Nobel Prizes for Noble People: A History of the our favourite Nobel Prize Winners
Science writers discuss their favourite Nobel Prize winners and the influence that their work has had on them.
John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yosh (Chemistry 2019)
Nobel prizes don’t just go to people who have invented something new; they go to people who have changed the way we live. That’s just what John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino did by developing lithium-ion batteries.
Rechargeable batteries were around in the 70’s, however they couldn’t store as much energy and were much heavier than their non-renewable counterparts. Faced also by the global oil crisis, Whittingham attempted to develop a better source of energy which was not reliant on fossil fuels. Goodenough followed up his work, and managed to double the voltage that had been produced by batteries previously. Yoshino then created the first safe commercial battery in 1985.
Entering the market in 1991, their rechargeable, lightweight batteries are still used to power electrical objects such as mobile phones, electric cars and solar panels. When Yoshino was asked how it felt to receive the prize, he humbly said “Amazing, surprising”, and joked that it “doesn’t make much difference” to receive it near the end of his life. However, to the rest of the world it does.
Now, more than ever, this type of ingenuity in the face of the climate crisis is needed, with their work inspiring people from all forms of life including myself.
Barbara McClintock (Physiology or Medicine 1983)
In 1983, Barbara McClintock received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. She remains the only woman ever to receive this prize unshared. However, this reward for her work was more of an appeasement rather than a timely recognition.
McClintock had published her Nobel-winning work in 1931, over half a century earlier. She and doctoral student Harriet Baldwin Creighton had published a paper theorising that genetic material could be exchanged between homologous chromosomes. These mobile elements are called transposons and make up 45% of the human genome. It is also the mechanism behind sex cells swapping DNA to create unique combinations for the next generations.
Many of her contemporaries considered her idea too radical at the time. Yet it must also be wondered whether there was some gender bias in the decision; since 1901, there have been 825 male and 47 female Nobel laureates.
Whether there was genuinely a bias, we will likely never know. Regardless, this Nobel prize can serve as a warning for us all. For most of human history, 50% of people were drastically underrepresented. We need to make sure that this does not happen again. We can only hope that misogyny and misandry become phrases of the past.
Tom Dormer, Online Science Editor:
Marie Curie (Physics 1903 and Chemistry 1911)
For most people, winning a Nobel Prize would be enough motivation to research something different or take an early retirement. This was not the case for Marie Curie. Despite having already been awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, her dedication to her work on radioactive materials meant she became the only Nobel laureate for both Physics and Chemistry (an achievement which will likely never be repeated).
Curie’s first prize acknowledged her initial work in investigating radioactivity. This mainly involved examining substances and minerals for signs of radioactivity, building on the work of German physicist Roentgen and French physicist Becquerel. In 1898, Curie and her spouse, Pierre, discovered the radioactive elements Polonium and Radium which were both found in the mineral pitchblende. Both these elements were more radioactive than Uranium.
Following their discovery of the two new elements, Curie continued to study and document their properties long after Pierre’s untimely death (much to the opposition of France’s male scientists). In 1910, she successfully extracted Radium as a pure metal, earning her a second Nobel Prize.
The impact her work had on the scientific community was immeasurable. Her work has informed today’s understanding of the radioactive compounds used in medical procedures and power plants. Without her contribution, the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine would not be where they are now.
Her work also continues to inspire women into STEM subjects in a (still) male dominated environment. One of her biggest admirers was her eldest daughter, Irene, who in 1935 continued the family tradition and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry as she followed her parents’ work.