Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Krypton Factor: Nobel Prizes

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The Nobel Prizes are a highly respected institution, started over 100 years ago to reward work carried out in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. Along with the later added Economics prize, these awards represent the very pinnacle of these fields, coming with an 8million Kroner prize and lifelong status in the small group of Nobel Laureates.

This year’s Nobel Prizes have been announced this week, with a number of surprise inclusions. The Peace Prize was given, unusually, to an organisation, with the committee praising the EU:

“for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.

Somewhat oddly, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been given to a piece of work that in my opinion, fits far more neatly in the Medicine category: awarded jointly to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors”. This work has vital implications when attempting to understand the mechanism of drugs-cell interactions, specifically how a drug or hormone contacting the outside of a cell can influence the biochemical processes within the cell. Technically Biochemistry maybe, but the progress made by this discovery has had a far greater impact in the medical world.

Nobel Prizes are awarded annually, usually to recognise a significant individual piece of work. Credit can be shared by up to 3 people, but the rules prohibit prizes being awarded posthumously. Since a few early awards were given for science that was later proven incorrect, the Nobel prize committees are now traditionally extremely cautious when considering new research, preferring to wait significant lengths of time until the research has become accepted by the majority of scientists carrying out similar work.

This combination of caution and dogmatic insistence on having a live recipient to give a speech has led to a few historic embarrassments. Most significantly, Ghandi, one of the names most synonymous with peace was never given the Nobel Peace Prize as result of his assassination taking place weeks before winners could be announced.

Rosalind Franklin is another name who has been missed by the committee – In this case, her work provided the base for the discovery and understanding of the structure of DNA.  Her key lecture took place in 1951, the publication of the Crick-Watson model of DNA was in 1953, but due to the Nobel’s policy of ensuring work has become accepted, the Nobel Prize was not awarded until 1962. Her death in 1958 led to her being excluded from the Nobel Prize, despite it being widely accepted that her work and the data she produced was key to this discovery.

Particularly within the scientific awards, this seems a very strange approach to me. Nobel Prizes have always emphasised discoveries over inventions – and a key part of the scientific method is the encouragement of new hypotheses. While rewarding work that is later shown to be incorrect may be somewhat embarrassing, surely missing out on the opportunity to reward truly great achievements is worse?

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Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

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3D printer technology is the stuff of Sci-Fi, allowing complicated products to be built up layer-by-layer. While research is still underway both to improve practical problems and increase the range of materials that can be printed with, the technology is already out there and being used on a daily basis.

At the very top end, machines exist and work in a way very similar to a standard 2D laserjet printer, adding very small quantities of powder to an area and fusing them in place with a laser. This version of the technology allows for metals and very strong plastic structures to be created, although currently at very limited sizes and over a number of hours or even days. At the other end of the scale, weaker plastics and plasters can be placed down in a liquid “blob” form and allowed to set. While these machines are considerably cheaper (often under £1000), the final products are often not as intricate and definitely not as strong.

This article suggests one of the most exciting possible applications for this technology, providing one more step along the road towards Mars (or even revisiting the Moon). Closer to home, 3D printers provide a much greater degree of flexibility to industrial production of a wide range of materials – while today it would take a significant amount of time to alter a production process from one component to another, with a suite of 3D printers installed, it is simply a case of loading up a different, pre-installed program and pressing “Go”.

Unfortunately, as with most things, there is a down side to this technology as well. A Texan student has recently been arrested as a result of his attempts to design and distribute via the internet a handgun that can be printed. While there are significant flaws in his stated aims – he claims people will be able to print the gun on entry-level machines, which, given the materials these printers use, would probably cause more harm to the people firing the guns than the intended victims – the possibility of doing exactly this on a small scale cannot be far away.

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Even in the USA where gun ownership is considered a fundamental right by many, restrictions and limits have long been enforced and any attempts to get around these regulations are going to be stamped down on. The limited number of 3D printers capable of producing a working pistol (let alone anything worse) makes this relatively enforceable at the moment, but if the technology takes off, this could become a more common story. Police so far have stated they will attempt to have any schematics instantly removed from the internet, but recent battles over music, video and software downloading websites have demonstrated that this simply doesn’t work in real life.

There is not necessarily an easy solution to this problem, but the benefits of 3D printer technology can’t be ignored either. It must be tempting to instantly attempt to restrict sales and monitor use of these machines, but the scope of that project would be incredibly wasteful. Anyone attempting to purchase and stockpile weapons should be found and prosecuted, regardless of where the illegal items came from or what technology produced them.