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The Krypton Factor: Nobel Prizes


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?

Smartphone Dispute: Expect an Apple-eal


Last week, Apple managed to win a patent claim against Samsung, for the infringement of “design concepts”, first seen in their 2007 iPhone and allegedly copied in subsequently released touch-screen Samsung smartphones.

Firstly, what were the claims? Well (from http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/aug/22/apple-samsung):

Apple says Samsung infringed the following “design” patents
• covering the front of the iPhone, with its system for displaying text and icons
• back of the iPhone
• design of iPad
• iPhone graphical user interface
• “bounce-back” or “rubber band” functionality when the user tries to scroll past the end of a page or list
• ‘tap-to-zoom’ feature on photos, articles, etc.
• detecting whether the user is scrolling or making the “pinch to expand” and other gesture motions

All of the above were ruled in favour of Apple. However it raises an interesting point – just how much of the above is intrinsic or near-intrinsic in the design of a touchscreen phone? In order for a patent to be granted, an design must be new, have a practical use and have an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge and experience in the subject (http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/patent/p-about/p-whatis.htm).

It surprises me that Apple have managed to win on all of these claims. The reason the iPhone did so well in 2007 was due to the incredibly intuitive nature of the interface – most of the features of which still exist in the most recent iterations. To avoid infringing patents, Samsung would have had to make their interface difficult to use and less commercially viable.

I’m not entirely sure how a grid of app icons is a clever design feature worth protecting, but outside of the interface issues though, the “design of the back” is also under debate. It’s a flat shiny surface with an Apple logo on! Unless Samsung are selling tablets with Apple logos all over it, where’s the conflict?


Most ridiculous of all, Apple has managed to successfully sue Samsung both for “double tap to zoom” and “pinch to zoom”. You could argue all day regarding which of these is the more obvious one to include, but if Samsung isn’t allowed to use either of these alternatives, I’d be extremely interested to hear what the more intuitive and streamlined design is that they should have used?

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Samsung are expected to appeal and of course, HTC and other manufacturers are locked in similar legal disputes. But take a modern iPhone back to 2006 and give it to a random and see how difficult they find it. I am firmly of the belief that the biggest compliment to Apple avaliable is the fact that it’s almost impossible to make an intuitively useable touchscreen phone without copying the iPhone to some extent.