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Standing Tall

Their efforts to herald a better future earns them the most wanted Prefix, ‘nobel laureate’, to their names. edex demystifies their work

Published: 20th October 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th October 2014 12:06 AM   |  A+A-

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Many of us hadn’t heard of social activist Kailash Satyarthi until the news came that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Going by the cliched, ‘better late than never’, here’s a chance to know more about the laureates and their feats that got them the coveted medals. Be it super-resolved fluorescence microscopy or the applications of LED, there’s no reason to get lost, for we present expert speak

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Chemistry

Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, William Moerner of Stanford University in California, US, and Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, US, bagged the medal for Chemistry “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”. Their work has been recognised for techniques that allowed scientists to peer inside nerve cells, track proteins that cause disease and watch cells divide in living organisms. The trio has been commended for laying the foundations for powerful new microscopes that are used to study tissues at the level of single molecules.

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NOBEL--2.jpgProf Sunil Bhand, Dean, KK Birla Goa campus, says, “Earlier it was impossible to see features at the scale of billionths of a metre. The trio, in particular Eric Betzig, wasn’t happy with this limitation. What they essentially did was to have two laser beams fitted to the “near-field microscope” (a type of microscope) where one beam will allow light and another one will block it so that the time to study light passing through is enough to capture objects of smaller size such as 200 nanometers.”

Calling the discovery a breakthrough, Prof Bhand adds that “now that lowermost molecules; i.e, ones of 200 nanometers or even less can be studied, our understanding of diseases can be greatly improved and we can now rework the way we were going about the repair process. Understanding of minute microbes and viruses will lead to the betterment of human life.”

Physics

Shuji Nakamura of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan, won the Physics prize for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”.

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NOBEL--3.jpgSays Prof Prem B Bisht, who teaches Physics at IIT-Madras, “Isaac Newton showed in the 1660s that the seven colours from a glass prism are not produced due to the glass, but are components of the white sun light.  The white colour can be obtained by mixing red, green and blue colours.  In the 1980s, light emitting diodes (LEDs) could provide red and green light. The development of bright “blue” LEDs by Nakamura, Akasaki and Amano in 1990s contributed to a very efficient light source - white LED- now found in our devices like modern flash lights, LED  TVs and room lights. The social impact of this research is so strong that even with a tiny battery, remote villages in many countries can be lit , which fulfils the ‘usefulness for human life’ standard that Mr Nobel wanted to see.”

Dissecting the duo’s work, he says, “The light emitting diodes essentially consist of p-n junctions, which are semiconductors used in various applications. In order to understand the laureates’ work, it is essential to understand these p-n junctions. With p-n junction, we are able to recombine electrons of ‘n’ type with the host ‘p’ to produce energy or, in this case, colour, which is a more appropriate term. The colour that is emitted is in the form of infrared, visible or ultraviolet. The problem that Shuji Nakamura and others encountered was that they were not able to reduce the gap between energy bands (different energy released leads to different colours. For example, a 2.5 electron volt gives green colour, three gives violet and six gives deep ultraviolet). Nakamura experimented with heating gallium nitride, a semiconductor used in bright light-emitting diodes (diodes are two-terminal electronic components and allow electric current to pass in one direction). In gallium nitride, n type fabricated easily while p didn’t. By heating gallium, he found that the resistability of the material fell down and thinned by six orders of magnitude (for example the thickness from 106  fell to 102). Finally, we could get good p type electrons too.”

Medicine

British-American scientist John O’Keefe and married couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser from Norway have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the brain’s “inner GPS”. The “place cells” and “grid cells” they discovered make it possible for our brains to work out where we are. In the citation, the Nobel committee has said that their discoveries show how the brain creates “a map of the space surrounding us and how we can navigate our way through a complex environment.” A little trivia for the interested: May-Britt Moser is the 11th woman to win the medicine Nobel since the award was instituted in 1901.

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Says Dr V Kanagasabai, former Dean, Madras Medical College and Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, Chennai, “It is very important to dig deeper into the brain’s positioning system, and I am glad the trio have made inroads into the same. It could help treat patients of Alzheimer’s better. Now with this new age brain mapping, we could probe into what’s causing the memory loss and possibly correct the same. By researching on neural codes for cognition, the laureates have revolutionised cognitive neuroscience. With India having the second largest number of elderly people in the world after China, this is good news for us. We have a lot of Alzheimer’s patients too.”

literature

The Nobel Committee decided to award the Literature Prize to French author Patrick Modiano for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” in Rue des Boutiques obscures (translated as “Missing People” in English) and his other works. The 11th Frenchman to win the Literature prize, Modiano has authored over two dozen books and several screenplays. The 69-year-old is also the recipient of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Some of Modiano’s works include La Place de l’étoile, Dimanches d’août, La Petite Bijou and Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.

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NOBEL-4.jpgSays Professor Eric Cobast, Chair of Philosophy and Literature at INSEEC Business School, France, who has written more than 20 books on culture, “This is the 15th Nobel Prize in Literature for France, which is a record. No other country has won these many Nobels in the domain. What is interesting is that Modiano’s win follows that of JMG Le Clézio, who won his Nobel in Literature in 2008 for his works that included Le Proces-Verbal, Le Jour ou Beaumont fit connaissance avec sa douleur, Le Livre des fuites and Le déluge besides others. We can say that the style of these two authors belongs to two opposite poles. While Le Clézio offers exuberance, Patrick Modiano is minimalist and simple. He brings us to the essence, to the source. Le Clézio’s work gives us the taste of adventure, of the exotic. Modiano’s Nobel winning work is intimate and melancholic and takes us to the after war years of the 1950s in Paris. The authors, thus, in a way complement and complete each other. And from an external point of view, it is interesting to see how these two completely different styles are linked, thereby representing the richness of French literature.”

peace

In a first, an Indian, Kailash Satyarthi, and a Pakistani, Malala Yousafzai, share the Nobel Peace prize for their efforts to make the lives of children happy, the way it should be. Malala has been an advocate of children’s rights to education and is, herself, a survivor of a murder attempt by the Taliban. Kailash through his organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, formed in 1980 when he was barely 26, has saved over 80,000 children of 144 countries from child labour. A firm believer in preaching philosophy, Kailash, as a youngster, took a pledge for the betterment of children, having lost his father at a young age. Kailash is also involved with the Global March against Child Labour movement and the International Center on Child Labor and Education. He has served on the board of Center for Victims of Torture, International Labor Rights Fund and International Cocoa Foundation. After Mother Teresa (1979), he is the second Indian recipient of the Peace prize and the fifth Indian to be awarded a Nobel. He enjoys cooking in his free time.

At 17, Malala is the youngest recipient of the coveted prize. She is an advocate of education and women’s rights in her native Swat Valley in Pakistan, where her family owned a chain of schools. Malala and her family had to relocate to Birmingham, England, after a Taliban gunman shot her on October 9, 2012. After surviving the near-fatal attack, Malala became an international figure of prominence, with TIME magazine featuring her on its cover and including her in the list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World”. She is also the winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. The youngster initiated the Malala Fund, which is working towards empowering girls.

Both Satyarthi and Malala have vowed to use their cash awards for their initiatives.

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“Kailash to me is the single game changer in helping eradicate child labour,” begins Sunitha Krishnan, who has known the Nobel laureate for more than two decades. A gang-rape survivor, Sunitha runs Prajwala, an NGO that rehabilitates sex-trafficked victims and puts them back on their feet. Her anger at India not recognising Kailash’s efforts was palpable when edex caught up with her over the phone. “I must say that this recognition has come late. The public and media are running behind Kailash now, but where were you guys all these years?” she asks.

NOBEL-6.jpgCalming down, she speaks about Kailash’s work. “Kailash belongs to the tribe of those who don’t make noise just for the sake of it. To me, he’s not a social activist but a social entrepreneur, for he always strategises. An example of that is the number of public litigations he has filed in a bid to drag the State and the system to court. There are a lot of amazing people working for a cause, but this is one man who has done significant work in the field too. That is a true strength of an activist.”

Still outraged about the lack of recognition till now for the great impact of his humanitarian work, she says, “I am very happy for his Nobel. Despite the people of his land having ignored him by choice, an international jury has brought him into the limelight. Not that he needs or wants it. It is sad that mostly Kailash, myself and others have been honoured outside of the country more than here. We are struggling to keep at our efforts and, frankly, financial support could really take us places.”

Economics

Jean Tirole of Toulouse University, France, won the Economics medal for his work on market power and regulation, and his work on taming powerful firms. He is the second French man to win a Nobel this year after Patrick Modiano for Literature. The Nobel committee has commended Tirole in the citation as “one of the most influential economists of our time”. The committee also said it chose an area of economics that has become increasingly important, as Governments have privatised former public monopolies such as water, electricity and telecoms and Tirole’s work has been adopted by competition regulators around the world.

The judges said that “(Tirole) has made important theoretical research contributions in a number of areas, but most of all he has clarified how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms.”

The panel said Tirole had shown the “deep and essential differences” between regulating companies in different sectors, such as telecoms companies or banks. Imposing caps on prices could reduce the influence of monopolies in some sectors, but not in others, the judges said, pointing to Tirole’s use of game theory and contract theory to develop competition analysis.

Tirole, 61, is said to have covered a wide range of areas including pay, the banking industry and credit card fees, in years of theoretical research. Not in favour of the bonus culture, he remarked, in a paper he published last year, “Bonus culture that takes over the workplace, generates distorted decisions and significant efficiency losses, particularly in the long run”.

Addressing a press conference, Tirole remarked: “Banking is a very hard thing to regulate and we economists and academics have to do more work on this.”

It has also been 25 years since a French economist won a Nobel after Maurice Allais in 1988. Only one woman has ever won an economics Nobel — Elinor Ostram in 2009.

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Helping us understand Tirole’s work and its relevance is Nathalie Janson, who teaches Economics at NEOMA Business School, France. “Tirole has always loved to play with asymmetric information, which essentially says whichever party in a transaction has more/better information is the one that fares better. Tirole, a micro economist, tried to measure the impact of asymmetric information and set about to determine its consequences. He found that companies that have market power could really put that advantage to best use and stop small and middle-sized firms from thriving. This is why he recommends regulations, in particular in the banking domain but in other industries as well. Most of Tirole’s work or that of any other economist is purely theoretical and it is up to the industry to work on damage plans.”

Janson believes that Tirole’s engineering background might have helped him use game theory, about strategic decision-making. Adding to Tirole’s findings, Janson says, “Asymmetric information could have negative outcomes. We are in an age of network economy where domains in internet, electricity, thrive and therefore regulations have to be put in place.” With respect to Tirole’s stand on bonuses, she says, “Banks adopt the incentive method to deliver capital. But it is not healthy and there is no equality among employers or even across other banks.”

Dope on the Nobel

The story goes that Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel built his fortune from his 355 inventions, the most famous being dynamite. The will of Nobel established the Nobel Prize in 1901. It is considered to be one of the most prestigious awards to be bestowed in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine or Physiology and Peace, with Economics being added in 1968. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and the Economic Sciences; the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awards the Prize in Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy grants the Prize in Literature; while the Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The Peace Prize is the only one given away in Oslo, Norway, while the rest are awarded in Sweden. The prize carries an award of 8 million Swedish Krona (`7 crore) and is not to be shared between more than three people. Except for the Peace prize, the Nobel Committee sends nominations to about 3,000 individuals, who are often academics. Peace prize nominations are sent to Governments, previous awardees, international courts and such. Selection is done with the help of experts in relevant fields. Details at www.nobelprize.org. Do watch out for the several Nobel Prize themed events coming up in Delhi, Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai, soon. These will be seminars, university lectures and round-table discussions with past laureates.

shilpa.vasudevan@newindianexpress.com



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