2016 Nobel laureates: who they are and what their contributions are to mankind

History has shown us that often the difference between a useful tool and a deadly weapon lies not in the object itself, but the manner in which it is used. This was the case of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer who figured out a way to turn nitroglycerin, an unstable and unpredictable explosive, into a safe and controllable compound: dynamite. While revolutionizing the mining, oil and railway industries, it also boosted the armament business into a new, more powerful era. In his last days, regretting the consequences of his invention and his own profit from it, Nobel decided to devote his fortune to a set of prizes for those people who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. That is how the Nobel Foundation was created, which, together with renown scientific institutions, nominate and award every year outstanding people from all over the world. In this article, we will take a look at the Nobel Laureates of 2016 and the work for which they are recognized.

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The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Drs. David J. Thouless (1/2), F. Duncan M. Haldane (1/4) and J. Michael Kosterlitz (1/4), “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”. What does this mean? We all witness in our everyday life that matter has different states (phases) and it can transition from one to the other. For example, when the ice in our drink melts (a transition of water from solid to liquid), or when we boil water for our tea (a transition from liquid to gas). But those three states – solid, liquid and gas – are not the only ones that a certain material can have. For example, the matter in a flame of fire is in a state called plasma, and the molecules in the jelly that children eat are in a state called gel. There are other, organized solid phases, called crystals, where atoms are organized into geometric patterns. This arrangement becomes more interesting for magnetic materials, because how the atoms are organized (for example, aligned or not) gives the material special electromagnetic properties (for example, attracting charged surfaces as magnets do). Some of these materials are very interesting because they can be super-conductors, which means that a tiny piece of them can transport a lot of information (in the way of electricity) very quickly with minimal energy cost. This makes these materials very useful for manufacturing next generation computer processors. Drs. Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz applied quantum physics to classify different crystal phases (or topologies) of matter, describe their organization and properties, as well as to predict new features and materials. Their discoveries are essential for the progress of electronics and the development of quantum computers.

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Also related to cutting edge computation and technology, Drs. Jean-Pierre Sauvage (1/3), J. Fraser Stoddart (1/3) and Bernard L. Feringa (1/3) are the 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. Their discoveries were also based in topological physical chemistry, i.e. the geometric arrangement of molecules. Molecular machines are composed of just a few molecules and they do what all machines do – respond to a stimulus (input) by performing a movement (output). They already exist in nature, for example, the proteins responsible for muscular contraction are molecular machines. In order to be able to move, but not fall apart, the molecules in this nanoscopic machine need to be attached by special types of bonds that allow them to rotate and translocate (move) with respect to each other, keeping together at the same time. The discoveries of Sauvage, Stoddart and Faringa allowed the description and practical application (synthesis) of such bonds, termed mechanical bonds and isomerisable bonds. These molecular machines, also termed nanomachines, could not only have applications in informatics and the manufacturing of delicate materials, but also in medicine and fighting pollution. In the future, nanorobots could be used to treat patients with infections, cancer and other diseases. . They could also be employed to selectively degrade certain materials, such as oil during a spill to help preserve the environment.

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The third Nobel Prize in the category of nature science is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which in 2016 was awarded to Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy”. The word ‘autophagy’ comes from ancient Greek and literally means “self-eating”. Some of the many roles of this process are degradation of old or defective components of the cells, generation of essential nutrients during starvation, and the destruction of pathogens and toxic molecules during the immune response.  It is also important during the development of living organisms (embryogenesis) and in illnesses such ascancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Even though the phenomenon of autophagy was known since the 1960’s, the proteins and pathways (again, molecular machines) involved were unknown. The work of Dr. Ohsumi not only elucidated the identity of the molecules that participate and regulate autophagy in different species, from yeast to mammals, but also described different sub-types of autophagy that are important for specific tasks. These discoveries not only help understand how cells work but also have a significant impact in developing new therapies for many human diseases.

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The improvement of humanity and societies does not only rely on physics, chemistry and biology, but also in other, equally important social sciences like philosophy, politics, sociology, and economy. That is why in the 1960’s, a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was added. The 2016 Laureates are Drs. Oliver Hart (1/2) and Bengt Holmström (1/2) “for their contributions to contract theory”. We all know contracts – documents that regulate the legal relationship (rights and duties) between people in a vast variety of modern situations, like renting a house, appointing employees or purchasing car insurance. The research of Drs. Hart and Holmström was focused on the optimal designing of contracts, with particular emphasis on the relationship between companies and high level employees, improving the way issues like salaries, promotions, tasks, evaluation of performance, responsibilities and profit were organized and handled. Their theories not only impacted the occupational arena, but also improved other important components of modern society, such as companies merging and bankruptcy regulation, public institutions management and legislation, and politics.

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Finally, life is not only about sciences. There are two important Nobel Prizes devoted to people that make the world a better place through art and promotion of peace and fraternity among the nations. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was conferred to the writer and singer Bob Dylan, an icon of peace and civil rights movements in the 1960’s, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Bob Dylan expressed through his songs the ideology and social concerns of his time, especially the counterculture phenomenon that not only promoted peace but also sexuality and women rights and opposed the established system of power and authority. Related to that, the last award we need to mention, but not at all the least important, is the Nobel Peace Prize. This year it  was bestowed upon the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”. For the first time in Colombia’s history, the government and the FARC guerrillas are negotiating a peace treaty. Citing the statement from The Norwegian Nobel Committee: “The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process. This tribute is paid, not least, to the representatives of the countless victims of the civil war.”

Human beings have the extraordinary ability of learning, imagination and invention, and more importantly, they can pass all that knowledge generation to generation, changing History. The actions and discoveries of the Nobel Laureates show us that tools can be used for the good of humanity and inspire us to achieve greatness.

For more information go to: https://www.nobelprize.org/

Editor: Hema Manjunath.

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