The Nobel Prize has been a defining measure of significant breakthroughs and accomplishments in the fields of science, academia, and culture ever since the first awards were handed out in 1901. In the 116 years that these prizes have been awarded to those who have demonstrated excellence in their fields, 881 individuals and 23 organizations have received Nobel Prizes (each prize can have up to three winners). This week, the governing bodies that oversee the awarding of these coveted prizes make their announcements of the laureates who will join the legacy of the winners who have come before them, trailblazers of their industries. Here we’ll cover who the winners of the Nobel prizes for 2017 are, and the work for which they won the prize.
A Brief History of the Nobel Prizes
Swedish engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel (b. 1833 – d. 1896) amassed a considerable fortune during his life, mostly on the back of his hundreds of patents – including most notably the patent for dynamite. Nobel’s primary business was in the development and manufacturing of armaments and explosives, with other patents of his, ballistite and cordite, becoming modern replacements for more traditional gunpowder. The fortune that these inventions brought him also brought with them a degree of public scorn for the perceived detriment his inventions brought to the world.
In 1888, Nobel was reading a French newspaper and was shocked to find his own premature obituary, entitled “The Merchant of Death is Dead”. The obituary was erroneously reporting Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludvig’s death, though the obituary did a number on Alfred, shaking him to his core and encouraging him to think about the legacy he would leave behind after he passed. It was this obituary that prompted him to draft a new will, in which he laid out the plans he had in mind for his fortune; to create a series of prizes to award to those who contributed the “greatest benefit to mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.
Nobel left behind the staggering majority of his accumulated wealth to establish these five prizes, roughly $186 million. The executors of Nobel’s will founded the Nobel Foundation to care for the fortune as well as organize the awarding of the prizes. Additionally, the will established that a Norwegian Nobel Committee would be responsible for handling the Nobel Peace Prize.
Other institutions were picked or established to oversee the remaining prizes: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel; the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017: Nobel Laureates
Laureates: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was the first award announced this year on October 2, 2017, with the recipients receiving the award jointly “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”.
In layman’s terms, effectively what these men have discovered is tangible evidence of a gene that controls the body’s daily biological rhythms. Most people will have heard about our circadian rhythms; how our bodies are internally aware of the natural rhythms of day-to-day cycles. It’s how your body knows to sleep at night and wake in the morning. It is also the same reason why we experience jet-lag when traveling across time zones; our internal clocks and our external environments are misaligned, and so our bodies have to play catch-up to restore normalcy to our rhythms.
Now, these researchers have uncovered a little more about how exactly this works on a biological level, from experiments and observation of fruit flies’ genetics and seeing how the same principles apply to other multicellular organisms, i.e. people.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017: Nobel Laureates
Laureates: Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in two halves; the first half to Rainer Weiss and the second half awarded jointly to Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne. These gentlemen were awarded the prize because of their work in observing gravitational waves, something predicted over 100 years ago by Albert Einstein (another Nobel Laureate in Physics). Gravitational waves have long been a theory in experimental physics, though only recently have scientists been able to develop the kind of technology necessary to observe the phenomenon.
These three scientists are integral members of LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). Rainer Weiss has worked since the mid-1970s on trying to observe gravitational waves in the universe, and together with his fellow laureates and the other 1000 members of LIGO, they have finally achieved something even Einstein believed would be impossible; measuring gravitational waves caused by a collision between two black holes.
This discovery is a groundbreaking advance for the field of physics, giving scientists a new means of measuring and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. This is still a very new science, but the ability to detect and observe these gravitational waves means that new doors are opening for researchers to further understand the most complex of cosmic events.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017: Nobel Laureates
Laureates: Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, Richard Henderson
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to these three chemists for their development of cryo-electron microscopy in order to yield high-resolution images of biomolecules. Effectively, these researchers have expanded greatly on the capabilities of the electron microscope by determining a way to freeze biomolecules during mid-movement, allowing electron microscopes to detect and view molecular processes that were previously unseen.
Now, researchers can create far more accurate three-dimensional images of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been able to use high-resolution images of things like the surface of the Zika virus and in-depth looks at proteins that cause antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The benefits that this method of observation has for the field of biochemistry is staggering because researchers now have far more detail afforded to the ways they observe material on a molecular level.
This can lead to greater understandings of how things like viruses and bacteria form and defend against pharmaceutical threats like antibiotics and other medicines, and will allow researchers to better engineer ways to combat some of the more deady diseases we encounter.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2017: Nobel Laureates
To be updated as the Nobel Laureates are announced.