Monday, October 20, 2014

2014 Nobel Prizes Awarded!

The 2014 Nobel Prizes were recently awarded.  Annual Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievement in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Economics, Literature, and Peace.

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources".  While LEDs have existed for half a century, the creation of the blue-emitting LED when combined with either existing red and green LEDs or phosphor excitement allows the production of bright white light that is far brighter and more efficient than previous lighting technology. The development of blue LEDs was a long process, and the laureates’ updated work was presented through a series of publications over the course of 5-10 years. Both a general and a more scientific overview of the technology and its creation can be found at the Nobel Prize website. 
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for improving optical microscopy beyond the previously believed limit to the nanometer scale.  This feat was achieved by two independent methods, stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy by Stefan W. Hall, and single-electron microscopy by Eric Betzig and William E Moerner. STED creates high-resolution images by detecting fluorescent light with a nanoscale-width laser as all surrounding area is quenched.  Single-electron microscopy works differently, by weakly activating fluorescence randomly throughout the sample, repeating several times and then combining the images to obtain a high-resolution final processed image.  These two methods allow fluorescent visualization of structures such as viruses and individual proteins that were previously too small to resolve.  The physics behind these breakthroughs will surely revolutionize biological microscopy.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded 50% to John O’Keefe and 25% each to May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser for discovering how our brain is able to orient ourselves and properly position ourselves within the environment.  O’Keefe identified hippocampal “place cells” that provide positional and spacial memory information while the Mosers discovered “grid cells” within the etorhinal cortex that offer directional coordination.  Each of these cells were found to be activated in particular locations and sequences of their respective brain regions and have important roles in understanding spacial memory and navigation.

Since this is a science blog I will not delve deeply into the other prizes, but just to summarize: the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Jean Tirole for describing the framework for proper regulation of financial institutions, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to French author Patrick Modiano "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation", and the Nobel Prize for Peace was given to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai for fighting for children’s rights.  Satyarthi protested against child labor while Yousafzai risked her own life to fight for girls’ right to an education.