POP SCIENCE! 2016 Nobel Prize Winners

This year’s Nobel laureates have been announced! For those who don’t know, the Nobel Prize is named for Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who became very wealthy during his lifetime for his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is by far the most famous. In his will, Nobel specified that his fortune should be used to create a series of prizes honouring those who confer “the greatest benefit to mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace, with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences being established by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968. Winners receive a gold medal, a cash prize of 8 million Swedish kroner (roughly $940,000), and the adulations of their peers and the world’s scientific and cultural community.

So, without further ado, let’s get into this year’s winners:


The physics prize was awarded to UK scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” Basically what this means is that they pioneered research on certain kinds of exotic matter which exist in transition states between the levels of energy in a substance’s electrons, and which are highly dependent on the surface shape (or topography) of the materials; experts believe that the work will be integral to our future understanding of quantum computing.


The chemistry prize was awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” Essentially, they invented biological nanobots, specifically tiny lifts, miniature motors, and artificial muscle pumps. Molecules with movements that can be controlled in response to certain stimuli are a key stepping-stone towards microscopic robots which can be used for all sorts of exciting (and sometimes terrifying) science-fiction type things.


The winner of the medicine prize was Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.” Autophagy is the process which cells use to recycle unnecessary or dysfunctional components, and identifying how the body programs certain cells to destroy themselves could go a long way to developing novel new methods for treating cancer.

In a surprising announcement, Bob Dylan became the first non-author to receive the literature prize. This one shouldn’t need further explanation.

The peace prize was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.” Santos negotiated a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the leaders of guerrilla forces, though sadly the final referendum to ratify it failed by a margin of just 0.3% (50.2% against, 49.8% for).

The economics prize was awarded jointly to professors of economics Oliver Hart (from Harvard) and Bengt Holmström (from Princeton) “for their contributions to contract theory.” Contract theory is the study of how economic actors compose contractual agreements, generally in the presence of incomplete information; it would take a whole other article to explain their specific contributions, and we’re running out of room here, so let’s just say it involved a lot of really complicated-looking math and leave it at that.