Nobel Prizes stripped bare!

The latest Nobel prizes have been announced, but who won them and what for?
14 October 2014

Interview with 

Amelia Perry


This year's Nobel Prize winners have been announced. They recognise world-changing achievements. Here to take us through this year's crop of science prizes is the Naked Scientist's Amelia Perry... 

Chris -  This year's Nobel Prize winners have been announced.  Nobel Prizes recognise world changing achievements and here to take us through this year's crop of science prizes is the Naked Scientists Amelia Perry.  Hello, Amelia.

Amelia -  Hello.

Chris -  So, let's start with medicine because there's three subjects to cover - medicine, chemistry and physics.  Let's start with medicine.  Who got that and what did they get it for?

Amelia -  So firstly, John O'Keefe from University College London and a Norwegian married couple, May-Britt and Edvard Moser.  This trio won for unpicking the workings of the brain's internal GPS system.  This can allow us to answer questions such as, "How do I know I'm in Cambridge right now?  How can I find my way to the local shops or the pub more likely?" and "How can taxi drivers memorise all the streets in a big city like London, without cheating and using a satnav?"

Chris -  So, how do they do it?

Amelia -  So, back in the 1970s, O'Keefe discovered nerve cells within the brain that are selectively stimulated when we move into a specific position within our 3D environment.  He aptly the named these 'place' cells.  More recently, the Mosers discovered 'grid' cells which almost act like the lines of longitude and latitude within our brain, forming a coordinate map that makes the basis of our navigation system.  This is of great importance for diseases where this goes wrong such as in Alzheimer's where individuals often get lost and can't recognise their environment.

Chris -  Terrific!  So now, I know how to find my way to do the show each week which is very encouraging.  What about the chemistry prize?  Who got that and what for?

Amelia -  So, one German scientist, Stefan Hell and two US scientists, Betzig and Moerner.  These guys won the prize for making the previously invisible visible.  So, light microscopes, they've been around for centuries dating back to the 1600s using lenses and visible light to allow us to look within the cells of our body.  However, there is a limit to what they can see, due to the so-called Abbe limit.  And this means if we want to look at smaller structures within our cells, smaller than the wavelengths of light itself, we have to resort to destructive techniques like electron microscopy which kills the cells.

Chris -  Which is not terribly useful for watching what's really happening on living cells.  So, how did these people get around the problem?

Amelia -  So, using a special trick using a naturally fluorescing glowing chemical and switching on and off using a laser, they can illuminate tiny parts of the cell, much smaller than a light microscope could do.  This allows us to see in much greater detail, allowing us to peek into the 'nano-world' and observe cell processes that have previously been described but never before seen.

Chris -  Talking about shedding light on things, the physics guys got the prize for blue LEDs, didn't they?  So, why is that important?

Amelia -   Red and green LEDs have been around for decades, but blue has been far trickier to manufacture.  This is because they needed to find a material that can emit the wavelength of blue light, which is at the very high energy end of the spectrum, when electricity is passed through it.  They discovered a material, gallium nitride, that can do this, and when we combine red, green and blue, we can get white light.  This is found within our tablets, our smartphone screens, computer screens, televisions, and it's even making its way into lighting our offices and homes.  20% of electricity costs within the UK actually go towards lighting and LEDs have the potential to halve this as they're much more efficient.

Chris -  And that shows you why it's such an important discovery.  You better name them so that they're not left out.  Who were they?

Amelia -  Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura.

Chris -  Well said Amelia Perry.  Thank you very much for joining us.

Amelia -  Thank you.


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