by Philip Lepoutre
The Nobel Prize
A reward for going beyond the frontiers of what is known for the benefit of all mankind.
A brief history
The Nobel prize is an award of high calibre and of a distinct prestige, honoured each year to several remarkable projects from six different fields that have an incredibly positive effect on all of mankind. The complexity of the winning projects can be best described by Richard Feynman himself, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics:
“If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize.”
Have you ever stopped to wonder… "Why is the Nobel Prize called that?"
Funnily enough, the name comes from the chemist Alfred B. Nobel, proud inventor of an explosive we now call dynamite, who left $9 million in his will to establish the Nobel Prizes.
Each year, 9 million dollars are awarded to six different areas: Peace, Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Economic science. You may see the word “peace” in the list and think to yourself why on earth would the inventor of dynamite, a powerful explosive, honour Peace Prizes? In fact, it turns out that our dear friend Nobel is credited with a controllable combustible that made blasting rock and the construction of canals and tunnels a relatively safe process. Nobel is also credited with inventing synthetic rubber, artificial silk, and the synthetic leather you see on your wallet or car seat.
As you may be able to tell, Nobel Prizes are a legacy left by a giant of the past, who had a drive for innovation and progress. These prestigious awards have been awarded since 1901, and have withstood the test of time, continuing until today.
Nobel Prizes for Science
Last year, the invention that was honoured can be summarised in 4 words: “tool made of light”. This new tool, which has both industrial and medical applications, has allowed us to realise an old dream of science fiction - using the radiation pressure of light to move physical objects.
This year however, the prize rewards something much bigger in the grand scheme of things: a new understanding of the universe itself.
The Big Bang Theory, currently approved by the scientific community and first proposed by Georges Lemaître at KU Leuven in 1927, portrays a universe that was born 14 billion years ago. Ancient radiation from the birth of our universe is all around us, and in it still resides all of the universe’s deepest secrets. Through his research dating back from the early 60s, James Peebles’s tools and calculations made it possible for him to interpret the results from the childhood of our universe and to conclude that only 5% of our universe is known by man. In the remaining 95% lie dark matter and dark energy - named this way as we do not understand what they are. Hopefully, someday the mystery of what composes most of our universe will be elucidated allowing us to have a better understanding its great splendour.
This Nobel Prize in Physics was a joint collaboration between James Peebles and a team consisting of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. You might have heard these two last names already as they were the first humans to ever discover an exo-planet – a planet from outside our solar system – orbiting a star very similar to our Sun. By using custom instruments, they were able to detect a planet very similar to the biggest planet in our Solar System: Jupiter. This discovery started a revolution in astronomy and since then more than 4,000 exo-planets have been discovered, of which eighteen are Earth-like, meaning that they are at the correct distance from their star for there to be liquid water.
However, eighteen is a low number compared to the forty billion estimated Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone! Scientists can only “estimate” it so far because we have not yet studied all the stars in our galaxy around which planets orbit.
So chances are the closer we are to understanding our universe, the closer we will be to discovering other life-forms with whom we share our breath-taking universe.
“There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.”
As the creator of controlled explosives and many other chemically-based inventions, Chemistry was the most important science for Mr. Alfred Nobel. As such, prizes are awarded each year to this field of study in order to further continue to improve our daily lives.
This year the Nobel Prize was awarded to ground-breaking research on lithium-ion batteries (which power our phones, our laptops and electric vehicles among others). The results from this research conclude that they can be used to store vast amounts of energy from solar and wind power, allowing us to become a fossil fuel-free society.
Research on this topic dates back to the 60s, during the oil crisis, when Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham worked on finding ways to get energy from sources other than petrol, gas and coal. His results? Dr. Stanley managed to make a lithium-ion battery – named after the main component of the battery – a new type of rechargeable battery which would begin to revolutionize energy storage.
Dr. John B. Goodenough took on the flame from Dr. M. Stanley Wittingham during the 80s and used all the research available back then to improve the previous battery doubling its energy potential.
Ultimately, Akira Yoshino created the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1985, by changing a few materials inside the battery that not only made it more lightweight but allowed it to be charged hundreds of times before its performance decreased.
This revolutionary invention built an essential structure on which ideas like electric planes and cars, or incredibly powerful devices can become a reality. Ultimately they represent the foundations of a fossil-fuel free society which is certainly to the highest benefit to all of mankind.
“Every great device, gadget, electric car, and robot would be even greater if batteries didn't suck so badly”