Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.
The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.
It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.
The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.
Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.
The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.
At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.
Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.
This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.