MCS faculty explain 2014 Nobel Prizes at panel discussion

Alison Barth is a professor of biological sciences. (credit: Alison Barth) Alison Barth is a professor of biological sciences. (credit: Alison Barth) Marcel Bruchez is a professor of biological sciences and chemistry. (credit: Marcel Bruchez) Marcel Bruchez is a professor of biological sciences and chemistry. (credit: Marcel Bruchez) Randall Feenstra is a professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon. (credit: Randall Feenstra) Randall Feenstra is a professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon. (credit: Randall Feenstra)

Every year, six Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements in medicine and physiology, physics, chemistry, literature, economics, and peace initiatives. These are some of the highest awards that a professional can receive in recognition for their work, documenting projects that often took decades to finish. However, if you were asked to explain why some of these titans in their field received the credit that they did, would you be able to?

Last Monday, the Carnegie Mellon University Lecture Series, the Triple Helix, and the Mellon College of Science hosted a panel discussion in Doherty Hall featuring Carnegie Mellon professors who explained what made the discoveries of the Nobel Prizes from 2014 special.

First, Alison Barth, associate professor in biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon, spoke about the prize for physiology and medicine. This year, the prize was awarded to Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe, three neuroscientists who got their claim to fame through research in memory and spatial navigation.

According to her explanation, the three scientists received the Prize for their work published in 2005 which described how space is represented in the brain. Working with mice, they were able to track the activity of specific neurons in the mice’s brains. What they saw was that as the mice ran around randomly inside a box, the neurons in the hippocampus, an area highly associated with spatial navigation, would fire in a grid-like formation. No matter how the mouse walked, this grid remained true.

Barth joked that every time a scientist sees something with some semblance of a pattern, they get excited. That was the case here.

The three scientists used this basis to explain that there are certain cells in our brain, called place cells, that keep track of our physical surroundings by maintaining some sort of grid.

Next, Marcel Bruchez, associate professor of biological sciences and chemistry at Carnegie Mellon, spoke about the prize awarded in the field of chemistry.

Providing a backstory to the reason this year’s chemistry Prize was awarded, Bruchez explained how an early 20th century scientist named Ernst Abbe declared that the best possible resolution that our microscopes would be able to pick up is 200 nanometers.

Resolution refers to the ability of a microscope to delineate between two points. This limit was called Abbe’s Law of Limiting Resolution. However, in the early 2000s, Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner broke this law.

They were interested in solving this problem because a resolution of 200 nanometers is not sufficient for modern research. Since many of the molecules in our cells are on the order of less than 10 nanometers, 200 nanometers simply cannot give enough information. The three professors were able to find a way past this limit, all the way down to a resolution of 48 nanometers.

They did this by exploiting the fact that they could observe very small points of a picture at a very high resolution. Once they worked that out, they propagated the area of observation over the entire sample until the entire piece was observed in the high resolution.

Finally, Randall Feenstra, professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, explained the Nobel Prize in physics: The research of Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura, which was published around 20 years ago and which was centered on finding a way to make blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

These blue LEDs were an important discovery because they enabled a low-energy source of white light. Also, their work resulted in LEDs that could omit red, green, and blue. This means that they could be used to display any color necessary now.

The problem was that in the past, when people attempted to make a blue LED, they were unable to create one that would last long and wouldn’t deteriorate. On a basic level, an LED is made by taking some element and forming a crystal out of it. In the past, a specific element was used that allowed for kinks to form and errors to be replicated, deteriorating the light. However, the three scientists used the compound gallium nitride (GaN), which filled in the kinks in the crystal to ensure that the light worked.

Turnout for the event was quite large, as the entire lecture hall was filled. The university plans to make these talks an annual event, in order to continue to provide students the opportunity to better understand the science behind these awards.