Earlier this month, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced this year’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, and physiology. In addition to economics, literature, and peace, this prestigious honor is given to scientists whose work has revolutionized their fields. Lists of former laureates include such scientific legends as Marie Curie for the discovery of radioactivity, Albert Einstein for his work with the photoelectric effect, and J.J. Thompson for discovering the electron. Winning the $1.4 million award is a big deal, and cements the career of whoever receives it.
Research this advanced can be difficult to understand and even more challenging to put into perspective. Here’s a break down who won, an explanation of their work, and why it is important.
Nobel Prize in Physics: Discovery of gravitational waves
Who won: Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, are receiving the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of gravitational waves.
Their work: Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime, caused by the collision of supermassive objects. Just like a pebble dropped into a pond creates ripples on the surface, these collisions generate disturbances which stretch the space and time through which they travel. Using the most precise lasers and mirrors in the world, researchers at LIGO observed the gravitational waves generated by two colliding black holes 1.3 billion lightyears away.
Why it’s important: Until now, scientists have only been able to observe objects in the universe that emit electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, gamma rays, and visible light. Since their work at LIGO, scientists can get better information on objects that are hard to detect — things like black holes, dark matter and neutron stars (LIGO observed the collision of two the other day). These objects may soon come into clearer focus. Scientists will also be able to improve upon Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which predicted gravitational waves 100 years before they were first observed.
Learn more: Read our interview with LIGO researcher, Andy Bohn to learn more about gravitational waves.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Cryo-electron microscopy
Who won: Joachim Frank, Richard Henderson, and Jacques Dubochet are sharing the award for developing an imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy, which has allowed scientists to view the structure of biological molecules in unprecedented detail.
Their work: Scientists use electron microscopes to view objects smaller than a few hundred nanometers, at which point the wavelength of visible light is not short enough to provide any resolution. The microscope shoots a beam of electrons at a target inside a vacuum. The problem is the electron beams often damage the molecules being viewed and the vacuum in which they were being viewed can result in the molecules collapsing before being able to be thoroughly studied.
This year’s laureates each developed a different technique that addressed these problems, enabling scientists to view biological molecules such as proteins and viruses in incredible resolution and detail.
Why it’s important: The ability to look at biological molecules with this level of resolution will not only help scientists to understand these structures better but give researchers insights into how these molecules work. Scientists will be able to put together several images taken at different points in time, much like a flipbook, to see how the molecules function. Using cryo-electron microscopy, scientists have made 3D images to target cancer drugs and have a better understanding of the Zika virus. The method has become so useful, the National Institutes of Health named cryo-electron microscopy it the “method of the year.”
Learn more: The Gaudian has a more in-depth article on how each scientist contributed to the new technique.
Nobel Prize in Physiology: Circadian rhythm
Who won: American scientists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young are sharing a Nobel Prize for their discoveries of the biological mechanisms that control an organism’s circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle based on the light and dark cycles of the sun.
Their work: The circadian rhythm works like an internal clock inside living things, scheduling biological processes that sync with different times of the day or night. Over the last 30 plus years, the researchers have uncovered the genes and proteins inside cells that regulate these rhythms. Their work looked at the molecular systems that control these rhythms, and have since been found in humans, trees, and even bacteria.
Why it’s important: Their work has had big implications for medical research in the growing field of chronobiology, which studies how the genes of individual people are programmed to a unique circadian rhythm. These cycles control things from behavior to sleep patterns to metabolism. It’s why some people are alert in the mornings while others are night owls and why jet lag can be so damaging to our health.
Learn More: The National Insitute of Health’s website explains how circadian rhythms affect humans.