As I promised in my last post, I have come with the second most important scientific awards of the year: The Nobel Prizes. The Nobles are given every year to the most important scientific discoveries in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, peace, literature, and economic sciences. Without further ado, here are the three scientific awards: physics, chemistry, and medicine. (Some people might argue that economics is a science, but I am taking a personal stance in this essay and saying it is not.)
The Physics Award
Awarded to J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.
Okay I’m going to just say this upfront: this one is going to be rough. My physics friends don’t understand the math, my math friends don’t understand the physics, so I’ll try my best.
I’ll start with the basics. Matter can come in three basic phases, as I think we all remember from elementary school. The coldest is solid, which we know and love as ice. You warm that up and you get life supporting water; heat it up further and you can take a sauna with all that steam. All of these phases are discrete, meaning that ice jumps straight to water, without stopping at some middle state in between. With me so far? Good. As it turns out with most things we learn in elementary school, this is all technically correct, but not the whole picture. There are actually two more states of matter, and this discovery is about the second.
When matter gets super hot it turns into another state: plasma. Plasma is what stars are made of and it’s super interesting and I’ll definitely talk about it later, but today we’re going to learn about what happens when matter gets extra cold.
As a conveniently similar idea, school children are also taught that we live in three dimensions: height, length, and width. By using extraordinarily thin sheets of sciency material, scientists can pretend that we live in a two or even one dimension world.
When you combine the two – very cold and very flat, things start acting weirdly. Atoms start appearing in two places at once, can jump through walls, or become magnetic. Basically, pretend that they can turn into the X-Men. Why does this happen? No one really knows. As famous smart guy Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”
So, you put these ideas together and you get… a cure for cancer? Not quite. The scientists admit that this discovery is more about understanding how phase transitions work than inventing anything new. That didn’t stop lots of labs getting excited though, because one of the weird things that happens to these very cold, very thin materials is that they become almost infinitely good at conducting electricity. This has plenty of uses, mostly in computers.
The Chemistry Award
Awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines“.
Unlike the last, weird, incomprehensible item, the next one is mostly just fun. And comprehensible.
This award was given for making tiny machines, such as an elevator and a car. And by tiny, I mean on the scale of molecules, which are the next step up from individual atoms. More than a thousand of these tiny machines could be lined up next to each other and it still wouldn’t be as wide as a human hair! Seriously small.
So how did they do this? Simple, they just created a new way to bond molecules together, no big deal. The two previously known bonds are ionic and covalent. In covalent bonds, the molecules are stuck together because they share electrons. Ionic bonds are more confusing, but they also involve the transfer of electrons. The scientists created a third, new kind of bond: mechanical. This is where the molecules are physically put together like a chain link fence.
Using this method, the scientists were able to hook together the molecules in new ways, to build the machines. They were even able to create a little bitty motor that was able to power the aforementioned car and elevator.
Nanotechnology has been on the forefront of science for a few decades. The theoretical uses for “nanotech” is extremely varied, from stronger tennis balls to more efficient solar panels. While creating tiny convertibles doesn’t exactly get us any closer to energy independence, it is still really cool, right?
But really, this discovery is very exciting in the field of nanotech.
The Physiology or Medicine Award
Awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy“
Autophagy literally means “self eating”. You know how some people (defintely not me) chew their fingernails? This has nothing to do with that.
What this does have to do with is our cells. As humans, we have a few nesting systems, like matryoshka dolls. At the largest, there is our entire body. Within that we have systems, like the skeletal, cardiovascular, etc. These are made up of organs, like the heart, liver, and for some reason, the appendix. We’re still not really sure what that’s about. Our organs are made up of cells, and in turn those cells are composed of organelles, which I think is the cutest name.
There are lots of different organelles, each of which serves a different purpose. In the middle there is the nucleus, which is the so-called “brain” of the cell. The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, the golgi apparatus’ are the post offices, and there are a lot more.
So where does self-canibalism come in? That would be in the lysosomes. These little organelles are the landfill of the cells. They take the unwanted waste from inside a cell, eat it, and either dump it outside the cell to be expelled by another system, or they recycle it. In white blood cells, the lysosomes are the cell parts that attack foreign invaders. They are also very good at recycling the unwanted cell parts to new, yummy materials.
We have known that this happens since the 1960s, but no one knew quite how it worked until today. As was bound to happen with at least one of these prizes, this discovery is extra important because it can help us with cancer research. Cancer happens when cells are unable to stop growing and multiplying, which mean something is wrong with this autophagic system. I don’t mean to say that the other two aren’t important, but this discovery has the most obvious real world applications.
Congrats, we made it through! In the words of the 2016 Nobel Laureate in literature:
“The times, they are a’ changin'” -Bob Dylan