It’s an award almost as revered as the Great British Bake Off trophy – but, while the quality of Nadiya’s Mille-Feuille masterpiece was clear to all, the importance of the works that won this year’s Nobel prizes can be hard to get to grips with. Here’s a summary of what the Nobel Prize winners for each discipline truly achieved.
The Medicine Prize was split between two teams. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura received half of it, for the discovery of Avermectin, a parasite-busting drug that Omura found in soil-dwelling microbes. This drug has revolutionised treatment of such parasitic diseases as river blindness and elephantitis. The other half went to Youyou Tu, for tracking down isolation of the active component artemisin from a herb once mentioned in an ancient remedy for malaria. Artemisin now sets a fast acting standard for antimalarial treatment.
Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. Macdonald won the Physics prize for discovering Neutrino oscillations, which prove that neutrinos have mass. Neutrinos are electron-type particles that have been neutralised, lacking the negative charge. Kajita and Macdonald pioneered in collecting observations of neutrino oscillations, discovering that neutrinos could change “flavour” between neutrino versions of either electrons, muons (big electrons) or taus (really big electrons). This also explained why we were only detecting a third of the electron neutrinos the sun was producing. The only explanation for this oscillation required neutrinos to have a mass, changing the standard model of particle physics.
The Chemistry prize was awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for explaining the mechanics of how DNA is able to repair itself. DNA’s G, C, A and T groups are constantly at risk of getting mixed up, but we now know it has a crack team of enzymes primed to repair any damage. You can read more about this in our Scientists Explain Column.
The prize for literature was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist who documented the emotion of the Soviet Union’s darkest hours. The events she relates range from Chernobyl to the Soviet war with Afghanistan, and employ real world interviews and anecdotes to achieve a sense of factual accuracy. She describes her work as “an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims.”
The separate Prize in Economic Sciences went to Angus Deaton (not the one from TV) for his work developing measures of poverty, introducing “change in welfare” as an indicator. He also highlighted the Deaton Paradox, where large, permanent and sudden changes in average income tend to result in fairly slow changes in consumption habits.
Last but certainly not least, the Nobel Peace prize went to the National Dialogue quartet for their role in stabilising Tunisia. Tunisia was the first uprising in the Arab Spring, toppling the dictatorial President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But though the country looked destined for the same chaotic fate as Libya and Egypt, the rivalrous Tunisian civil organizations for lawyers, workers, human rights, and industry put their differences aside to form the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. They drafted compromises between the many political parties vying for power and laid down a more democratic foundation for future elections, forcing all political parties to negotiate together and bringing the country back from the edge of civil war.
The prizes were announced between the 5th and 12th of October. But use your newfound Nobel knowledge while you can: you only have until next year before another set of winners are announced…