Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Although researchers had figured out how cells produce various proteins, the mechanism to remove and recycle them was unknown. Professor Aaron Ciechanover, along with Profs Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose, discovered that a small protein called ubiquitin marks old proteins for destruction.
For their seminal work, Prof Ciechanover and his colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004. Prof Ciechanover, who is Israel’s first Nobel Laureate in science along with Prof Hershko, noted: “The protein recycling mechanism is as novel as it is specific. It removes only damaged proteins and those that are not needed anymore, sparing all remaining ones.”
A physician by training, Prof Ciechanover has continued to study the link between ubiquitin and diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. He is currently the Technion Distinguished Research Professor in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Medicine.
In cancer, he is trying to manipulate the ubiquitin system so that it helps to suppress tumours. “Cancer cells have high nutrient demands. We are developing a drug to tweak the ubiquitin system, alter the environment in which the cancer cells are growing, so that the system stops providing cancer cells with nutrients,” he explained.
Prof Ciechanover is also a member of many scientific academies, including the Israel National Academy of Sciences and Humanities, European Molecular Biology Organisation, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (as a Foreign Fellow), Chinese Academy of Sciences (as a Foreign Member) and Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican.
Apart from the Nobel Prize, his awards include the 2000 Albert Lasker Award, 2002 EMET Prize, 2003 Israel Prize for Biology and 2006 Sir Hans Krebs Medal.
He wants young scientists to realise that they can make a difference in science and society. He said: “Scientific achievements are not made by magicians, but by people like you and me. We can all make discoveries that are beneficial to society. If I could do it, there is no doubt that you can do it, and do it even better.”
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
With antibiotic resistance becoming increasingly concerning around the world, Professor Ada Yonath is tapping on her expertise in the ribosome to design new antibiotics to benefit people.
All cells in living organisms contain tiny factories called ribosomes that translate the genetic code into proteins, which are essential to life. In the late 1970s, Prof Yonath started studying these minuscule wonders and, against all odds, succeeded in determining the structure of the bacterial ribosome, a breakthrough that shed light on how all ribosomes function.
For her pioneering work, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 along with two other scientists, becoming the first woman in 45 years to win this award. The Nobel Prize committee said: “Her determination and ingenuity allowed researchers to see and understand the complex and crucial molecule. Since the ribosome is a major bacterial target for antibiotics, her work has led to new antibiotics and a better understanding of antibiotic resistance.”
Prof Yonath is currently part of an international team that is redesigning existing antibiotics to overcome bacterial resistance. The team said in a recent paper that its best drug candidate, which is yet to undergo clinical trials, is up to 56 times more active against the tested bacterial strains than two antibiotics, erythromycin and clarithromycin, that are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines.
Her other ongoing work includes analysing how antibiotics act on bacteria, investigating diseases related to ribosomal mutations, which include diabetes and about 25 per cent of cancers, and researching the origins of life.
She grew up in Jerusalem in a poor family, with her father passing away when she was just 11 years old, and her tough childhood taught her the value of hard work.
“To be a good scientist means one must be curious, ask relevant questions and have passion in whatever you do,” she added. Her other honours include the 2002 Israel Prize, 2008 Albert Einstein World Award of Science, 2010 Wilhelm Exner Medal and 2011 Marie Curie Medal.
Prof Yonath is currently the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Director of its Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Centre for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly.
Optimal Transport is used to calculate the best way of moving resources from where they are found to where they need to be. Historically, it dates to 1781, when the French government was looking for the most economical way of moving soil from one area to another, and the field has developed in the years since then.
Prof Figalli studied at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he completed his doctorate in a single year, before moving to the University of Texas in Austin. What Prof Figalli realised was that if you could minimise the “transport cost” of particles in a cloud, you could calculate the optimal path, and make predictions of how clouds change their shape. He had pondered on this problem for seven years before he and his colleagues finally made a breakthrough in 2012.
Since then, Prof Figalli has endeavoured to apply optimal transport theory to as many areas as possible, in topics as diverse as soap bubbles to crystal formation. Now, his latest work is in using the theory to optimise machine learning, especially in Generative Adverserial Networks (GANs).
Prof Figalli has collaborated on more than 130 papers, a prodigious output for any mathematician, let alone one of his young age. However, he is up for the challenge, even if it means the occasional failure: "The way I try to think about (maths) problems is that even if I don't solve them, I'm still learning something. Perhaps there is failure... but from failure you learn."
Currently, Prof Figalli is FIM Director and Professor of Mathematics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. He has won numerous awards in addition to the Fields Medal 2018, including the 2020 Falling Walls Award in Engineering and Technology, and in 2018, he was made a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
Barry James Marshall
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Until the early 1980s, stress and lifestyle choices were thought to be the major causes of peptic ulcer disease, which includes gastric ulcers. Professor Barry Marshall discovered that a bacterial species, later named Helicobacter pylori, was responsible instead.
Due to the seminal work of Prof Marshall and his research partner Prof Robin Warren, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic, frequently disabling disease, but can be cured by a short course of antibiotics and acid secretion inhibitors.
In 2005, the two scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their life-changing breakthroughs, with the Nobel Prize committee noting: “The discovery that one of mankind’s most common diseases, peptic ulcer disease, has a microbial cause, has stimulated the search for microbes as possible causes of other chronic inflammatory diseases.”
It added: “The discovery of Helicobacter pylori has led to an increased understanding of the connection between chronic infection, inflammation and cancer.”
Prof Marshall’s continued research on Helicobacter pylori includes its potential use in medical treatment. He founded Ondek, a biotechnology company, to study how to use the bacterium as a delivery platform for immune modulators, vaccines, biopharmaceuticals and other drugs. “For people who have asthma and eczema, for example, it might be possible to down-regulate their immune system by simulating a Helicobacter infection,” he said.
He also created the ongoing Noisy Guts Project, which is developing an acoustic belt that records gut noises so that doctors can more efficiently diagnose and monitor gut problems, and patients can save money on tests. “We aim to be able to differentiate between benign issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious ones, like inflammatory bowel disease or even cancer,” he said.
Prof Marshall is currently Clinical Professor of Medicine and Microbiology at the University of Western Australia, and Director of its Marshall Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Training. He also set up Shenzhen University’s Marshall Biomedical Engineering Laboratory, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal cancer, among other goals.
His other awards include the 1994 Warren Alpert Prize, 1995 Albert Lasker Award, 2002 Keio Medical Science Prize and 2003 Australian Centenary Medal.
B. Jayant Baliga
IEEE Medal of Honor
Household appliances, factory robots, fluorescent lights, cars, trains, televisions and solar panels – all these and more rely on the insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) invented by Professor Jayant Baliga, who won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Medal of Honour in 2014 for his transformative work.
Prof Baliga was developing semiconductor power devices for General Electric (GE) in the late 1970s when it wanted to create energy-saving variable-frequency motor drives that could operate at different speeds to make electric appliances more efficient.
He came up with the IGBT, which was crucial to realising the variable-frequency motor drives, by combining features from two other existing devices at the time, specifically metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) and ordinary bipolar power transistors.
His proposed design for the IGBT was not only bold – then, the two types of transistors were used in completely different ways – but practical, as it could be manufactured relatively easily using one of GE’s MOSFET production lines. After Prof Baliga overcame a few obstacles, the IGBT became widely used across the world.
The IEEE said when awarding Prof Baliga its medal: “Without being at all aware of his role, millions of people around the world are benefiting from the power semiconductors that he pioneered.” Prof Baliga himself estimates that the IGBT has averted over a hundred trillion pounds of carbon dioxide by making products more energy-efficient.
He is currently the Progress Energy Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University, and Director of its Power Semiconductor Research Centre. He is developing, with funding from the United States Department of Energy, a bi-directional power controlling switch to make electric products from electric cars to solar panels even more efficient.
Prof Baliga has received the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation, Global Energy Prize, and other awards. He is also an IEEE Fellow and Member of the United States National Academy of Engineering and the European Academy of Sciences.
“Science education is fundamental to society,” he said. “Science is the reason we have all our modern conveniences, our quality of life, the ability to be mobile with our cars and trains and so forth, and our good health. Without science, mankind would not be where it is today.”
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Benjamin List is a German chemist who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on asymmetric organocatalysis. He shared the prize with British chemist David MacMillan.
Prof List received a degree in chemistry from the Free University of Berlin in 1993 and a doctorate in the same subject from the Goethe University of Frankfurt in 1997. That year he started a postdoctoral fellowship at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He became an assistant professor there in 1998. He returned to Germany in 2003 to become a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, Mülheim an der Ruhr, and in 2005 he became director of the institute.
During Prof List’s time at Scripps, he was researching catalytic antibodies, which are antibodies that, instead of fighting off infection, are used to drive chemical reactions (that is, act as a catalyst). Prof List considered that enzymes also drive chemical reactions but were not metals as other catalysts were and that only a few amino acids in an enzyme would be involved in the chemical reaction. In 2000 he and his colleagues published work describing how they used one amino acid, proline, to drive an aldol reaction (a reaction in which a bond is formed between two carbon atoms) between acetone and several aromatic aldehydes. (MacMillan and his colleagues were doing similar work independently at the same time.)
In 2003 he returned to Germany to become a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and in 2005 he became one of the institute's directors, heading the Homogeneous Catalysis Department. He served as the institute's managing director from 2012 to 2014. He has held a part-time position as an honorary professor of organic chemistry at the University of Cologne since 2004. Prof List is also a principal investigator at the Institute for Chemical Reaction Design and Discovery, Hokkaido University since 2018. He is also the editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Synlett.
Professor Cédric Villani is a recipient of the 2010 Fields Medal for his contributions to kinetic equations, specifically in the studies of stability, and is currently a politician in the French parliament.
In 2009, Prof Villani together with his student Clément Mouhot proved that something called Landau damping still holds in nonlinear perturbative environments. It explains, for example, why if you slightly disturb a plasma that is in equilibrium, the resulting electric field will spontaneously vanish, and the system returns to a stable state.
Solving such a problem would keep most mathematicians up all night. However, Prof Vilani discovered he could solve it in his sleep. Stumped by a gap in the hundred-page proof, he resigned himself to defeat and decided to go to bed at 4 in the morning. However, when he woke up a few hours later, he heard a voice in his head telling him the way forward: "Take the second term to the other side, Fourier transform and invert in L2."
It is jargon that only a mathematician might understand, but Prof Villani has made his life story accessible with the publication of Théorème Vivant, a memoir of the work that led up to his Fields Medal. It conveys to the layperson what it means to be a top-level mathematician, recounting the various conversations and collaborations he had with other mathematicians, replete with stories of failure, and then eventual success. The title literally translates to "Living Theorem", and it was chosen by Prof Villani to emphasise the dynamic, living nature of mathematics. Since its publication, the French edition has sold more than 100,000 copies.
This enthusiasm to influence the public to what science can do for society has extended to his professional life. He was director of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris from 2009 to 2017, where he initiated the Maison Poincaré museum (due to open in 2022), with more than 900 m² of exhibition space dedicated to mathematics and its applications.
In 2017 he ran for public office and won, becoming an M.P. for Essonne, near Paris. He believes “if you wait for politics to solve your problems, then you will be part of the problem”. He also chairs the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (OPECST), where he argues that public policy has a pressing need for “empathy and science”.
Nobel Prize in Physics
Both centres will tap on interdisciplinary research to investigate the origins and nature of life. “My plan is to have a dialogue between these two centres and other institutions, to help develop this new field of research,” he added.
Prof Queloz changed the way scientists think about the planetary systems when he was the first to find and confirm the existence of an extrasolar planet, or exoplanet. Although the planet is uninhabitable due to its surface temperature of about 1,000 degrees Celsius, its announcement in 1995 kickstarted a race to find other exoplanets. Over 4,000 have been located, many by Prof Queloz himself, with incredible variety among them.
When Prof Queloz received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2019, alongside two other scientists, for his trailblazing work, the Nobel Prize committee said: “Strange new worlds are still being discovered. They challenge our preconceived ideas about planetary systems, and are forcing scientists to revise their theories of the physical processes behind the origins of planets.”
“With numerous projects planned to search for exoplanets, we may eventually find an answer to the eternal question of whether other life is out there,” it added.
Prof Queloz has had a hand in many of these projects. He took part in the first space mission dedicated to exoplanet research, started the Characterising Exoplanet Satellite, or CHEOPS, project to launch a satellite to study known exoplanets, and has developed better instruments and techniques to detect exoplanets. He is also leading the Terra Hunting Experiment, which is an initiative by a group of universities and institutes to find Earth-like planets.
He shared the 2011 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, and won the 2017 Wolf Prize in Physics, among other honours. He is currently a Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, University of Geneva and ETH Zurich.
Nobel Prize in Physics
When Sir Konstantin Novoselov and Sir Andre Geim isolated graphene and mapped its properties in 2004, they not only unlocked a wonder material but also spurred a global research frenzy.
Consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene is many times stronger than steel, lighter than paper, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and flexible to boot. Scientists are now investigating its use in countless applications, from ultrathin and light body armour that can stop bullets, to membranes that can better filter salt out of seawater.
Before Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre’s breakthrough, other scientists had tried to obtain graphene from materials with multiple layers of carbon atoms, such as graphite, but failed. Many thought that it was impossible to isolate such a thin material.
The solution, it turned out, was Scotch tape. By using copious amounts of the sticky tape, Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre were able to rip off thin flakes from a piece of graphite, and then get thinner and thinner flakes from the original ones.
The ingenious method, however, was only step one. Even after repeated use of the tape, some parts of the flakes would still have more than one layer of carbon atoms. To identify the fragments of graphene among the graphite, Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre came up with the successful idea of attaching the flakes to a plate of oxidised silicon and then putting the plate under a microscope. This enabled them to go on to study graphene’s properties.
When the two scientists were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work, the Nobel Prize committee noted that “a vast variety of practical applications now appear possible, including the creation of new materials”. Their discoveries also sparked new and accelerated research worldwide into other two-dimensional materials.
Sir Konstantin himself is now looking into such materials - and the possibility of combining them to create novel materials - as Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the National University of Singapore. He said: “There is now a huge pool of two-dimensional crystals that cover a massive range of properties. In theory, we could design any new material, layer by layer, for any new application.”
Beyond the Nobel Prize, Sir Konstantin has been conferred numerous honours, including a knighthood in Britain in 2012.
How does the human brain carry out operations such as memorising information and making associations? Professor Leslie Valiant, who won the Turing Award in 2010 for his pioneering work in computer science, is aiming to unlock these and other mysteries of the brain. His findings could shape the future of artificial intelligence, just as his past work revolutionised computer science.
In 1984, believing that machines can “learn” like humans by drawing on experiences from the past, Prof Valiant developed the “probably approximately correct” (PAC) model of machine learning, which is an algorithm that takes past experiences to derive a generalisation that is effective in categorising examples not seen before. This is like a veteran wildlife photographer guessing the species of a bird unknown to him or her based on its plumage and other features.
More recently, he adapted the PAC model to provide a mathematical theory of the scope and limits of biological evolution, framing Darwinian evolution in nature as a form of PAC learning.
In artificial computation, he devised a scheme for the efficient routing of communications in very large parallel computing systems, and showed that the overheads involved even in a sparse network need not grow with the size of the system.
With these and other groundbreaking work, Prof Valiant built an “extraordinarily productive career in theoretical computer science, producing results of great beauty and originality”, said the committee that conferred him the Turing Award. It added: “His research opened new frontiers and has resulted in the transformation of many areas.”
Prof Valiant’s other awards include the 1986 Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, 1997 Donald E. Knuth Prize, and 2008 European Association for Theoretical Computer Science Award. He has also authored two books, titled “Circuits of the Mind” and “Probably Approximately Correct”.
He is continuing his research on the computational processes in neuroscience and biological evolution, and the computational building blocks that are necessary for cognition and artificial intelligence. Since 1982, he has been based at Harvard University, where he is currently the T. Jefferson Coolidge Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He also co-leads its Centre for Brain Science.
Michael W. Young
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
All living organisms, including humans, have an internal biological clock called the circadian clock that helps them to anticipate and adapt to the time of the day. By studying fruit flies, Professor Michael Young identified several genes that regulate this clock in the 1980s and 1990s, winning the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside two other scientists.
The Nobel Prize committee said: “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behaviour, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. Since the seminal discoveries, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.”
Professor Young’s laboratory at the Rockefeller University, where he is Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor, continues to study circadian clocks, including how sleep and circadian rhythms are regulated at the genetic and molecular levels in humans.
The lab’s findings have shed light on sleep and mood disorders as well as dysfunctions related to the timing of gene activities underlying visual functions, movement, metabolism, immunity, learning and memory. It has identified, for example, a variant of the CRY gene that causes people to have a longer circadian cycle than most, making them “night owls” that sleep and wake later compared to the societal norm.
Beyond the Nobel Prize, Professor Young has been awarded the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience, Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Massry Prize, Canada Gairdner International Award, Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and numerous other honours. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Philosophical Society.
Ngô Bảo Châu
Before Prof Ngo's work, the proof for the fundamental lemma had eluded mathematicians for three decades. The proposition first appeared in 1979 as part of the Langland's program, which is a collection of conjectures connecting number theory and geometry. The fundamental lemma was needed to prove some cases of the principle of functoriality, a core conjecture of the Langlands program. In layman's terms, it has been described thus: if the Langlands program is a big machine, then functoriality is opening a screw on it, and the fundamental lemma is the screwdriver to do so.
Prof Ngo first encountered the fundamental lemma in the 1990s while working on his PhD, but felt that he was not equipped at the time to properly tackle it. He did eventually begin in the early 2000s but it was a difficult problem to crack. "I went into quite a despair. I had spent three years working on every possible angle," he recalled. Eventually, in 2007, a chance discussion with a fellow mathematician presented new techniques with which to solve the problem, and it was eventually published in 2009.
This achievement immediately rose to prominence, having been selected by Time magazine as one of the Top Ten Scientific Discoveries of the year. In 2010, he received the Fields Medal and the year after, he was awarded a Knight of France's Legion of Honour.
Prof Ngo became a professor at Paris-Sud 11 University in 2005, and in the same year, he also received the title of professor in Vietnam, becoming the country's youngest-ever professor. In 2007, Chau worked at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, as well as the Hanoi Institute of Mathematics. In 2010 he joined the mathematics faculty at the University of Chicago, and since 2011 he has been Scientific Director of the Vietnam Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics (VIASM). In 2019, Prof Ngô became a professor at the prestigious Collège de France.
Millennium Technology Prize
He is one of the world’s most-cited researchers, and the most cited engineer, and has received over 220 major awards, including Portugal’s Medal of Science, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, Kyoto Prize, Kabiller Prize and Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
In the 1970s, he developed groundbreaking polymer materials that allowed a protein’s large molecules to pass through membranes in a controlled manner to inhibit angiogenesis, the process through which tumours recruit blood vessels.
When he won the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize for this and other pioneering work, his citation pointed to “his inventions and development of innovative biomaterials for controlled drug release and tissue regeneration that have saved and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people”.
He is currently partnering with the Gates Foundation on another COVID-19 vaccine that would be encapsulated in tiny particles that burst at different times so that a single vaccine shot can provide immunity that renews itself. He is also involved in many other projects, including the creation of a band-aid with microneedles to deliver vaccines as well as booster shots.
“We’re working on better ways of delivering micronutrients, and tissue engineering in the lab, ways of making new tissues and organs. We’ve also designed a little pill that you can swallow to deliver large molecules like insulin or possibly any biologic,” he added.
Dr Langer is now an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the highest distinction awarded to a faculty member, and his laboratory at MIT is the largest academic biomedical engineering laboratory in the world.
He is the youngest person, at 43, to be elected to the three National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and one of only three living people to have received both the United States National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Stefan W. Hell
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Professor Stefan Hell developed a microscopy method called stimulated emission depletion (STED) that bypasses this limitation. His pioneering technique helped researchers to peer into the nanoworld of cells, and he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 alongside two other scientists.
Traditionally, scientists used microscopes to focus light onto a point on the cell sample to get molecules to glow so they can image them. As light travels in waves, however, that point is actually a circle with a radius of at least 200 nanometres. All the molecules within that circle will glow at the same time when the light hits them, producing a fluorescent blob that makes it impossible for researchers to discern individual molecules.
Professor Hell’s innovation was to add a second beam of light with a hole in its centre. This beam darkens the molecules that it hits, so that only the molecules within the hole continue to glow. By moving the two light beams across the sample, scientists can thus get much higher resolution images.
He has also continued to break new ground in microscopy, developing two other methods, called MINSTED and MINFLUX, to produce even higher resolution images. STED achieved a resolution of 20 to 30 nanometres, generating images that were about 10 times sharper. MINSTED provides a resolution of one to three nanometres, enabling researchers to separate and track individual molecules that are only a few nanometres apart.
Professor Hell is now Director at both the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and Max Planck Institute for Medical Research. He has also won the Kavli Prize, Otto Hahn Prize, Wilhelm Exner Medal and other awards.
Sir Andre Geim
Nobel Prize in Physics
Just as stone, bronze, silicon and plastics changed the world, the growing array of two-dimensional materials with amazing properties are likely to shape our future. Sir Andre Geim and his research partners discovered graphene, the first of these wonder 2D materials, so-called because they are made up of a single layer of atoms.
While trying to make thin films of graphite, a form of carbon, to study its electrical properties, they realised that they could use Scotch tape to peel flakes from a graphite crystal. By using the sticky tape repeatedly, they got thinner and thinner flakes, and by attaching the flakes to a plate of oxidised silicon and putting it under a microscope, they saw fragments that were made up of a single layer of carbon atoms – graphene.
Since their discovery, they have gone on to uncover some of graphene’s astonishing qualities. Graphene is hundreds of times stronger than steel, a fantastic conductor of electricity and heat, and flexible to boot. Researchers have experimented with using it to make superfast computer chips, quantum dots to deliver medical drugs more effectively, and more efficient water filters and solar panels.
In 2010, Sir Geim and his research partner Sir Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on graphene. The Nobel Prize committee said: “A material consisting of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice and only one atom thick was long considered a purely theoretical construction. They produced this material and mapped its properties. With graphene, they have written themselves into the annals of science.”
Sir Geim continues to research graphene and other 2D materials. He also recently published a paper exploring the 2D empty space left behind when graphene is removed from graphite. He said: “These are early days for research on 2D cavities, and their properties been probed only in a few experiments. Still, the results indicate a plethora of interesting science to come.”
He is currently the Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute. Apart from the Nobel Prize, he won the 2011 Niels Bohr Medal, 2013 Copley Medal, and other prizes. He was knighted in the Netherlands in 2010, and in the United Kingdom in 2012.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
In the early 1970s, the only rechargeable batteries were lead-acid ones, which are still used today but are bulky and heavy, and nickel-cadmium ones, which were more compact but less efficient. During and after the 1973 oil crisis, many scientists, including Prof Whittingham, searched for better ways to store energy from renewable sources.
Knowing that lithium would make a good battery anode because of its lightness and ability to release electrons easily, Prof Whittingham looked for materials with a high energy density that could act as the cathode, eventually selecting titanium disulphide, which had never been used in batteries before, and producing the first functional lithium-ion battery.
When Prof Whittingham won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 alongside two other scientists for their work on the development of the lithium-ion battery, the Nobel Prize committee said: “Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market… They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Since Prof Whittingham’s breakthrough, he has continued to research ways to improve the battery. Part of his ongoing work focuses on eliminating cobalt from the battery, since it is expensive, and its mining is associated with child labour issues. He has also called for more sustainable supply chains for the battery’s materials.
He is a Team Lead in the Battery500 consortium, which aims to create lithium-metal anode batteries that deliver up to 500 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). It has achieved 400 Wh/kg ones. “That’s not commercial yet, but it shows we can get to higher energy densities,” he said.
Prof Whittingham is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Binghamton University and Director of its NorthEast Centre for Chemical Energy Storage. His other honours include the 2010 Award for Lifetime Contributions from the American Chemical Society and 2018 David Turnbull Lectureship Award.
Millennium Technology Prize
Stuart Parkin is a Director of the Max Planck Institute for Microstructure Physics, Halle, Germany, and an Alexander von Humboldt Professor, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg.
His research interests include spintronic materials and devices for advanced sensor, memory, and logic applications, oxide thin-film heterostructures, topological metals, exotic superconductors, and cognitive devices. Parkin’s discoveries in spintronics enabled a more than the 10,000-fold increase in the storage capacity of magnetic disk drives.
For his work that thereby enabled the “big data” world of today, Parkin was awarded the Millennium Technology Award from the Technology Academy Finland in 2014 and, most recently the King Faisal Prize for Science 2021 for his research into three distinct classes of spintronic memories.
Parkin is a Fellow/ Member of: Royal Society (London), Royal Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, German National Academy of Science - Leopoldina, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Indian Academy of Sciences, and TWAS - academy of sciences for the developing world. Parkin has received numerous awards including the American Physical Society International Prize for New Materials (1994); Europhysics Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Solid State Physics (1997); 2009 IUPAP Magnetism Prize and Neel Medal; 2012 von Hippel Award - Materials Research Society; 2013 Swan Medal - Institute of Physics (London); Alexander von Humboldt Professorship − International Award for Research (2014); ERC Advanced Grant - SORBET (2015).
Nobel Prize in Physics
This was written by Professor Takaaki Kajita and his colleagues in 1988 after they had seen puzzling results from the Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan. There was a discrepancy in how many neutrinos of a certain type they observed, and it seemed to depend on how far away the subatomic particle was from the detector when it was created.
The Kamiokande experiment at the time was an ambitious attempt to detect elusive neutrinos. It comprised a tank containing 3,000 tons of pure water buried a kilometre underground in the Kamioka mine. It needed to be isolated enough to be shielded from cosmic rays, and large enough to detect the very rare occasions when a passing neutrino interacts with a water molecule.
The initial results did not agree with the theoretical predictions. "I thought it was a mistake in the data analysis”, remembers Prof Kajita, “Or could it be a hint at an unexpected phenomenon?". He would later declare this period as the most exciting time in his life as a physicist.
It would take another ten years before he had the answer. Prof Kajita presented his findings at the 1998 International Conference on Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics, saying he had found enough compelling evidence to show that neutrinos could transform themselves over time. Neutrinos that travel further have more time to turn into different types, lowering the apparent count.
His announcement was lauded by a standing ovation, and seventeen years later, in 2015, he received an even greater accolade, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Today, Proj Kajita has changed his research focus from studying neutrinos to gravity waves, saying “I wanted to do something new and exciting.” He is currently developing the Hyper-Kamiokande, which will be nearly 90 times bigger than the original Kamioka mine. Experiments are expected to start at the new facility in 2027, which has been built at a cost of US$600 million. More than 400 scientists from 19 countries have shown interest in research collaborations at the new facility.
Prof Kajita is currently a Distinguished Professor at the University of Tokyo, a Member of the prestigious Japan Academy and also the Director of the Next-generation Neutrino Science Organisation.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
When Professor Thomas Cech was studying an organism called Tetrahymena thermophila in 1980, he noticed something unusual. Even though he had put one of the organism’s ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules into a test tube without any proteins, it spliced itself, cutting itself into specific pieces and joining genetically important fragments together again.
Until then, scientists had believed that proteins were necessary to catalyze biochemical reactions, including such splicing, but the RNA molecule was doing it by itself. By investigating further, Professor Cech became the first person to show, in 1982, that RNA molecules could act as biocatalysts too. His discovery laid the foundation for advances in molecular genetics and spurred research into RNA’s many roles in biology.
When the Nobel Prize committee awarded him the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside another scientist for his groundbreaking work, it noted that his research had even influenced the understanding of how life on Earth began and developed: “With the discovery of catalytic RNA, it is very possible that RNA molecules were the first biomolecules to contain both genetic information and play a role as biocatalysts.”
More recently, Professor Cech has turned his attention to epigenetics, which is the study of biological mechanisms that turn genes on and off. “Each tissue type has its own epigenetic programme that determines which genes get turned on or off at any moment,” he said. “We have determined in great detail that RNA is a master regulator of this epigenetic silencing, and that in the absence of RNA, this system cannot work. It is critical for life.”
He is also focusing on telomerase, an enzyme linked to cancer. His research group uncovered a catalytic subunit of telomerase called telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) which is now widely agreed to be a major cancer-causing gene, and he has been studying how it works and how it can be targeted to fight cancer.
Professor Cech is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado. Beyond the Nobel Prize, he has been conferred the National Medal of Science, Heineken Prize, Canada Gairdner International Award, Albert Laser Basic Medical Research Award, Golden Plate Award, Othmer Gold Medal, and many other honours.
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
In 2013, Prof Südhof was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside two other scientists, for his discovery of how signalling molecules, which are transported in sac-like structures called vesicles, are released at precise times to facilitate synaptic transmission. The Nobel Prize committee said that his breakthrough was a key part of understanding the “exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo”.
His work was part of a wave of advances that resulted in greater knowledge of how neurons communicate. These studies subsequently became the basis of life-changing therapies. Still, most molecular and cellular processes in the brain remain enigmatic. “Very few laboratories now study how a neuron is made, but this is absolutely crucial and essential for any progress in understanding the diseases of the brain,” he said.
His laboratory at Stanford University analyses how synapses – the junctions between neurons that transfer and compute information – form in the brain, how their properties are specified, and they become dysfunctional in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders.
He is also involved in several firms. He co-founded Recognify Life Sciences, a biotechnology company developing a drug to treat the cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia. He said that its lead candidate, RL-007, enhances the mechanisms of neuronal signalling, learning and memory, but apparently without the side effects linked to other compounds acting on these mechanisms.
Prof Südhof is now the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine, and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and of Neurosurgery, and by courtesy, of Neurology and of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, in Stanford University. He is also an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
His other honours include the 2010 Kavli Prize, 2013 Albert Lasker Award, 2018 Pericles Prize and 2020 Sherrington Lecture Award.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
His laboratory first uncovered the structure of the ribosome’s small subunit, which recognises the genetic code and allows it to be translated accurately. Several years later, it established the detailed structure of the entire ribosome complexed with the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) genetic template and transfer RNAs that bring in proteins’ amino acid building blocks.
Subsequently, it ascertained the structure of the ribosome in different states of its function, enabling scientists to understand how it works. Dr Ramakrishnan also showed how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome, giving pharmaceutical companies the ability to design better ones to fight diseases.
The Nobel Prize committee said of the work: “The understanding of the ribosome’s structure and function is of great and immediate use to humanity. The discoveries are important both for the understanding of how life’s core processes function, and in order to save lives.”
His team at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he is a Group Leader, is currently studying how the ribosome translates genetic information into proteins in eukaryotes and mitochondria, and how some viral sequences disrupt the process.
Eukaryotes are cells and organisms with a clearly defined nucleus, such as human cells. Mitochondria are organelles in our cells involved in energy production, and carry their own small genome for which they have their own ribosomes.
Dr Ramakrishnan also completed a five-year term as President of the Royal Society in 2020, leading efforts to help British scientists remain in European science programmes after Brexit, giving advice to the British government to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and promoting science. He is also writing a book on the cultural, biological and sociological aspects of ageing and death, which will be published in 2023.
He was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2012, and his awards include the 2010 Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, 2012 Sir Hans Kreb Medal and 2014 XLVI Jiménez-Díaz Prize.