Science Nobel Prizes 2014

Written by KAMIA RATHORE

The Nobel Prize is awarded across six categories each year – Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peacebuilding, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic Sciences. In Alfred Nobel’s will, these awards are meant to be given to those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” This year’s winners in the science categories certainly fill the order; across the Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine prizes, scientific boundaries have been pushed and even redefined.

Physics

Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura

From left to right:  Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura 

This year’s Physics prize is given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura for their invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which allows for white light to be created in a more energy-efficient and environment-friendly way.

This white light is used in LED lamps to provide longer lasting and more efficient alternatives to traditional light sources. Akasaki and Amano successfully created a high-quality gallium nitride crystal in 1986, and presented their first blue-emitting diode. In 1990, Nakamura also created a high-quality gallium nitride through a different process.

Throughout the 1990s, all three worked together to make the LED structure more complex and more efficient, culminating in the invention of a blue laser that emits a cutting-sharp beam that stores four times more information than infrared light. Blue LEDs are only twenty years old, but they have revolutionized the field of illumination technology and hold exciting prospects for wider access to electricity, crop-controlling through artificial light, and much, much more.

Chemistry

Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner

From left to Right: Stefan W. Hell, Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner

The joint winners of this year’s Chemistry prize brought optical microscopy to a level of tiny detail with the invention of nanoscopy. Nanoscopy allows the individual pathways of molecules to be visualized inside living cells. Scientist Stefan Hell developed stimulated emission depletion microscopy (STED) in 2000 while Eric Betzig and William Moerner developed single-molecule microscopy through the use of fluorescent molecules. Both methods allow microscopic images to peer into the nanoworld and theoretically, there is no longer any structure too small to be studied microscopically.

[Center]: image shows one of the first lysosome membranes taken by Betzig using single-molecule microscopy. [Left]: the same image taken using conventional microscopy. [Right]: image of the membranes from center has been enlarged. The resolution is many times improved. Image from Science 313:1642–1645.

Physiology or Medicine

John O'Keefe and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser

The recipients for this year’s Physiology or Medicine prize are John O’Keefe and the married couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser for their work on discovering the cells responsible for the positioning system of the brain. The so-called “inner GPS” of the brain allows us to orient ourselves in space, showing a cellular basis for higher level brain processes.

From left to right: Edvrd Moser, John O'Keefe, and May-Britt Moser

In 1971, O’Keefe noticed that different nerve cells in the hippocampus were activated according to where the subject was positioned, and that these “place cells” created a map from memory based on cell activity. In 2005, the Mosers identified another type of nerve cell in the entorhinal cortex, the “grid cell,” which creates a coordinate system for path finding through spatial patterning.  This research on place and grid cells can help scientists understand the underlying principles behind spatial memory loss that Alzheimer’s patients experience as well as other high-level cognitive processes.

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