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An Overview of the 2016 Nobel Prizes

Every October, the Nobel Prize is awarded to a person or group of people considered to have the most outstanding work in their respective fields. The Nobel Prize is named in honor of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist who made his fortune by inventing dynamite. In his will, Nobel requested that his money, around $265 million in today’s dollars, be used to recognize achievements in five categories: Literature, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, and Peace. (The prize for the sixth category, Economics, is called the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and has been awarded since 1969 through a grant from Sweden’s central bank, rather than from Nobel’s fortune.)


The Nobel Prize in Literature went to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While usually classified as folk music, Dylan’s work combines elements of many classic, typically American, genres such as rock, country, and gospel. His lyrics serve as a form of social commentary, particularly describing the political unrest that gripped the United States in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. His most famous songs include “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.” Critics argue that songwriting is not in itself a form of literature, but the Nobel Committee holds that Dylan’s lyrics are as much a work of poetry as they are a work of music.

Physiology or Medicine:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of “mechanisms for autophagy.” The word “autophagy” literally means “eating oneself”, and in this case refers to the means by which cells can essentially commit suicide. All cells die at some point, whether to make space for newer, fresher cells or–as is of great interest to the medical community–to prevent the development of mutations that potentially lead to cancer. According to Ohsumi’s discoveries, a cell has special genes that allow it to go through autophagy. During autophagy, the cell first develops a special part called an autophagosome. The autophagosome then bonds with the lysosome of the cell (which is like the cell’s janitorial team) to create a sort of “super-lysosome.” The “super-lysosome” then engulfs the rest of the cell. Having destroyed the cell’s only source of nutrition, the lysosome then dies. Critics argue that Ohsumi ought to share the prize in order to recognize a broader range of achievement, but in general his work is very highly regarded.


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to French, Scottish, and Dutch chemists Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa for “the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” Sauvage created ring- and crescent-shaped molecules attracted to copper ions. These molecules can form themselves into chains, which then twist into intricately shaped knots. Stoddart added to Sauvage’s discoveries by combining differently shaped “knots.” These knots form wheel-shaped molecules that can roll in complete control along other molecules, which function as axles. These discoveries all paved the way for Feringa to create microscopic motors–and later, microscopic cars. In the future, chemists hope to use this technology for a wide range of uses, such as efficient storage of solar energy.


The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to British physicists David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” In this case, Thouless was awarded half of the prize, while the other two scientists each received a quarter. Topology is the study of geometry without regard to shape or size: for example, topologically speaking, a coffee mug and an infinity sign would be the same shape because each has exactly two holes. Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz used topology to explain an electrical phenomenon called the Quantum Hall Effect that had previously left scientists perplexed for over a century. At this point in time, there are no obvious practical applications for this discovery, but supporters argue that when early Nobel Prizes were awarded for discoveries regarding semiconductors (now essential to computer science), no one knew what to do with them either.


The Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, for “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s civil war of more than fifty years to an end.” The announcement of Santos’ prize came less than a week after Santos’ latest peace deal with the largest rebel group in Colombia was shot down by popular vote. However, if a similar agreement were to pass, it would have the potential to bring the fighting in Colombia to an end. Currently, the country remains in a state of uncertain ceasefire, and the argument against Santos’ winning the Peace Prize is obvious: the war is still going on. However, supporters– including the New York Times–claim that Nobel originally intended the prize to encourage the pursuit of peace, and that by awarding the prize to Santos in the midst of his ongoing struggle, the Nobel Committee is propelling him to finally achieve that peace.

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