’s news was written by Harry Jenkins, who is studying for a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

Pictures: Copyright Nobel Media 2019. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. https://www.nobelprize.org/