This week is a big week for scientists as the announcements for the 2016 Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics roll in. On Monday, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet announced its choice for the Nobel Prize in medicine; on Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced its choice for the Nobel Prize in physics; and today, October 5, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Here’s a rundown of the winners across all the science categories:
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year went to three chemists who have developed controllable molecular machines: Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg in France; Sir J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University; and Bernard Feringa of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
In 1983, Sauvage interlocked two ring-shaped molecules with a mechanical bond, taking the first step toward making molecular machines. Then, in 1991, Stoddart created a molecular ring that could move along a molecular axle, later using this technique to create a molecular elevator, a molecular muscle that can bend and stretch molecular beams, and a molecular computer chip. In 1999, Feringa became the first scientist to make a molecular motor, and he has since created a nanocar and a molecular motor that can rotate a glass cylinder 10,000 times its size.
The chair of the chemistry committee explained the winners’ research in an interview after the announcement:
Sara Snogerup Linse describes the importance of the #NobelPrize awarded discoveries in chemistry https://t.co/l05Ctzliic — The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2016
Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese biologist, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work understanding autophagy, the mechanism that allows cells to recycle unnecessary or dysfunctional parts.
In the 1990s, Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to pinpoint the genes involved in autophagy. He starved mutated yeast cells in order to prompt them to produce autophagosomes, or organelles that envelop damaged cell components and deliver them to another organelle to be recycled. He studied thousands of yeast mutants to identify 15 genes that need to be activated for autophagy to work, and identified the corresponding mechanisms in humans. His research led to a greater understanding of the role autophagy plays in the body’s stress response and disease.
Juleen Zierath, who is on the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, tells a freelance journalist about Ohsumi's work in the video below:
The Nobel Prize in Physics this year went to three UK-born scientists who have advanced the scientific knowledge of unusual states of matter. One-half of the $930,000 (8 million Swedish kronor) award went to David Thouless of the University of Washington, and the other half was split between F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University.
To study states of matter, they used topology, an advanced type of math that describes the properties of matter that stay consistent when an object is stretched or deformed without tearing it apart. In topology, a sphere and a bowl are the same, because the sphere can be flattened into a bowl; a bagel and a coffee cup with a hole in the handle are the same, because they both have one hole. But a bagel and a pretzel are different, because one has one hole, and the other has two. There’s no such thing as a half-hole, so topological objects have to change by an integer—one hole, two holes, etc. Topology allowed these three researchers to rewrite what scientists knew about superconductors, superfluids, and thin magnetic films. The type of research spawned by the Laureates’ discoveries could one day lead to new superconductors or quantum computers.
Physics committee member Thors Hans Hansson explains the concept in a post-announcement interview below:
As important as superconductors are, not everyone is cheering about this year’s physics prize. With an eye on next year’s Nobel wins, some are making an online push to recognize the achievements of Vera Rubin, one of the researchers who provided the first evidence of dark matter—a revolutionary discovery by any measure. She would be the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics since 1963, and only the third in the prize’s history (despite plenty of deserving female candidates). Across the history of all the Nobel Prizes, only 48 women have won.
The Nobel announcements in other fields will be awarded later this week and next, beginning with the Nobel Peace Prize on October 7, the Nobel Prize in economics the following Monday, and the Nobel Prize for literature on a yet-to-be-announced date.