Self-eating yeast, bagels and tiny robots: The 2016 Nobel Prizes in science

What do baked goods have to do with the Nobel Prize? Science columnist Torah Kachur explains.
Thors Hans Hansson used a bagel, pretzel and a cinnamon bun to illustrate his explanations while announcing the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Nobel Prizes in science were announced this week, and the winning achievements are fascinating — featuring self-eating yeasts, tiny machines and a concept in physics that was explained to me with a doughnut, a cinnamon bun and a pretzel.  

The Nobel Prize in Physics

You might be wondering: what do these treats have to do with physics?

Well, the physics prize this year went to three researchers who focus on topology. In basic terms, topology is the study of shape. Put even more simply, it's the study of holes and whether or not an object has a hole in it. 

That's where the connection to baked goods comes in. Think of a pretzel, with two holes, a doughnut with one hole and a cinnamon bun with no holes. From a topological perspective, and the math it takes to understand its shape, the human body is basically a doughnut: a solid thing with a hole down the middle.

So, what the winners of this year's physics prize — David Thouless, Michael Kosterlitz and Duncan Haldane — did was describe not only the shape of objects, but also how shape influences the movement of electrons.
Professor Thors Hans Hansson mid-demonstration, after revealing the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics. (Anders Wiklund/TT/ AP)

Imagine you're an ant on the surface of a doughnut: you're wandering around but you don't really see that it's a doughnut. You don't see that if you're walking straight you come back to the same spot. 

That's where quantum physics comes in. Unlike the ant, a quantum particle would be aware of the true shape of the doughnut. I asked Neil Turok, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, to further explain:

"A quantum particle on a doughnut would be aware of the fact that there's one long direction, one short direction, and if you go right around the doughnut you come back to where you started. It's this 'non-locality of quantum-ness' which brings about the bizarre behaviours that [the researchers] realized."

Thouless, Kosterlitz and Haldane's theoretical research has been hailed as groundbreaking, and could have some very practical applications in the fields of electronics and quantum computing. 

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

The prize in medicine went to Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in autophagy, which means, quite literally, to eat oneself. In cellular terms, it refers to the act of recycling elements of the cell as they age.

Ohsumi's work is focused on yeast. He was fascinated by the process where, in times of stress, a cell recycles parts of itself to control for damage. Cells clean up dead or dying organelles all the time — but autophagy can recycle those organelles too.

Autophagy was once considered a mundane part of cellular housekeeping. But research has led to a new understanding that it plays a role in all kinds of important physiological processes.

Because the cellular recycling process can clear away clumps of proteins that we know can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, there's hope that better a understanding of autophagy will lead to treatments for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. 

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 

The chemistry prize this year went to three scientists who developed what have been described as "the world's smallest machines". 

Nanomachines are exactly what they sound like: machines that have been built on the nanoscale. Essentially, they're chemicals about a billionth of a metre in size. Molecular machines already exist in our cells — they are the proteins that make our cells work.

Synthesizing this same idea in an artificially designed system has been very difficult but three chemists, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa were able to develop molecules with controllable movements. 

Their research has led to an entire field of nanomachines that have the potential to transform medicine. From delivering targeted drug therapies to producing artificial muscles, the sky is the limit.  

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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