Monday, October 22, 2012

Who won the 2012 Nobel Prizes? Part 1

Science for Writers Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry
Welcome to the latest Science for Writers post. Last time we discussed The Placebo Effect. This week we are entering the realm of prized scientists with a look at the Nobel Prize winners for 2012. This is the first of a 3-part su-series looking the 6 Nobel Prizes this year. This week we look at the Physics and Chemistry Prizes.

I have put important words in bold. These words are important in science and I will refer to them throughout the post. It isn't overly important for you to know the exact meaning, so long as you get the gist of what I'm talking about you will be fine following this post.

Writing Links are in italics and these discuss how the science could be used in writing.

About the Prize

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish who was interested in science, social and peace issues, and other technical stuff. He is perhaps best known for his work on trinitroglycerin (TNT) in the late 1800s. He died in 1869 and left a large sum of money in his will for a new prize. The Nobel Prize.

Despite the prize being for advances in science it wasn't until 5 years after his death the first prize was awarded. The reason was his family didn't agree with the amount of money being left for the prize.

Part of the will was as follows:

The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
 Writing Link: If your writing is based ii another world perhaps it would be fun to think about how advances in the sciences, literature, and peace are celebrated. Do they have an equivelent to the Nobel Prizes?


This years Physics Nobel went to Serge Haroche of Morocco, and David J. Wineland of the USA for 'ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems'.

The prize is, in layman terms, for ground-breaking techniques used in experiments that allow researchers to measure and change very small individual systems known as quantum systems. The techniques the two developed 'trap' ions (charged particicles) or photons (light particles). It is very difficult to observe any quantum phenomena with these as the moment they interact with the world they lose their mysterious quantum behaviour.

The technique used to control single photons uses two mirrors placed roughly 3cm apart. The mirrors are cooled to just above absolute 0 (the coldest anything can physically be) and isolated from everything else. The mirrors are so shiny that the photon bounces back and forth for a very long time. This long time is a tenth of a second which roughly equates to the photon moving back and forth a total of 40000km. This allows researched to manipulate the photon using another technique. This technique uses what are called Rydberg Atoms, which are large ring-shaped atoms, introduced into the set-up one at a time at a pre-determined speed. The Rydberg atom then leaves the set-up. The photon is left behind but changed ever so slightly. Researches can measure this change and draw conclusions and theories from the data.The photon trap was developed by Serge Haroche.

Ion-traps work by surrounding an ion with an electric field and making them completely isolated from the world. A laser is is used to keep the ion in a low-energy state which makes them easier to experiment with.

A laser can be tuned so the ion is put into a superposition whereby it is simultaneously in two states at once. This works by putting the ion into the lowest energy-state possible then pushing it half-way to the one above. Energy-states are a 'one of the other' kind of affair and it is not possible to be in two at a time. A superposition exists when the probability of the ion being in one state is equal to it being in the other. Until it is observed it is said to be in both states at once.

Schrödinger's Cat
Schrödinger's Cat
courtesy of Machinadynamica
Schrödinger's Cat is the most famous thought-experiment in this area of physics. A cat is put in a box with a bottle of cyanide and a radioactive particle. When the particle decays (which can happen at any time) the bottle releases the cyanide.

The particle may or may not be decayed, so it is impossible to know if the cat is dead or alive. Once you open the box and peer inside will you know for sure. This is because the particle is in a superposition and so, by extension, is the cat.

The ability to control individual photons and ions may lead to advances in quantum computers and more accurate atomic clocks.

For more information on this prize and these potential advanced see the summary here, or if you're feeling super geeky you can read the advanced announcement with a full explanation of the physics here. The video announcing the prize which includes a brief explanation can also be found here.

Writing Link: How about setting a sci-fi in the future where we have quantum computers and clockes accurate to many trillionth's of a second? Information would be easily passed securely and any viruses would have to be so sophisticated almost nobody could even think them up. Perhaps you could name the computer systems after the Nobel Laureates as a nod to their research.


The prize for the Chemistry Nobel prize went to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka, both of the USA. The prize was 'for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors'.

G-protein-coupled receptors are on the edge of cells and detect changes in their chemical environments. For example adrenalin may build up outside of the cell, so these receptors detect it. But the problem that has stumped scientists for decades is how exactly does a change outside of the cell manifest itself on the cell's inside? They knew something around the edge of a cell must detect the change but they had no idea what these receptors looked like or how they worked.

Beta-blockers were developed after a scientist called Raymond Ahlquist identified there must be two types of receptors. Alpha receptors made smooth muscle contract and beta receptors stimulate the heart. ow they did this nobody knew, but they were still able to develop the drugs.

Lefkowitz along with his supervisor used radioactive iodine attached to a hormone to try and find a receptor. After 2 years of hard graft they finally find an active receptor. It is now that he forms his own research team  and focuses on the receptors for adrenalin and noradrenalin. Again using radioactive isotopes (versions of elements with a different number of neutrons) he and his team find and extract the receptors.

receptors and the cell
Inside the cell
courtesy of
Around this time other scientists are learning what happens inside the cell. Although they don't know exactly how it works they know that a hormone binds to a receptor which changes its shape which activates a g-protein which goes off and breaks into to pieces. One of the broken pieces activates a chain reaction.

Lefkowitz now hires Kobilka and together they find the genes that code for the receptors. A gene is 'similar to a blueprint' that form proteins which in turn form receptors. Together they learn that the receptors are made of 7 fatty spirals. This means the receptor winds up and down the cell wall 7 times. This number is the same as a receptor found in the eye. After finding other receptors they came to a surprise conclusion:  'there has to be a complete family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.'

Using a technique called X-Ray Crystallography (X-Rays are fired a symmetrical crystal of a substance, in this case proteins for the the receptors) Kobilka was able to image the receptors. A feet previously thought impossible due to the fatty nature of the receptors. Crysallography usually requires substances to be soluble (disolvable) in water. Fats are not, nor are the fatty rods that make up a receptor. He managed to do it, and is in part, why he now has a Nobel prize.

The pair later found that many of the receptors can detect multiple chemicals and interact with more than just G-Proteins.

For more information on G-protein-coupled receptors read the information here, or for the geeky read the advanced version here. The video announcement with summary can be found here.

Writing Link: Hormones cause changes in our bodies. Adrenaline causes our airways to expand allowing more oxygen into our body; it makes out heart beat faster; it allows us to do things we couldn't otherwise do. I recommend researching the effects of adrenalin on our bodies and using these in description next time your character is scared.

Interestingly Lefkowitz originally wanted to be a cardiologist and work as a medical doctor. He didn't want to go into research. It was chance that he ended up doing research and it wasn't until the experiment with radioactive iodine succeeded he realised he wanted to go into research. When you are struggling with a character you might think about what your character thinks he wants and what he really wants. It might surprise you how much depth this gives a character.

That's it for this post. Next time we will discuss the Medicine/Physiology and Literature prizes. Until then you can comment on this post below; I'd love to here from you. Please share this post if you enjoyed it. There are social media buttons at the bottom of the post for your convenience.



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