I didn’t want the main focus of this article to be about physics but certainly the biggest surprise in the Nobel prizes this year is that the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration didn’t receive the prize for the detection of gravitational waves.
The reason for this largely comes down to the controversy as to whom the prize ought to go to; Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, the three main theoretical physicists working in the field of gravitational waves and heads of the Advanced LIGO project were touted as hot favorites for this years prize. The reason that they didn’t win is most likely due to the fact that they are alrea
dy highly esteemed physicists with many awards under their belts already. However, there could be more to this development than meets the eye and when it comes to a discovery of this magnitude, there has to be absolute certainty that the results they’ve discovered actually are gravitational waves. Since the announcement that the prize has gone to physicists working on topological phase transitions, there has been surprisingly little comment from anyone involved in LIGO and it could be simply that more time is needed to thoroughly assess their results before a Nobel prize can be awarded.
On the subject of those who actually did win; David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and J.Michael Kosterlitz; their discovery was no less worthy of recognition. Topological phase transitions of matter is an intriguing and tricky area of research in condensed matter physics – but the basic statement of what these men have discovered is that topologies can be used to describe the phase transitions between different states of matter. A topology, mathematically speaking, is an extension of certain kinds of geometry used to study the deformation of space within a system; anyone who has seen a ‘Mobius strip’ will understand the general idea of what is meant by a topology. The way that this applies to phase transitions, a phase transition being when matter changes states i.e. between solid and liquid; is that it has been discovered by these scientists that certain phase transitions between matter represent different topologies. A sheet of glass for example can be seen as matter in a state somewhere between a liquid and a solid, therefore is always undergoing a phase transition, and by studying the distribution of molecules in the glass the topology of the phase of the glass can be discovered.
The Nobel prize in chemistry this year was arguably more fascinating, awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. This is arguably the first time that the successful synthesis of a nano-machine has ever taken place and represents a significant breakthrough in the field of nanotechnology. This technology is exciting for a lot of reasons; for one it could aid in fighting and preventing diseases. Machines such as these could be developed to attack cancerous tumors in the body before they become malignant eliminating the need for current, very painful, treatments such as chemotherapy. There are also some more outlandish and perhaps somewhat science-fiction applications of this sort of technology that may become possible in the future. One thinker on the subject, Ray Kurzweil, believes that the technology could be advanced to produce artificial red bloods cells, respirocytes, that could be injected into the bloodstream to allow an enhancement of our capacity to store and release oxygen; one could, for example, sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for an hour or so without drawing breath. But in any case this work represents an incredible scientific achievement and is thoroughly deserving of the Nobel prize.
The prize for physiology or medicine this year was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discovery of mechanisms for autophagy. As the name would suggest ‘autophagy’ is when a cell starts to eat itself; in fact this is a little bit dramatic, the more correct scientific definition would be that this is the process of recycling cellular components. The mechanism for autophagy has been identified as the autophagosome, these ultimately fuse with lysosomes and recycle and/or degrade their contents for further use in the future. Autophagy has been linked to cellular degradation as well as cellular renewal. The first discovery of the genes thought to be responsible for autophagy were discovered in the 1990’s and this led researchers over the intervening twenty six years to fully develop the model of autophagy that led to the award of this year’s Nobel prize. This research represents a significant step forward in the understanding of the lifetime of cells and of cellular degeneration with numerous potential applications to medicine and especially preventative medicine.
So that’s it, the prizes this year have been somewhat surprising, in some cases, but all fascinating and all well deserved.
By Sam Cottle