As a brief interruption in the "war against terrorism", "air safety" and
"security vs. privacy" discussions, I think we shall take a moment to
congratulate some individuals who have tirelessly worked towards goals
that few people could even understand the significance of. Many of them
work in relative obscurity, but their work will ultimately benefit us all.
Of course, countless people could be said to fit that description, but the
Nobel laureates are among the most successful of these and have made
significant contributions to their fields. The full list of laureates
since 1901 and descriptions of their discoveries or achievements can be found in
the Nobel e-Museum. I have taken the liberty to summarize the work
that earned the 2001 laureates their prizes, for your reading pleasure :-)
Physics: Eric A. Cornell, Carl E. Wieman, and Wolfgang Ketterle
These chaps were the first to achieve "Bose-Einstein Condensation in dilute gases" in 1995.
Apparently, this is something physicists have been striving to do
since 1924, when Bose and Einstein first developed the theory. When Bose-Einstein
condensation (BEC) occurs, all particles are in the same quantum state, the one
with the lowest energy. This requires near zero K temperatures.
BEC is expected to be of use in areas such as lithography, nanotechnology, holography,
and precision measurements of natural phenomena.
Chemistry: William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, and K. Barry Sharpless
These fine chemists have been working on chirally catalysed reactions.
Chiral molecules appear in two forms, one being the "mirror image" of
the other. Pharmaceuticals often consist of such molecules, but it is
imperative that only the right form is used, the mirror form can be
very harmful. These laureates have developed catalyst molecules that
can be used to make sure only the desired form of a chiral is
produced. This method is, for instance, used in the production of antibiotics
and heart medicines.
Medicine: Leland H. Hartwell, R. Timothy Hunt, and Paul M. Nurse
The medicine laureates have discovered "key regulators of the cell cycle".
Basically, the cell goes through different states during its lifetime (such
as growth, DNA synthesis and replication, and cell division).
The laureates have discovered the molecular mechanisms regulating this
cycle, which includes control over when the cell is entering the next
state of its cycle. The work is important for the field of cancer
diagnostics and may help produce better cancer treatment in the future.
Literature: Sir V.S. Naipaul
Sir Naipaul is a British writer, born on Trinidad, with Indian ancestry.
Naipaul has written numerous novels and short-stories, both fiction and
documentary. His earliest works are about the post-colonial West Indies.
He has also written several documentary books on India, and some very
critical works about Muslim fundamentalism in south-east Asia.
Peace: United Nations and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan has devoted most of his life to work within the United
Nations. He is credited with having made more efficient use of the limited
resources of the U.N. and risen to new challenges such as AIDS and
terrorism. (The motivation for this prize is very short.)
The Nobel Prize is not only about recognition, the laureates also get some
cash. This year the laureates in each category get SEK 10 million
(about USD 1 million) to share.
Note 1: The Nobel Foundation also administers a prize in economics,
"The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,"
which is usually included among the Nobel prizes. But it is, in fact, not
a Nobel prize, which is why I decided not to discuss it here.
Note 2: Someone other that me might have noticed the total lack of
women among the laureates this year. Almaz.com has the (amazingly short) list of
women laureates throughout the years.