It is that time of the year when the Nobel Prizes are announced. They are the world’s most important prizes awarded to scientists, thinkers, writers and leaders for their inventions, ideas, books and efforts to achieve world peace. Find out all about the 2016 winners in this special report.
Physics Nobel: Much ado about matter
This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics is being shared by three winners. Half the prize money will go to David J Thouless while the remaining half will be shared by F Duncan M Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz. All three are British scientists currently working at American universities.
The trio won the Nobel for their work in explaining how matter (all things around us are made of matter) behaves in unusual states as superconductors and super fluids. A super conductor is a material that can carry heat or energy very efficiently without any losses (ordinary carriers of energy like copper or silver suffer some losses). Superfluids are liquids that flow without any friction. Take for example, a liquid in a cup. If you swirl the cup, the liquid begins to move in a circular fashion but after some time, it will stop moving. However, if the liquid was a superfluid, it wouldn’t stop moving as it won’t encounter any friction.
This year’s winners were able explain how matter changes in these unusual states using topology. Topology is a branch of mathematics that explains how something is arranged. The winners have used their ideas to show how superconductivity and superfluidity can occur in thin layers of matter. They have also shown how superconductivity is linked to low temperatures as it disappears at higher temperatures.
The work of the winners has helped other scientists understand the behavior of matter and importantly, use that information to develop new materials that could be used in electronics and everyday life.
Chemistry Nobel: A big idea that is nano in size only
Three European chemists-Sir Fraser Stoddart, Jean Pierre Sauvage and Bernard Feringa-have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2016 for their work in developing nano machines.
Just as living cells in our bodies work as tiny machines to keep the body going, these scientists built tiny artificial cells that were able to perform various actions. They used them to build devices much, much tinier than a human hair. These devices can be used to deliver medicines to specific organs in the human bodies, because unlike tablets and injections that travel generally through the blood, these nano machines could carry the medicine to the specific organ being treated, and open up to release the medicine on arriving at the right place. This could make treatments more effective.
Other uses of such nano machines would be devices that can travel into pipe networks to release blockages, crawl into crevices to repair cracks or even jump inside car motors to fix a break down!
Medicine Nobel: Waste not, want not
That’s an idea that the human body takes seriously. Did you know that our bodies have an internal re-cycling programme? Old cell parts are gathered and the useful bits taken out for re-use or to generate energy. The human body cannot survive without this re-cycling process. The body needs to replace 200 to 300 grams of protein each day but we take in only around 70 grams. The recycling process makes up for the difference.
A Japanese scientist called Yoshinori Ohsumi who discovered how this re-cyling process-which is called ‘autophagy’- works, has been awarded this year’s Nobel for medicine. The word autophagy comes from two Greek words meaning “self-eating.” Ohsumi’s discoveries were important as they have helped us understand how autophagy could be used to fight diseases such as cancer.
Economics Nobel: It’s all about the contract!
This year’s Economic Nobel has been awarded to two economists-Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom-for their work in contract theory. What is a contract? A contract is agreement between groups of people that sets out rules under which the groups will work together to achieve a common goal.
A person working for a company, a restaurant operating a canteen inside a factory, an agency that designs advertisements- these activities are based on contracts signed between the people involved. What Hart and Holmstrom did was to draw up rules that could be used to create these contracts. What these rules or principles did was to ensure that the contract remained fair to all the people involved while staying focused on the common goal.
Their work has had a tremendous impact as their ideas are being used by companies big and small to draw up contracts for hiring people, purchasing things and carrying on their business.
The Nobel Peace Prize heads to Columbia
The Norweigian Nobel Committee, the group the selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has decided to award the 2016 prize to Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Columbia, and a country in South America. Santos has been awarded for his efforts to bring his country’s 50 year old civil war to an end.
A civil war is one that is fought within a country between groups of people. From 1964 onwards, Columbia has been torn apart by war between the government’s army and rebels who say that they are representing the rights of the poor people of Columbia. Around 220,000 people have died in this war. For the last four years, Juan Manuel Santos has been trying to bring an end to this war. In July 2016, he managed to get the fighting sides to come to a peace agreement that has temporarily halted the fighting in Columbia.
However his work is far from over-the people of Columbia have voted against the terms of the peace agreement and this will therefore need to be discussed again. Santos has begun a fresh round of discussions and is hopeful that his country will find peace soon. By awarding this year’s Peace Prize to President Juan Manuel Santos, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has said that it wished to encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace and justice in Colombia.