Tag Archives: Nobel

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize goes to the United Nations for its efforts in feeding the world’s hungry

This Friday, the fifth Nobel Prize of the week has been awarded — the one for peace. The Nobel committee selected the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) as the recipient, in honor of its efforts to combat hunger and help plant the seeds of peace in conflict areas around the world.

WFP supplies being delivered to victims of the tropical storm “Hanna”. Image credits Flickr / United Nations Photo.

While many powerful and high-profile people were proposed for this year’s Peace prize, the Nobel Institute in Oslo felt that the WFP deserved it the most. Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel committee explained that they hope this award will “turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger”, adding that hunger has and still is used as a “weapon of war and conflict”.

Food for peace

“It’s a very important UN organization. The UN plays a key role in upholding human rights,” she said. “Food is one of our most basic needs.”

The committee listed the WFP’s “efforts for combating hunger” and “contribution to creating peace in conflict-affected areas” as some of the criteria that informed their decision. Through its activity, the WFP imposed itself “as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. All of this helped it stand out from this years’ list of candidates, which included 211 individuals and 107 organizations.

Other notable candidates this year included Greta Thunberg, for her efforts advocating on behalf of environmental issues, Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader who is currently recovering from a nerve agent attack likely orchestrated by the Russian government, and the World Health Organization for its role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee also praised the program’s “universalism” and its global scope, which contrasts with the increasing populist and nationalistic rhetorics we’re seeing in countries around the globe.

This is the last of five Nobel prizes to be awarded this year. The committee awarded the one for physiology and medicine on Monday to the discoverers of the hepatitis C virus. On Tuesday, they recognized the importance of breakthrough work in the nature of black holes with the Prize for physics, making way on Wednesday for the Prize in chemistry for the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool. American poet Louise Glück won the Prize for literature on Thursday.

Nobel Prize: Trio of scientists honored for discovering Hepatitis C virus

Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice have been awarded for the discovery of hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to tests and cures for the dangerous disease.

“For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating hepatitis C virus from the world,” the Nobel Committee said in announcing the prize in Stockholm.

Scientists had long known about the hepatitis A and B viruses, but they were poking in the dark trying to find the hepatitis (hep) C virus. It took decades of work from Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton to make that breakthrough.

As is often the case, the Nobel Prize was awarded to breakthroughs that made a practical difference in the world — and this certainly fit the bill. Identifying the hepatitis C virus has led to efficient screens for the virus, making blood supplied for transfusions much safer than it was in the past. Up until the 1960s, medics were gravely concerned about a number of people receiving blood transfusions containing a mysterious infectious agent. That turned out to be the hep C virus.

“We take it for granted that if you get a transfusion, you’re not going to get sick from that transfusion. That was not the case before but is certainly the case now,” Rice said in an interview with AP. Before the tests, the risk of contracting the disease from a transfusion was about 1 in 10, now it’s closer to 1 in a million.

The discovery paved the way for treatments to save thousands every year. This is currently the only chronic viral infection that can be reliably cured, using one of several potent drugs. Without treatment, the virus can cause liver scars, cancer, or even damage requiring a liver transplant.

However, despite remarkable progress, the disease still affects over 70 million people every year, killing 400,000. We have the technology to save these people, it’s all about making the drugs cheaper and more available.

“What we need is the political will to eradicate it” and to make the drugs affordable enough to do it, Alter said.

The award comes at a very important time for the medical community around the world. In a statement, the Nobel Assembly said the isolation of Hepatitis C had marked a “landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases”.

“It takes time before it’s fully apparent how beneficial a discovery is,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee.

This serves as a stark reminder that dealing with COVID-19 isn’t something that will happen overnight — even for a disease that’s been studied for decades and for which treatment exists, making it really go away with treatment alone is turning to be a massive challenge.

“To control an epidemic, you need to have a vaccine,” Houghton said. For “diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, we’ve had cheap drugs available for decades, and yet we still have big epidemics of those diseases.”

As for the three new laureates, they weren’t exactly hugging the phone in expectation. Perlmann struggled to reach Alter and Rice by phone.

“I had to call a couple of times before they answered,” Perlmann said. “They seemed very surprised and very, very happy.”

The Nobel Prize for Medicine is pretty much the highest recognition you can obtain in the field. The prize honors great minds that made breakthrough discoveries that better the world, with an emphasis on science that paved the way for practical applications. The prize also comes with 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.1 million), as was requested by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, 124 years ago.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to trio that created today’s lithium-ion batteries

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to jointly award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham (USA), and Akira Yoshino (Japan) “for the development of lithium-ion batteries“.

Image credits Nobelprize.org

This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry recognizes the importance of the lithium-ion battery in today’s world. Such batteries are lightweight, rechargeable, and powerful enough for a wide range of applications. From mobile phones to laptops and electronic cars, the lithium-ion battery keeps our world in motion. They’re also one of the cornerstones of fossil-fuel-free economies, as they’re able to store energy from renewable sources for long stretches at a time (they can withstand many recharge-discharge cycles).

No breaking down

The advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they are not based upon chemical reactions that break down the electrodes, but upon lithium ions flowing back and forth between the anode and cathode.

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.

The lithium-ion battery can trace its origin back to the oil crisis of the 1970s, the commission explained. Against this backdrop, a researcher named Stanley Whittingham was working to develop energy technologies that would not depend on the use of fossil fuels. His work with superconductors paved the way for the development of an innovative cathode for lithium batteries. This cathode was built from titanium disulfide which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can fit – intercalate – lithium ions. Today, the concept is known as electrode intercalation.

The anode in a Li-Ion battery (the positively-charged part) is made of metallic lithium, which is a strong electron donor. Coupled with the new cathode, such a battery could produce just over two volts of power, which is a lot. However, this battery was also very unstable, as metallic lithium is highly reactive — and it posed a real risk of explosion.

John Goodenough predicted that replacing the titanium disulfide in the cathode with a metal oxide would boost the battery’s capacity (measured in volts) to even greater heights — a hypothesis he proved in 1980 using cobalt oxide. His battery produced up to four volts, paving the way towards much more powerful batteries.

Akira Yoshino built on Goodenough’s findings to produce the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. He replaced the lithium in its anode with petroleum coke, a carbon-based material that could intercalate lithium ions. The resulting battery was a lightweight, robust battery that could withstand hundreds of cycles without any drop in performance. The secret to their success is that they don’t rely on chemical reactions to generate power (these break down electrodes over time) but on the physical flow of lithium ions between the anode and cathode.

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they became commercially-available in 1991. Whenever you poke at your phone, hit the power button on your laptop, or start your Tesla, know that the work of these three laureates made it possible.

Trio wins Nobel Medicine Prize for uncovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels

William Kaelin, Gregg Semenza (US), and Peter Ratcliffe (UK) jointly received the Nobel Medicine Prize for their work on how cells gauge and respond to oxygen availability, knowledge which could point the way towards new cancer treatments.

Together, the three identified the molecular mechanisms that regulate genetic activity in response to changes in oxygen levels inside the body — a mechanism that can be co-opted to fight a host of conditions.

Putting the O in operational

“[The team] established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function,” the jury said, adding that their research has “paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

There is a sizeable interest in academia and the pharmaceutical industry to develop compounds that can activate, block, or alter the oxygen-sensing mechanisms in living cells.

Oxygen is vital to animal cells, which use the gas to extract energy from food via oxidation. However, oxygen availability can fluctuate quite wildly for different tissues at different times, and when it’s in short supply, cells need to adapt. The jury awarded the Nobel Prize to the trio in recognition of the potential of their findings going forward, for both academia and industry.

“This prize is for three physician scientists who found the molecular switch that regulates how our cells adapt when oxygen levels drop,” Randall Johnson of the Nobel Assembly told reporters.

Kaelin, 61, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US. Semenza, 63, is the director of the Vascular Research Program at the John Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering. Ratcliffe, 65, is the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and director of the Target Discovery Institute in Oxford.

The 2019 Nobel session is shaping up to be quite an exciting one — after a scandal postponed the awarding of last year’s literature prize, we’re set for two laureates in that category this year. The Peace Prize, to be awarded this Friday in Oslo, is also likely to spark public debate (hopefully, civil), as it has been speculated that Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg could receive it for her campaign against climate change (which has been quite polarizing so far). Other strong contenders are the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who signed a peace deal with Eritrea, ending two decades of conflict, and NGOs such as Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Chemistry Nobel 2017.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded for cool new tricks in electron microscopy

The 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Jacques Dubochet, formerly a professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank from the University of Columbia, and Royal Society Fellow Richard Henderson for their revolutionary work in bioimaging: the development of cryo-electron microscopy.

Chemistry Nobel 2017.

Image credits NobelPrize.org

It’s really hard to get a good look at the stuff life is made of, known as ‘biomolecules’, in action. The issue is two-fold. For starters, they’re minuscule in size — we’re talking about chemical systems constructed out of bunches of atoms strung together. Secondly, the go-to tool for peering at the really small, electron beam imaging, just rips them to shreds before we can get an accurate picture.

The trio of scientists developed a technique to address these issues. Known as cryo-electron microscopy, it allows researchers to study the structure of biomolecules in high resolution without damaging them for the first time in history. The technology has immense potential in the field of biochemistry.

Frozen solid

Previously, electron microscopy imaging was only suitable for studying dead matter, because the electron beam destroys any biological material it is applied to. Henderson, a Scottish scientist and professor at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, was the first to use the method to generate three-dimensional images of a protein at the atomic scale. Joachim Frank, a professor at Colombia University in New York, expanded on electron microscopy, making it more flexible and more widely applicable. Together, their research made it easier to peer into the workings of biology’s building blocks in more detail than ever before.


The final technical hurdle was overcome in 2013, with the advent of a new type of electron detector.
Image via NobelPrize.org

Dubochet, an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, worked on making biomolecules stable enough to resist electron microscopy. His work refined a cold-vitrification technique, which made it possible to flash-freeze biomolecules without altering their original structures. This vitrification technique ensures that molecules can be kept intact (and still) while we take a good look at them using the advances in imaging achieved by Henderson and Frank. In a nutshell, that’s cryo-electron microscopy.

Practical applications of the technique are “immense”, Frank told journalists after the Prize’s announcement.

Cryo-electron microscopy is a game changer in biochemistry. Life at the smallest scale works much like a set of LEGO bricks. A virus trying to infect one of your cells, for example, first needs to bind its envelope proteins to those peppered throughout the cell’s membrane. Similarly, antibodies trying to hunt those viruses down bind to their envelope proteins to act as beacons, drawing in the immune system’s white cells. An antibiotic works by blocking proteins on the cells of bacteria, rendering them useless.

But not all types of proteins click together — they need to be ‘shaped’ properly. Up to now, scientists have had to simulate such structures from indirect observations. This took both a lot of time, processing power, or a lot of gamers putting in the elbow work. Now, researchers can simply use cryo-electron microscopy to look at the shapes they’re interested in.

3D Structures.

As you can probably tell, these babies are much easier to snap than to simulate.
Image via NobelPrize.org

So far, it has allowed researchers to look at the structure of the Zika virus, the proteins that confer bacteria antibiotic resistance, and the enzyme producing the amyloid of Alzheimer’s disease. By freezing the same chemical systems at different points in its operation cycles, they can even put together film sequences of biochemistry at work — a feat unheard-of up to now.

Cryo-electron imaging, used in conjecture with a similar technique known as cryo-focused ion beam milling, was also applied by a team at ETH Zurich on some bigger pray — the bacterium Amoebophilus. Here, a cold-vitrification technique was used to strengthen the bacteria’s structures while keeping them brittle, and an ion beam was used to chip away bits of Amoebophilus. Finally, cryo-electron imaging was used to model the bacterium’s internal organelles, including a spectacular array of dagger-like projectile launchers.

All in all, this imaging technique promises to revolutionize our understanding of live biochemical processes, a much-needed aid in our growing antibiotic problem and beyond. In recognition of that fact, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm awarded the Nobel Prize, which will be equally shared among the three researchers on Wednesday.

The 2016 Nobel Prize run-down

Another year, another set of great men and women awarded for their achievements. So just in case you’re missed any, we’ve put this handy list together so you can read all about them. I’ve also reserved this occasion to tell you about the Nobel Prize for peace — just to end on a happy note.

Nobel Prize medal for Chemistry.
Image credits Adam Baker / Flickr.

The Peaceful

The 2016 Nobel Prize for peace has been awarded to current Colombia’s 32nd and current President Juan Manuel Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.

Colombia’s civil war has been a 52-year-long debacle (the first word that came to mind didn’t make it pass the profanity filter) in which multiple armed groups, including the military, paramilitary groups, criminal organizations, and several (!!!) separatist groups have been killing each other and civilians over control of the country.  Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory estimates that 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) and more than five million civilians were forced from their homes between 1985 and 2012.

Santos and the leader of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) known as Timochenko have been working hard to establish peace in Colombia, and have signed a peace deal last month. Unfortunately, a referendum on Oct. 3rd narrowly rejected the plan.

The Nobel committee said it hoped that the prize would encourage the two to continue working for peace.

“There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again. This makes it even more important that the parties, headed by President Santos and Farc guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, continue to respect the ceasefire,” said the committee chairwoman, Kaci Kullmann Five.

“The fact that a majority of the voters said no to the peace accord does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead. The referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the no side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement. The committee emphasises the importance of the fact that President Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process.”

Hopefully, the country will soon be able to enjoy peace.

The Talented

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature for his unique expression in the American song tradition. His works are often compared to poems put to song, and touch on subjects usually reserved for literary works — such as politics, or the condition of man.

The award recognizes his talent as a man of literary might, as well as songwriting prowess.

The Brainy

The Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to UK-born Oliver Hart from Harvard University and Finland-born Bengt Holmström from MIT for their work on improving contracts — the mortar that holds our economies together. Hart changed our perspective about how contracts should distribute responsibility, while Holmström showed how to make them more efficiently assign rewards for each party.

Their work is already being put to use by companies around the world, and the award recognizes their part in making our lives go that bit more smoothly.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to  Jean-Pierre Sauvage from the University of Strasbourg, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart affiliated with Northwestern University, and Bernard L. Feringa from the University of Groningen for their advancements in the field of molecular machines. They developed methods to create the tiniest bits of these tiny mechanisms — axles, chains, or engines that can be used to create nanoscale devices.

The award recognizes the trio’s work, who gave us minuscule tools to start a huge revolution.

The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to David Thouless from the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane from Princeton University, and to Michael Kosterlitz from Brown University for using mathematical topology to prove the existence of matter states previously thought impossible.

The award recognizes their creation of the theoretical background on which future advances in superfluids, superconductors, and electronics will start from.

The Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology has been awarded to Japanese biologists Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in autophagy, the self-recycling processes of cells. His research on yeast has allowed him to identify the genes which supervise the process, and how distortions in autophagy can lead to diseases such as cancer.

The award recognizes his efforts in discovering one of the most fundamental processes of complex life, and in how it relates to a host of conditions.



The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature awarded to Bob Dylan for poems on music

The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to US singer Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

The unexpected decision was announced earlier today, marking the first time an American won the prize since Tom Morrison’s nomination in 1993. The artist is famous for songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A-Changin’ and the committee praised Dylan’s creative flair. Permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius said he was chosen because he was “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” — which is appropriate considering the artist took his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas.

“For 54 years now he’s been at it reinventing himself, constantly creating a new identity,” she told reporters in Stockholm.

Dylan has long been considered a potential prize recipient, yet few expected the academy to grant the award to the folk rock music genre. Former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion has also praised Dylan’s lyrics, and considers that his songs “work as poems”.

“They have often extremely skilful rhyming aspects to them,” he told the BBC. “They’re often the best words in the best order.”

Danius hopes the Academy will not be criticized for its choice, comparing the artist to Homer and Sappho.

“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said.

“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she added. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”

She said that while the choice might seem surprising, “if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”

The committee said that Dylan’s themes of the “social conditions of man, religion, politics and love” fall into territory usually explored by literature. They also said his lyrics have “continuously been published in new editions”, and “besides his large production of albums, Dylan has published experimental work like Tarantula (1971) and the collection Writings and Drawings (1973)” and “the autobiography Chronicles (2004), which depicts memories from the early years in New York and which provides glimpses of his life at the center of popular culture”.

The artist hasn’t yet been informed of the award as he’s performing in Las Vegas.

All in all, the choice, while surprising, establishes Dylan as not only a musician — but a literary force of his own.


The 2016 Nobel Prize in economics awarded to duo of contract theoreticians

The 2016 Nobel Prize for economics goes to UK-born Oliver Hart from Harvard University and Finland-born Bengt Holmström from MIT for their work on contract theory. The duo has covered issues ranging from employer-employee contracts to public-private partnerships and executive pay. Their work has helped improve the design of contracts, which hold together modern economies.

The committee said the prize reflected the pair’s role in advancing contract theory as “fertile field of basic research” and their subsequent work, which many regard as the foundation on which many policies and institutions were created. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called their work the key to understanding how real-life institutions and contracts sustain modern economies.

“Society’s many contractual relationships include those between shareholders and top executive management, an insurance company and car owners, or a public authority and its suppliers. As such relationships typically entail conflicts of interest, contracts must be properly designed to ensure that the parties take mutually beneficial decisions,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

“This year’s laureates have developed contract theory – a comprehensive framework for analysing many diverse issues in contractual design, like performance-based pay for top executives, deductibles and co-pays in insurance, and the privatisation of public-sector activities.”

Hart focused on contract theory. In his view, contracts work as instruction manuals, but they were incomplete. His assessment of the US prison system, showing that the pressure to cut costs was so great it led to unacceptable drops in quality, found that the issue stems from “incomplete contracts”. As these agreements can’t specify what needs be done in every case, they should say how decisions should be taken.

“His research provides us with theoretical tools for studying questions such as which kinds of companies should merge, the proper mix of debt and equity financing, and which institutions such as schools or prisons ought to be privately or publicly owned,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded the prize, said in a news release, referring to Dr. Hart.

Holmström’s work has focused on employment contracts, reaching into issues such as executive pay. In the news conference that marked the award, he was asked what the thought of the huge bonuses awarded under modern contracts.

“My personal view is they are too complicated today,” he said.

Where a company wants its employers to act as if they have a stake in the winnings — working hard, minding costs but also taking calculated risks — employees don’t. They want to be paid as much as possible, for as long as possible, while not working harder than needed, and assessing performance becomes difficult. So Holmström showed that companies should pay employees following the broadest possible evaluation of his or her performance.

He said one big part of this is to set aside a portion of compensation. If an employee is efficient and the company profits, this bonus can be increased. If not, it can be reduced. He also said that companies should tie pay to the share price of other firms in the industry — it wouldn’t make sense to reward or punish executives for fluctuations tied to broader economic factors. And, companies are increasingly opting for this kind of deferred payment, particularly for executives, Dr. Holmstrom noted with satisfaction Monday morning.



The 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to trio of molecular machine pioneers

The 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage from the University of Strasbourg, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart affiliated with Northwestern University, and Bernard L. Feringa from the University of Groningen for their work on molecular machines — nano-scale mechanisms capable of performing various tasks.

Molecular machines are teeny-tiny assemblies with the potential to spark a huge revolution. In essence, their purpose is to do the same things machines do for us today — transport, crafting, repairs — but on the molecular scale. And, just as you can’t make a car without first making some wheels, they need to be built from even smaller parts.

The trio’s work led to the creation of the most advanced such parts we’ve yet put together. Sauvage created the first molecular chain — or “catenane” — in 1983. Stoddart designed a “rotaxane”, a molecular ring around an axle. Feringa created the first molecular motor by coaxing a blade to spin in only one direction. Just remember, we’re talking about molecules here — far from the solid pieces of steel we use to build our machines in the macroscopic world, these molecular machines are subjected to the same rules as other molecules, such as Brownian motion.

Building on their work, chemists have designed muscles, elevators, and even cars, on an incredibly small scale. At the conference announcing the prize, committee member Sara Snogerup Linse asked if the audience wanted to see some molecular machines. She pulled away a black cylinder to reveal the items with a “Ta-da!” but there was nothing there.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t see them. They are more than a thousand times smaller than a human hair.”

Committee member Olof Ramstrom went on to present diagrams showcasing how the devices are built and their functionality. Sauvage, professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg in France, developed a chain-linking process using a copper ion to hold two molecules in place. A third is added to complete the second link, and the copper ion is removed — allowing the two rings to move freely while still staying connected. Stoddart, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, used the attraction between an electron-starved ring and an electron-rich rod to thread the ring, forming an axle. The loop is then closed, to complete the assembly. Feringa, Jacobus Van’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, coaxed a spinning rotor blade to move in a single direction by driving it with pulses of light.

“They really are very tiny,” Ramstrom agreed.

The trio’s work has “opened this entire field of molecular machinery,” he added. There’s enormous potential in these tiny cogs and gears, as the Nobel Prize website explains:

“2016’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium’s stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled. In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors. Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.”

The three scientists share the prize equally. A summary of their research can be read here. A technical explanation is available here.


The 2016 Nobel Prize in physics awarded to trio of topological experts

This year’s Nobel Prize in physics goes to David Thouless from the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane from Princeton University, and to Michael Kosterlitz from Brown University for their work in mathematical topology — “opening the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states”.

Topology describes shapes and structures by breaking them down into their fundamental characteristics, such as number of holes or faces. Topologically speaking, a bucket, a doughnut, and a bagel are the same because they have one hole — but they’re distinct from a pretzel, which has two. The trio used topology to analyze the properties of exotic states of matter, such as superconductors or superfluids. Their work could underlie future advances in material science and electronics, such as quantum computers.

Thirty years ago, it was widely believed that superconductivity (zero electrical resistance) couldn’t occur in thinly layered mediums. Thouless and Kosterlitz showed otherwise using topological means. They showed that thin conductive layers could form in materials by taking the form of discrete topological steps, where going up one step is like changing from a bagel to a pretzel.

Using similar concepts, Haldane explained the magnetic properties of several materials — the work “seemed very abstract” in the beginning, said Haldane, but as time went by more and more properties could be explained by topology.

“It turned out that many materials people had been looking at for years had these properties,” said Haldane, “they just hadn’t been seen.”

The work the trio did is pertinent to several different materials, but it’s still too early to understand the full implications of topology. “What these discoveries show,” said Haldane, “is that we have a long way to go to discover what’s possible.”

Haldane “was very surprised and very gratified” when he was informed about the decision. Much of this work took place in the late 70s and the 80s, but Haldane said “it’s only now that lots of tremendous discoveries based on this work are now happening.”


The 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine goes to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on autophagy

The first of 2016’s Nobel Prize recipients has been decided: the award for medicine or physiology goes to Japanese biologists Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in autophagy — the process by which cell components are recycled (from the Greek words for “self-eating”.)

Autophagy is the process by which cells break down their components to free building blocks for other uses. It plays a pivotal role in keeping our body healthy, and Professor Ohsumi’s work “led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content,” The Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute said.

He analyzed thousands of strains of yeast and identified 15 genes that underpin this internal recycling process. There is a lot of interest in the biomedical field surrounding autophagy because any alterations to the process can promote diseases such as cancer, or can increase resistance to anti-cancer procedures.

The committee said that Professor Ohsumi’s work also linked faults in this process to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other disorders common in elderly patients.

“I was surprised. I was in my lab,” recalled professor Ohsumi of hearing about the decision.

The award is the 107th award in this category since the first Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1905. Last year’s prize was shared by three scientists who developed treatments for malaria and roundworm infections. The physics prize will be announced on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics and literature awards will the announced next week.


Rats in underwear, goatman, and VW engineers are among the 2016 winners of the Ig Nobel Prize

The Ig Nobel awards show that not all good science has to be stuffy, serious, and sound important — or even seem rational.

Throwing paper planes around at the event is not only encouraged, it’s a tradition.
Image credits AP.

We write about science every day. We read about it even more. But there’s only so much we can write and for every article we publish there are tens, hundreds or thousands of other findings that don’t make the cut.

Naturally, hard-hitting topics like dark matter, genetic editing, environmental disasters/breakthroughs and so on are favored. But science in itself isn’t about finding answers just to huge questions — science is about observing and learning from the world around us. All of it. Even something as weird as finding out what it’s like to be a goat or studying adverse effects of polyester underwear helps us make sense it all, holding meaning for science — though we tend to react to such findings with a shrug and a “huh” rather than genuine interest.

Thankfully, the Ig Nobel Prizes are here to celebrate such ideas.

Each fall since 1991, the editors from the Annals of Improbable Research pick 10 papers in a wide range of subjects — from physics or neuroscience all the way to entomology, acoustics, or safety engineering — and reward them for “unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research.” It’s all good-natured, if a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the winners are obviously flattered, not offended. This year’s winners flew in from five continents to pick up their awards: a clock with 61 seconds, a 10-trillion-dollar bill (from Zimbabwe), and a handshake from actual Nobel laureates such as Roy Glauber (physics, 2005), Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007) and Richard Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993). Held at Harvard’s University’s Sanders Theather, the ceremony included a “mini-opera,” very short lectures topics such as fluid dynamics, a few “moments of science,” a tic-tac-toe tournament and the traditional tossing of paper airplanes.

While they usually hold a glimmer of criticism and satire, the prizes celebrate what I believe is the most important message in science — that even absurd-sounding topics can yield useful knowledge. As Ig Nobel Master of Ceremonies Marc Abrahams said, “Every winner has done something that first makes people laugh, then makes people think.”

So, without further ado, here are the year’s winning papers:

Reproduction: Having problems in the bedroom, guys? Well, you might want to start looking for a new pair of underwear. The late Ahmed Shafik from Cairo University’s Department of Surgery and Experimental Research found that undergarments woven with polyester significantly reduced the sexual prowess of male rats. In his paper, he describes how rats who wore 100% polyester underwear for a 12-month period were 87% less likely to succeed at an attempted sexual encounter than before. A 50-50 cotton-polyester blend dropped their success rate by 71%. All animals returned to normal after going commando for 6 months. The problem arises (or rather, doesn’t) because polyester garments generate an electrostatic potential in the genital area, averaging 443 volts/sq cm for 100% polyester and 239 volts/sq cm for the 50-50 blend. All-wool and all-cotton underwear had no measurable effect.

The paper was published in the journal European Urology in 1993.

FIg. 1 on page 2. Epic. Image credits Ahmed Shafik, (1993) European Urology, Effect of Different Types of Textiles on Sexual Activity.

Fig. 1 on page 2. Epic.
Image credits Ahmed Shafik, (1993) European Urology, Effect of Different Types of Textiles on Sexual Activity.

Chemistry: Volkswagen’s engineers earned a tongue-in-cheek prize for turning the company’s cars into “clean diesel” vehicles. The organizers felt their efforts and success in designing a software that allowed its cars to perform in a low-emission mode while being tested but spew out illegal amounts of nitrogen oxide on the road needed to be rewarded. The EPA and California’s Air Resources Board exposed the scandal in 2015 — you can read about it here.

Economics: The award went to a team of researchers who showed that a smooth, dark rock has a distinct personality from a lighter, more rugged one. If you’re inclined not to believe that statement, you’re not alone — the team didn’t believe it either. They asked people to attribute personality traits to inanimate objects to point at flaws in the Brand Personality Five-Factor Model, a controversial marketing tool.

Their study was published in 2014 in the journal Marketing Theory.

Physics: Dark objects are more likely to emit horizontally polarized light than white ones. Several species of insects are attracted to such light, explaining why five species of dragonflies seek out black, flat, and shiny gravestones (they look like a water surface). It also explains why white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof horses. This prize was awarded to two separate research groups.

The papers appeared in the journals Freshwater Biology and Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Medicine: A team from the University of Luebeck, Germany, has proved that you can scratch an itch without ever having to touch it. In a series of experiments, they injected histamine dihydrochloride into the right arms of 20 volunteers to cause an itch. Then, they used mirrors and video feeds to make it seem to the volunteers that their itch was being scratched, while the researchers were scratching their unaffected left arms. While the illusion lasted, participants reported feeling less itchy.

The paper was published in 2013 in the journal PLOS One.

Psychology: How should we study lying? The winners surveyed 1,005 people ages 6 through 77 on how often they lied in the past 24 hours, and who they lied to. Their answers indicated that adults are the best liars and that people lie more often in their teens. Combined with the results of computer tests, the researchers concluded that lying varies with age. This suggests that people studying deception should include subjects from across the age spectrum instead of relying too much on college students. The team points out that not all answers were necessarily honest, though.

The study was published in 2015 in the journal Acta Psychologica.

Peace: A University of Waterloo and Sheridan College team investigated what makes people believe meaningless — but seemingly profound — statements, such as “Perceptual reality transcends subtle truth” and “Nature is a self-regulating ecosystem of awareness”. Using selected tweets “from Deepak Chorpa’s Tweeter account” they identified certain traits which makes people more susceptible to “B.S.” The paper, whose title I can’t actually post here but you should really check out cause it’s the best one I’ve ever seen on a scientific paper, included religious or paranormal beliefs, an embrace of alternative medicine, an interest in conspiracy theories, and lower “cognitive ability.”

It was published last year in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

Biology: What’s it like to be something else, anything else than human? Can we actually know? Lawyer/bioethicist/veterinarian Charles Foster is the guy to ask. He tried living as a badger, fox, and a bird. He really got into it, making shelters in the dirt, dining on worms, or learning to navigate via smell alone. His experience is recorded in the book “Being a Beast”. Foster shared the award with Thomas Thwaites, who “took a holiday from being human” and lived with goats, as a goat. He even built a prosthetic rumen so he could eat grass. He published a book called “GoatMan”.

Literature: Entomologist Fredrik Sjoberg tells you everything you’d ever want to know about catching hoverflies on a remote Swedish island in his memoir, “The Fly Trap.” The Ig Nobel committee lauded the book for describing “the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.”

Perception: Japanese researchers Atsuki Higashiyama of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and Kohei Adachi of Osaka University studied why the world looks different upside-down. They recruited 15 volunteers and asked them to bend over, look through their legs and estimate the distance to five different objects. The guesses were compared to estimates made by upright volunteers who wore goggles that flipped their view 180 degrees. Their paper strengthened a theory known as the direct perception model.

The study was published in 2006 in the journal Vision Research.

Abrahams closed the awards ceremony with the traditional line

“If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight — and especially if you did — better luck next year.”


2015 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine Awarded

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is split into three parts, being divided between William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura — who jointly share a half “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” — and Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.”

Image via wattsupwiththat


Alfred Nobel had an active interest in all areas of research, including medicine. In his will, he set for the Prize to be awarded each year for scientific excellence in five major fields of study: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic Sciences.

The Physiology and Medicine part of the Nobel prize is awardied by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, for discovery of major importance in life science or medicine. Discoveries that have changed the scientific paradigm and are of great benefit for mankind are awarded the prize, whereas life time achievements or scientific leadership cannot be considered for the Nobel Prize.

A total of 327 scientists have been nominated for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, among who 57 individuals were nominated for the first time. This year it was claimed by the guys studying the bugs, for research into the treatment of roundworm parasite infections and Malaria.

The winners of the Nobel Medicine prize 2015 (L-R) Irish-born William C Campbell, Satoshi Omura of Japan and China’s Youyou Tu. Photograph credits to: Jonathan Nackstrand

The winners of the Nobel Medicine prize 2015 (L-R) Irish-born William C Campbell, Satoshi Omura of Japan and China’s Youyou Tu.
Photograph credits to: Jonathan Nackstrand


William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a new drug, Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. Youyou Tu discovered Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria.

Campbell’s and Ōmura’s Ivermectin is currently seeing use in all parts of the world that are plagued from parasitic diseases, invaluable for improving the wellbeing of millions of people with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, primarily in the poorest regions of the world. It’s so effective, in fact, that the diseases are on the verge of eradication, a major feat of medical history.

Artemisinin is used in all Malaria-ridden parts of the world, and with 200 million individuals who report infection with the disease each year, it’s seeing a lot of use. When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. For Africa alone, this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year.

“The discoveries of Avermectin and Artemisinin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Campbell, Ōmura and Tu have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable,” Karolinska Institutet’s award decision reads.



Nobel prize for chemistry awarded for the discovery of the structure of quasicrystals

The Nobel Prize has been awarded to a single scientist, which is less common than you might think, for the discovery of the structure of quasicrystals.

When this new structure was first proposed, to say that it stirred controversy would be putting it light; at first, the idea was so outside of the general consensus, that his own research group kicked him out. Daniel Shechtman, from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa received the top award that can be awarded in chemistry, thus cleaning his name and making up for the years in which he was disconsidered and even ridiculed by his own peers. As mister Shechtman recalls, pretty much nobody from the scientific communitiy believed in him:

“The head of my lab came to me smiling sheepishly, and put a book on my desk and said: ‘Danny, why don’t you read this and see that it is impossible what you are saying,'”

Still, he published the results, and it was only after that that all hell broke loose. He was told he was a disgrace for his research group and asked to leave.

However, time proved him right, and quasicrystals sparkled quite a lot of interest, and Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry called them ‘quite beautiful’. He also added:

“Quasicrystals are a fascinating aspect of chemical and material science – crystals that break all the rules of being a crystal at all.”

Quasicrystals are structural forms that are ordered but not periodic. They form patterns that fill all the space though they lack translational symmetry.

In other Nobel news, Tuesday’s award for physics went to Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess of the US and Brian Schmidt of Australia, who will divide the prize for their discovery that our Universe’s expansion is accelerating.

Chinese disident wins Nobel Peace Prize

In a slapp across Beijing’s face, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to imprisoned Chinese scholar Liu Xiaobo, for “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. The decision of the Nobel jury goes totally against the Chinese government, who claims Liu Xiaobo is nothing more than a criminal. The Nobel Committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland spoke his mind about this decision.

“China has become a big power in economic terms as well as political terms, and it is normal that big powers should be under criticism”

What’s even more interesting is that during the time he made this statement the broadcast on the BBC and CNN went black; also, there have been reports that text messages containing “Liu Xiaobo” were blocked and not being sent, which is probably the work of the Chinese government – who has also taken an angry official stance, as you could easily guess:

“To give the Peace Prize to such a person is completely contrary to the purpose of the award and a blasphemy of the Peace Prize”.

They also said this will probably damage the relationship between China and Norway. As for his wife, who is supposed to be free, her house was surrounded by police cars and she wasn’t allowed to meet reporters, giving statements via text messages. She added that she will give the good news to her husband on Saturday, because theoretically he doesn’t have any way of finding out (but I seriously doubt he hasn’t already).

“I am grateful to the Nobel Committee for selecting my husband, Liu Xiaobo, to be the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a true honor for him and one for which I know he would say he is not worthy … I hope that the international community will take this opportunity to call on the Chinese government to press for my husband’s release.”

A literary critic, Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned several times for protesting against the Beijing regime. Last year he was convicted just on Christmas day, when pretty much every foreign reporter was away, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. The evidence against him was a series of essays he wrote; he is currently held in a prison cell with five ordinary criminals.

In January, a group including Vaclav Havel and Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama co-signed an article saying Liu deserved the price without a doubt, for “his bravery and clarity of thought about China’s future”. While it is not uncommon for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to someone who has been previously incarcerated (take Nelson Mandela for the most famous example), it is indeed very rare for it to be given to someone currently in jail. Only German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi can claim this distinction.

What’s ironic is that this is the first time a Chinese who hasn’t left the country gets the awards; physicists Frank Yang and Lee Tsung-Dao and novelist Gao Xingjian won the prize for work they did outside China. The bad news is that this will probably infuriate Beijing even more and we may very well see more human rights or pro democracy activists being arrested. Imagine that; human rights, democracy… who knows what they’ll think of next ?

76 recipients of the Nobel Prize endorse Obama

This year’s election is among the most significant in America’s history. The people need a visionary leader that could get the nation out of the way towards the dark ages, and that can make this country play its crucial role in the world.

Under the Bush administration, scientific issues have been politicized in such a way that vital parts of scientific and technologic administration have been harmed, or even worse. According to the Nobel scientists, McCain will just continue Bush’s obvious lack of regard from science. So 76 Nobel Prize winners wrote an open letter to the people of America and not only; a part of what they wrote:

“We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation’s competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation’s and the world’s most urgent needs.”

Also, here is the full letter, read by this guy; you may know him as the “inventor” of quarks.

Glowing jellyfish earns Nobel Prize



This year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry has been earned by three scientists who researched into the mysterious green glow of a jellyfish. They will split the prize which has been given to them for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein GFP.

Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Martin Chalfie of Columbia University; and Roger Tsien of the University of California at San Diego helped developed what is today one of the most important tools in bioscience, as it allows scientists to watch certain processes that would otherwise be invisible, such as the development of nerve cells.

Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen was the first man who isolated GFP from the jellyfish and discovered that it lights a bright green under ultraviolet light. American scientist Martin Chalfie that the protein can be very useful as a genetic tag in natural processes. Roger Tsien, also an American developed the protein so that it can appear in many other colours.

Today scientists can give different cells different colours, which enables them to study more than one biological process at the same time. They can also connect GFP with other proteins, and using DNA technology, they can observe the movements, positions and interactions of the who carries the tag.