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Posts Tagged ‘Nitroglycerin’

Update I: Included Medicine Award (Oct 03)

Update II: Included Physics Award (Oct 04)

… it’s Nobel Week! October means three things: Halloween (duh), Fall, and Nobel Week, the week during which the famed prizes are awarded to those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” [1]. Okay, before I get comments about the subjectivity of those who award the prizes, I gladly admit that the history of the prize is not without controversy relating to those who have & have not won, in both the science and non-science categories.

I am just going to ignore all of that and talk about why everyone should be excited about this week. Though before I talk about this week’s Nobels, I feel I should probably give the SparkNotes version of the prizes’ history.

Figure 1: The 2008 Chemistry Prize was awarded for the discovery and development of green fluorescent protein (GFP), which when inserted into a soon-to-be parent is passed onto an offspring who can then glow green. Glowing cat!
(Image: The Nobel Foundation)

[1] http://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/will-full.html

A Brief History of Alfred Nobel

Figure 2: Alfred Nobel. (Image: The Nobel Foundation)

The year is 1866, the Second Industrial Revolution is raging, innovation is surging, and the US Civil War over.

Insert Alfred Nobel: A son of a successful engineer who developed controlled explosives for the demolition and mining industries. The younger Nobel, unsurprisingly, decided be a chemist after playing with nitroglycerin in a French laboratory. As a public service announcement, I should probably mention that nitroglycerin is very dangerous and is a principle ingredient in dynamite. In fact, Nobel was so convinced that nitroglycerine had useful application in construction that he decided to invent dynamite. Needless to say, dynamite made Nobel a very, very, very rich man. At the end of his life, he decided to endow, with the bulk of his fortune, a set of prizes to recognize those who have contributed greatest in the Fields of Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Peace. Economics, though not stipulated in the original will, was added later and is funded separately.

Figure 2: The chemical structure of nitroglycerin. This stuff is wicked; the physical chemistry behind its structure worth a gander. Consider this an advertisement to go earn a chemistry degree. (Image: Wikipedia)

What Makes a Prize

The Nobels has come a long way since they were first instituted. Most notably, they no longer are awarded for the greatest discovery or invention from the past year; the prizes now award those results with the most lasting influence and impact. Take last year for example. The 2011 award for Physiology or Medicine went solely to Sir Robert Edwards for having developed in vitro fertilization. You would think something that is, in every sense of the word, responsible for the existence of millions of people would have been awarded long, long ago. I mean, that is what went through my mind last October. Therein lies the novelty of the Nobel Prizes: These days, the awards are given to what seem like common knowledge, because in some sense they are. What one has to realize though is that prior a laureate’s discovery or invention, these ideas and concepts just did not exist. Imagine a world in which no one knew of insulin (Nobel 1923). Weird, no?

This brings me to why Nobel Week is so much fun. Sometimes you know quite a bit about the award-winning discovery and so you get to spend the day reading news articles and science blogs learning all about the topic’s history. Werner Forssmann’s invention of the cardiac catheter (Nobel 1953) has a hysterical history that is well worth a read. At other times, you have no idea what the award citation even means, but you just know it is worth spending a few minutes or even a few hours learning. I mean, why else would a Nobel be awarded? Take, as another example, 2008’s Physics prize. The award citation reads:

“… for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics,” [2]

and

“for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry
which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature
.” [2]

Yup, it is a mouthful and probably seems a bit obtuse. That is, until you start looking up Wikipedia or news articles (or Quantum Diaries!), and realize how amazingly awesome these discoveries are. I mean, sure discovering spontaneous symmetry breaking (SSB) sounds nice and fancy but did you know that is why the bosons in the Standard Model of Physics have the masses they do?!? SSB, when applied specifically to the Electroweak bosons (photon, W, & Z) is the Higgs Mechanism, and when applied to fermions, is what generates the higgs boson. SSB is an established scientific fact and is also the driving force behind superconductivity (Nobel 1972) Whether or not the higgs boson exists, however, is completely different story.

Figure 3: The quark sector of the Standard Model of Particle Physics and their discovery dates. (Image: Nobel Foundation)

So back in 1977 a Fermilab team, led by Leon Lederman, discovered the bottom quark (Nobel 1988), and in 1995, the CDF & DZero Tevatron experiments discovered the top quark. Ever wonder how we knew to look for them in the first place? It was because of something called the CKM matrix. It was introduced as a way of organizing the the different ways particles in the Standard Model could interact and decay. However, as gorgeous as this new organization was, in order to work the CKM matrix required the existence of two new quarks. Well guess what, Fermilab found those two quarks and set the Standard Model in stone.

The 2009 Nobel Prizes are equally impressive. Half the prize was awarded for the development of fiber optics, which is the foundation of modern telecommunications, and something called Charged-Coupled Devices (CCD). What took me a few hours to learn is that if you take this sensor, attach a flashbulb, a battery, and maybe a memory card, you get a digital camera. In other words, half the 2009 prize was awarded for inventing the digital camera. The prize winners were simply trying to develop a better way of storing data and inadvertently created an entire industry. A fun fact: the first transistor (Nobel 1967) was made of paperclips. If you are curious about what makes transistors so important, take apart your computer and take a peek. (Please, make sure the computer is unplugged before opening it.)

[2] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2008/

Does Every Major Discovery/Invention Get a Prize?

No. First off, Nobel Prizes are no longer awarded posthumously. Secondly, from my discussions about this issue, there seems to be a consensus there may be a limit to what is & is not awarded when it comes to the sciences. Now the Swedish Academies always reserve the right to set a new precedent, however, it is unlikely that any organizations will be awarded a Nobel in science categories anytime soon. (This is the complete opposite for the Peace Prize, of course.) What does this all mean? Well, the top quark was a pretty heavy discovery and is well worth its weight in gold, at least in my opinion. However, to whom would you award the prize? No single person at the CDF experiment can justly say she or he discovered the quark; it was a team effort and all CDF personnel can proudly state she or he helped discover the quark.

“Which of the Gang of Six, if the higgs boson is discovered, should get the Nobel, if at all?” is an honest, open question and is well above my pay grade. A similar statement could be made about Supersymmetry.

Turning Nobel Week into Fun-bel Week

Now for the fun part. So during this week, pick your favorite subject, which of course is physics, and go figure out what the whole big hubbub is. Depending on your timezone, this may either be with your morning coffee or afternoon tea. In any case, it is an excuse to learn something new! 🙂

Alternatively, you can check back here Tuesday afternoon (Madison/Chicago time) because I am sure many of us will be commenting on the latest news.

This Week’s Schedule

Live Video Player here.

Physiology or Medicine – Awarded for the discovery of the innate and adaptive immune systems! Okay, really this is great. The human body has evolved to be inherently immune to certain pathogens. The human body, in its resourcefulness, can also adapt and become immune to pathogens. The end result is that when the two are combined and wait a few hundred thousand years,  you get us!

Physics – Awarded for discovering that expansion rate of the universe, is itself increasing. The universe expands, Edwin Hubble discovered that decades ago. Today’s award winners discovered that the universe expands at an accelerating rate! Bravo!

Chemistry – The prize will be announced on Wednesday 5 October, 11:45 a.m. CET [5:45 am  CDT/Chicago].

Peace – The prize will be announced on Friday 7 October, 11:00 a.m. CET [5:00 am  CDT/Chicago].

Economics – The prize will be announced on Monday 10 October, 1:00 p.m. CET [7:00 am  CDT/Chicago].

Literature – To Be Announced

 

 

 

 

Regardless of the outcome, I would love to read everyone’s thoughts and speculations before and after the awards!

Happy Colliding

– richard (@bravelittlemuon)

 

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