The 2014 Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine, for Physics and for Chemistry have been announced. The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to three scientists for the discovery of the brain’s GPS system. The prize for chemistry was awarded for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. And for physics, the prize was awarded for the invention of blue LEDs.
The Nobel Prizes, first awarded in 1901, are a set of highly prestigious awards for the above sciences, and also for literature, peace, and finally economic sciences – this last was added in 1968.
The story of the how the prizes arose is well known. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor, invented a smokeless propellant which was used in many explosives and he also invented dynamite. In an odd turn of events, Nobel found himself reading his own obituary in a newspaper entitled: “The merchant of death is dead” when in fact it was his brother who had died. Following this, Nobel decided to change the way he would be remembered by changing his will. He designated most of his fortune – 94% of his total assets – to be used to create a series of prizes aimed at recognising excellence in the original five areas.
The prize for Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stephan Hell and William Moerner for pushing the limits of light microscopy using fluorescence. The team managed to expand the limits of resolution in optic microscopy-half the wavelength of light- by utilising fluorescent molecules to see into the nanoscopic details of cells.
The physics prize, for the invention of blue LEDs, was awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura. The invention, the first blue LED made in the early 1990s, lead to the production of energy efficient white- light lamps when mixed with red and green LEDs. The key to their discovery was gallium nitride, which needed to be crystallised. This was achieved by growing it on a specialised scaffold structure made partially from sapphire. The impact of this discovery was the worldwide use of white lights as an energy efficient alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs.
The 2014 prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared amongst three scientists: 50% to Professor John O’Keefe and 25% each to husband and wife team, Edvard and May- Britt Moser. This developed from O’Keefe’s original finding of 1971. The team discovered how the brain is aware of its position in 3D space. O’Keefe found that certain cells within the hippocampus of a rat’s brain fire when in a certain location of an environment, and that from this, the brain forms a map of its environment. Edvard and May-Britt Moser found ‘grid cells’ within the brain which work in similar terms to longitude and latitude to help the organism navigate.
Combining the two discoveries suggests a GPS system which helps an organism comprehend its position in the environment. They hope that this discovery could in time help to understand why some Alzheimer’s patients become confused about their surroundings.
The impact of each of these discoveries is, naturally, ground- breaking and each has not only changed the world of science but also wider society.