A touch of Oscar-Night –The Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine 2016
At the beginning of October it was that time of the year again. The physics, chemistry, and medicine communities had all their eyes on Stockholm. Who is going to be awarded the highest science prize this year and thus line up with the great science figures in history? The same is true for politicians and writers for the Peace and Literature Prize, and more recently for the economists, even if for the latter Nobel (who regarded economics as an inexact and soft sciences and hated it „from the bottom of his heart“)did not sponsor a pricehimself. The one or the other scientist might spend a sleepless night waiting for the long desired call from Stockholm, which is nothing less than the highlight of an often already great scientific career. Thus a touch of Oscar was in the air. And like in the case of the movie stars and starlets, the announcement is always followed by the discussions, who earned the award or who possibly should have earned it instead.
Now the committee has once again been able to deliver a surprise. Instead of meeting some expectations in the physics and medicine community to award the prize for more recent spectacular scientific excellence – in physics the discoveries of gravitational waves, in biology/medicine the development of the CRISPR method – the Nobel Committee opted for achievements made already a few years back –which by no means changes their spectacularity.
In physics we saw a real rarity this year: the prize went to scientists for discoveries in the field of mathematical physics, a field which seldom produces those type of scientific achievements which Nobel had in mind, namely to award prizes to direct applications for the benefit of humanity. But the abstract mathematical works of the physicists Kosterlitz, Thouless and Haldane from the 1970s and 1980s in the field of topology have an astonishing applications. They describe what happens on surfaces of solids when those interact with their immediate environment. As in many areas of today’s industrial engineering the components used and produced become smaller and smaller, which means their properties are increasingly determined by what is going onon their surfaces. And what happens on the two-dimensional structures is often quite different from known physics in three-dimensions, especially during what physicists call“phase transitions” (the most famous example of such is the freezing of water). With highly abstract mathematical models, the prizewinners were able to explain some exotic matter states and strange quantum phenomena on surfaces which have relevance for the phenomenon of superconductivity or gave evidence for the so called quantum Hall effect (measured several years later, Nobel Prize 1985). Furthermore, Haldane provideda mathematical framework for the behavior of so-called one-dimensional spin chains that includes important properties of the magnetic behavior of solids. The work of the 2016 Nobel Prize laureates suggests the possibility of completely new types of material classes, in particular various nano-electronic components – and this is – in the sense of Nobel – certainly to the benefit of mankind.
Also the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has much speaking for itself. Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa were honored for their pioneering work from the 1990s in the field of molecular machines. According to experts, these super-tiny machines could initiate a technical paradigm change, comparable to the developments of the steam engine in the 18th century or the computer in the 20th century. The researchers were able to produce nanometer-sized chemical structures that can move in certain directions in a controlled and steered way, like a micro-microscopically small automobile. The applications of such tiny machines are indescribably diverse, from cancer-fighting nano-robots in our bodies to materials that are completely made up of tiny machines that can ultimately replicate themselves. The latter describes a vision that the physicist Richard Feynmans formulated in his famous lecture „There is plenty of room at the bottom“ in 1959. Today there are molecular assembly lines and pumps, switchable catalysts and a total of over 50 different types of nano-motors. And there is no end to this development in sight. It was about time that the pioneers of this field were honored with a Nobel Prize.
The greatest surprise (despite maybe the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan) we saw however in the field of medicine and physiology.Many expected the two developers of the revolutionary new genetic engineering method CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, to be honored. The Nobel Committee, however, decided in favor of the Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi and his findings on cell repair. At the end of the 1980s Ohsumi succeeded in describing an essential process in the cell interior, which allows the cells to dispose of bacteria, pollutants and generally any cell components no longer required. A cellular complex called „autophagosome“ (from the Greek „autophagy“, „self-eating“) plays a central role in that process by selecting the components to be disposed of and leading those to the cellular „disposal sites“ (called „lysosome“). One could thus call autophagosomes cellular mobile garbage containers. Ohsumi succeeded in identifying the components of that underlying process and describing their respective functions in detail. He also found that these are universal, i.e. identical for creatures alive. Faults in this process, e.g. due to age, promote the development of numerous diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or cancer. Thus the insight into autophagy is of great importance for medicine, which is why the Nobel Committee has now given another prize for the fundamental biological process of cellular waste disposal (already in 1974 Christian de Duve was honored for the discovery of lysosomes).
Just as the annual Hollywood spectacle in March serves those of us who are not so well informed about the latest movies release schedule to make an informed decision about what movie they want to watch on their next Sunday evening outing, the award of the Nobel Prize serves us as a reminder of the exciting processes in scientific discoveries and the speed at which scientific and technological developments take place. For between our modern life and the often breathtaking scientific and technological progress occurring directly in front of our eyes, there are far more exciting connections than the everyday news with their economic crises, political meetings or various sporting events suggest. And there is no end in this process of knowledge creation and technological enhancements. On the contrary, it is accelerating more and more. The development in natural sciences is often characterized by a dramatic plot that easily matches many thrillers.