Nobel Prizes: This Year’s winners

Sean Ring lists and details the winners and their accomplishments.

The Nobel Prizes were established by the will of Alfred Nobel of Sweden. This came as a shock to most people not least his family who, as you can imagine, were not too pleased to learn they would not be getting their hands on his fortune. Alfred had written the will without any lawyers (due to a dislike of the profession) and the subsequent confusion is the reason why the 1st prizes were not given out until 5 years after his death in 1901.

Alfred Nobel was best known for the invention of dynamite, the word coming from the Greek word for power. It is said that he created the prizes to try and leave a better legacy as he had been criticized for inventing such a dangerous weapon. The prizes are awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics. Economics was the last to be added to the list having been created by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968. They are considered to be the most prestigious awards of their fields.

A total of 579 prizes will have been awarded once this years are complete. You might recall the youngest winner was Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997) who won the 2014 Peace prize.

Nobel Prize in Physics

1475594030-b5ade2e24b9d3377c06d3c5632227444-1038x576The 2016 prize was awarded to 3 British Scientists: Michael Kosterlitz, David J. Thouless and Duncan Haldane. They were awarded the prize “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”. They used topology (the study of properties that remain the same when an item is stretched, twisted etc) to explain the properties of matter at cold and condensed states. You might have seen the video of a member of the Nobel Prize committee trying to explain topology using a bun, bagel and pretzel. With regards to topology the only difference between them is the number of holes, as opposed to anything to do with taste.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

This year’s prize was received by Fraser Stoddart, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Ben Feringa. They were rewarded for their work with Nano machines, machines the size of 1 billionth of a meter. There is hope Medical applications for this can be found such as injecting it into the body where it could then travel to an infected area and deliver treatment. The machines are made with molecules, as opposed to everyday machines you may be thinking of made of metal. People are claiming this may be as revolutionary as the invention of your more typical machine made during the industrial revolution.

Nobel Prize in Medicine

Yoshinori Ohsumi was rewarded for his discoveries relating to autophagy, where cells recycle their own content. Cells use this for energy, to destroy bacteria or to get rid of damaged structures. Ohsumi showed that when cells transport the content it is delivered “not to a dump but a recycling plant”. Malfunctioning autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. Ohsumi has shed more light on the process of autophagy through his study of it in Baker’s Yeast.

Nobel Peace Prize

160824122814-cnnee-pkg-ramos-las-farc-en-retrospectiva-00000000-exlarge-169This year’s winner is Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to end the Colombian civil war which has been ongoing since the 1960s. It was thought that because the Colombian Population recently rejected the peace agreement with FARC might cost him the award, but the committee said “The referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the “No” side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement”.

To give a bit of background to the Colombian civil war, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army) are a left wing military group. Right wing paramilitaries were set up to counteract FARC, but they officially decommissioned in 2003. Colombia produces 90% of cocaine on American streets and the production of this occurs mainly on FARC controlled land. As part of the peace agreement FARC agreed to stop producing cocaine. The future of Colombian peace however looks shaky for two reasons; the peace agreement was rejected and the fact that producing cocaine remains highly lucrative. Reading the following from the Nobel committee’s press release I couldn’t help but think of Northern Ireland “Striking a balance between the need for national reconciliation and ensuring justice for the victims will be a particularly difficult challenge”.

Nobel Prize in Economics

Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom picked up this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on contracts. They researched how contract should be written with the correct incentives to ensure maximum productivity. Holmstrom developed the ‘informativeness principle’ on the principal agent problem (the principal agent problem arises when managers are hired in the interests of shareholders but have an incentive to act in their own interest). This principle states that any information which can be used to assess the performance of the agent should be used to reward them (this includes relative measures).

Hart meanwhile deals with incomplete contracts. Since it is impossible for the contract to cover every eventuality, who should have the right to decide the course of action when the contract doesn’t say? Incomplete Contracts are also related to the principle agent problem, since shareholders cannot specify what management are to do in every possible scenario.

Nobel Prize in Literature

president_obama_sums_up_what-11fe51c0762e23a92c598248b2590ed5This year Minnesota born Bob Dylan was awarded the literature prize. Known for songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ Dylan has played at Cork’s own ‘Live at the Marquee’ numerous times. The press release said the 75 year old had “… created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

In typical Dylan fashion, he played a concert on the day of the announcement in Las Vegas and made no mention of the award whilst on stage. One of his most famous fans is Barack Obama who awarded him the “the Presidential Medal of Freedom” in 2012. Obama tweeted his congratulations, calling Dylan his “favourite poet”. This was tongue in cheek as Bob Dylan is the first songwriter to win the Nobel Literature Prize.