Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1


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.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

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.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

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.

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2013 Review Part 1


It’s the end of the year, a time to look back at the past 365 days and think of what we’ve done that’s worth remembering. But don’t worry; you don’t have to do any work: I’ve already done it for you!

Here’s a list of what are, in my opinion, the most important events this 2013, in no particular order:

1. A Massive Nobel Prize

higgs and englert

Peter Higgs and François Englert

The most important scientific breakthrough last year was undoubtedly the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at CERN. But this year, a definite Higgs Boson was found, therefore confirming Peter Higgs and his colleagues François Englert and Robert Brout’s prediction. Two latter scientists managed to describe how the Higgs field would work, but the namesake of the particle was the one that actually predicted it’s existence.

Due to their success, the Nobel committee decided to award them the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics, almost 50 years after their theory was created.

The CERN was also mentioned, since its hard work was essential for the theory to be proven right, and more specifically the ATLAS and CMS experiments which carried out all the necessary work.

Unfortunately, Robert Brout was not awarded the Nobel Prize, since it cannot be given posthumously.

2. The Chelyabinsk Meteor

Chelyabinsk Meteor

Trace left behind by the Chelyabinsk meteor

The year started with the collision of this meteor with our planet, on a Russian city. The incident was recorded by many, and was instantly everywhere in the news, causing a frenzy of curiosity and fear. It caused damage to hundreds of buildings, but human lives were spared. But a question remained: Whether more meteors will follow, and if so, what could be don to protect ourselves. Fortunately, it stopped there, and although this was a very interesting year in terms of astronomy, this was the closest it got to us.

3. The Most Expensive Burger Is Fake

fake meat

Meat made in the lab

Sponsored by Google co-founder, a group of scientists extracted stem cells from some cows and after growing them in a medium, processed them so they became biologically identical to a normal burger. Then, in a crowded event in London, a chef cooked the burger and served it, and was tasted by several people. Many said it tasted just like a real burger, though a bit stringy.

This method could be very useful for several reasons. Apart from being more ethical, it could reduce the cost of providing meat to an ever-growing society, with an insatiable appetite for this product. At the current rate, it would become very hard to feed all humanity, and would produce a lot of greenhouse gases. With this method, meat producing would be much more eco-friendlier and even healthier.

4. How To Talk With Rats

human rat telepathy

Humans can communicate with rats

Everyone has seen a science fiction movie where someone is able to communicate with someone else only using their minds, and although the concept was brilliant, dismissed it, thinking it was impossible. Well, no offense, but you are wrong. This April, scientists in Harvard Medical School were able to make a human move a rat’s tail with their brains.

The way it works is a human and a rat are connected together through a computer. The human is made to wear an electrode cap, which measures their brain activity, whilst the rat was connected to a device that made the neurons transmit a signal through the motor’s cortex when another signal, coming from the computer, was detected. When all of this was ready, the rat was anaesthetized (to reduce interfering), and the human was told to look at a strobe light that blinked periodically, so the scientists could look for a pattern in their brain waves. But when the test subject was asked to look at the rat, the disruption in the brain waves caused an electric signal that travelled all the way through the computer, to the rat, where it reached the motor cortex and made it’s tail move. Although there are a few limitations to the way in which it could apply to the common telepathy, it’s a great way to start!

5. Print a Gun

This year has seen a lot of improvements in the 3D printing industry, one of them being the printing of a gun that could fire up to 50 shots without breaking. This achievement was accomplished by the company Solid Concepts in USA, whose gun is also capable of being very precise at long distances.

print gun

This is not really how you print a gun

There has been a debate over the last few months in this country on the availability of gun blueprints on the Internet, where everyone could access them and therefore be able to print a gun using only their desktop printers. But this model can only be printed on a specialised, industrial printer, and has a very high cost, so not many people will be able to make themselves this weapon.

Stay tuned for next week’s second part of this recap for the year’s most interesting scientific discoveries.