Nobel Prizes 2016

Here’s my annual round-up of the Nobel Prizes awarded for the sciences just because I feel that there isn’t enough coverage of them.

Let’s start with what is probably the coolest of technologies being acknowledged. Nanotechnology is one of those fields that is always talked about but no one can quite point to an actual existing nano-machine. Every application of it so far are merely nano-scale structures which have interesting properties but aren’t machines. This year’s prize in Chemistry goes to the researchers who are starting to make this possible. Jean-Pierre Sauvage created the first simple basis for a nano-structure made up of multiple molecules by realizing that a copper ion could be used to weld molecules together. Fraser Stoddard went one step further and made molecules that could move along an axle and control that movement. Finally Ben Feringa found a way to have the molecules rotate around the axle in a chosen direction, thus creating the first simple molecular motor. No actual nano-robots have yet been made but these three scientists have effectively created the tools and parts that should one day make them possible.

Next, the prize for medicine goes to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on understanding the mechanism of autophagy. This is the process whereby parts of a cell is sequestered and digested by the cell itself, allowing for non-essential or damaged parts of a cell to be recycled. Beginning with yeast culture, he narrowed down the genes responsible for the mechanism and moved on to mammalian analogues of those genes. It turns out that the mechanism is far more important than previously thought and sheds light into all manner of diseases and possible avenues to treat them.

As usual the physics prize, awarded to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, is the most esoteric and difficult to explain of them all. All three scientists did work on the exotic phase transitions of matter. We’re familiar with phases like solids, liquids and gases but under extreme conditions, more exotic phases can exist. Thouless and Kosterlitz studied such transitions on flat topologies while Haldane studied them on topologies so thin and narrow that they are essentially one-dimensional strings. They showed that matter under such conditions possess unusual properties, such as the quantum Hall effect. The hope is that such research will eventually lead to new types of electronics and superconductors.

Finally the economics prize goes to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their work in contract theory. This is a broad field as it can be applied to many types of agreements between parties the most obvious being how to properly design an employment contract that provides the proper incentives to workers. Other types of contracts include insurance policies, incomplete contracts in which not all of the terms can be completely specified in advance, and financial contracts between a manager and investors.

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