Nobel Prizes – The lure of the exotic and esoteric

imageIf “wonderful discoveries happening in biology” had acted as a trigger for Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan to switch from physics to chemistry, the nearly matured and well-established field of chemistry failed to enthuse Yoshinori Ohsumi, and he shifted to biology. Autophagy — a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components — was known long before he ventured into the field, but it was his paradigm-shifting research that revealed the importance of this fundamental process that comes into play every other minute. His seminal work helped reveal that vacuoles in yeast and lysosomes in human cells are not just garbage bins but recyclers and fuel producers. Right from the stage of embryo development to countering the negative effects of ageing, autophagy plays an important role. As in the case of many Laureates, Dr. Ohsumi’s initial years were more than frustrating, but he prevailed. His approach to science is an antithesis to what is generally seen in today’s young researchers, and that precisely is what helped him break new ground and bag the Nobel Prize this year — only the third Laureate since 2010 to not share the Prize for Physiology or Medicine with others.

But lysosomes and other cellular bodies would be severely impacted if molecular machines in our body failed to work synchronously to carry materials around in a cell and for several other functions. Though not as elegant as the molecular machines at work inside us, the work done by Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa, the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has set the ball rolling in the endeavour to realise Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman’s dream more than 50 years ago of building very small machines. Though very primitive at this point in time, science will see one of the biggest revolutions when the cogs and cranks of their work are finally put together to build machines on a nanoscale; nanomachines will find applications in diverse fields, from medicine to electronics. Much like the nanomachines of tomorrow, David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz’s theoretical explanations for exotic states of materials by using topological concepts will give birth to a completely different class of products. This year’s Nobel-winning physicists, they predicted the exotic behaviour that other scientists later found at the surface of materials and inside very thin layers, such as superconductivity and magnetism in extremely thin materials. Physicists are now looking beyond the ordinary to find new and exotic phases of matter that change in a stepwise fashion.

Published in The Hindu on October 8, 2016