Since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace efforts. Internationally, the Nobel Prize is considered to be the highest distinction in the various disciplines. The prize, which was instituted by Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel, is to be distributed to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”, according to his will. Since 2001, the prize amount, which is derived from the income in interests on the Foundation’s investments, is set to 10 million Swedish kronor per category. To date, the following scientists from the Max Planck Society have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
Stefan W. Hell
This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three researchers: Stefan W. Hell (Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen), Eric Betzig (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and William E. Moerner (Standford University) in honour for their contributions to nano-optics, which have broken long-held beliefs about the resolution limits in optical microscopy and imaging.
In 2007, Gerhard Ertl was honoured for his work on chemical processes on solid surfaces. His studies formed the basis for our understanding of industrial catalysts and catalytic processes. This means that today we are able to understand very different processes, such as the function of fuel cells or of catalysts in cars. Chemical reactions on catalytic surfaces play a vital role in many industrial operations, such as the production of artificial fertilizers.
In 2005, Theodor W. Hänsch and the Americans Roy J. Glauber and John L. Hall were honoured for their research on spectroscopy. Hänsch and Hall received the coveted prize “for their contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique”. The scientists developed an optical frequency comb generator, which made it possible, for the first time, to count the number of light oscillations per second accurately. Such optical frequency measurements may be million-fold more accurate than determining the light wavelengths using conventional spectroscopy.
Biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard received the distinction together with Edward B. Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus for their research on the genetic control of early embryonic development. Using the egg of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus identified and classified genes that determine the body plan and the formation of body segments. They developed the gradient theory, which describes how gradients in the egg and in the embryo control the gene expression, drawing parallels in embryonic development between insects and vertebrates.
The work of Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland in atmospheric chemistry has largely contributed to explaining the chemical processes that cause ozone to form and decompose. They demonstrated, among other things, how sensitive the ozone layer is to the anthropogenic emission of air pollutants.
Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann were awarded the Nobel Prize “for their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells”. They were the first to prove that the cell envelope contains tiny ion channels which regulate many functions in the body. Sakmann and Neher developed the Patch Clamp Technique, which they used to study electric signals and the opening and closing of excitable cells, as well as to explore the transmission of signals within the cell and between cells.
In 1988, Robert Huber, Hartmut Michel and Johann Deisenhofer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their joint studies and determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre. This allowed them to gain fundamental insights about photosynthesis – a process that is a condition for life on earth. The scientists were the first to succeed in unravelling the makeup of a membrane-bound protein, revealing the structure of the molecule, atom by atom. The protein is taken from a bacterium which, like green plants and algae, uses light energy from the sun to build organic substances.
1988 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry
One half of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Ernst Ruska for his “fundamental work in electron optics and for the design of the first electron microscope” (the other half was awarded jointly to Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, IBM Research Laboratory, Zurich, Switzerland, for their design of the scanning tunnelling microscope). Ernst Ruska’s invention is one of the most important of this century. Its development began with work carried out by Ruska as a young student at the Berlin Technical University at the end of the 1920s. He found that a magnetic coil could act as a lens that could be used to obtain an image of an object irradiated with electrons. By coupling two such electron lenses, he produced a primitive microscope. Ruska very quickly improved various details and in 1933 was able to construct the first electron microscope with a performance clearly superior to that of conventional light microscopes. The scientist subsequently contributed actively to the development of commercial mass-produced electron microscopes which rapidly found application within many areas of science.
Klaus von Klitzing
Klaus von Klitzing was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the “quantised Hall effect”. He discovered that the unit for electric resistance (ohm) is accurately determined by Planck’s energy quantum h and the charge of the electrons e, and therefore constitutes a universal natural constant. The von Klitzing constant is a universal standard and highly accurate means of measuring resistance.
1984 - Nobel Prize in Medicine
Georges Köhler and César Milstein developed a technique for the production of monoclonal antibodies. The Hybridoma technique is still used in many important applications in medicine and science. For instance, monoclonal antibodies are used for active immunisation and for standard tests to determine, for example, blood groups. Köhler and Milstein shared the prize with Niels K. Jerne who was honoured for his “theories concerning the specificity in development and control of the immune system”.
1973 - Nobel Prize in Medicine
Konrad Lorenz, Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen were awarded the Nobel Prize jointly “for their discoveries concerning the organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns”. Lorenz combined his observations of animals in a concise physiological theory of instinctive activities, thereby paving the way for comparing the behaviour of different species. More consistently than scientists before him, Lorenz focused on two genetic particularities in his work: innate triggers of behaviour patterns (“key stimuli” and “innate releasing mechanisms”) and an early critical period of development in various animal species, in which an “imprinting process” elicits an irreversible behaviour pattern.
1967 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Manfred Eigen shared the Nobel Prize with Ronald George Wreyford Norrish and George Porter “for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy”. Eigen developed the relaxation methods for the study of faster reactions in the range of nanoseconds. The common characteristic of this method is that a chemical system in equilibrium is disturbed by singular (pressure, temperature, electromagnetic field) or periodic (sound waves) fast influences. This will cause small changes in concentration which vanish (comparatively slowly, given their smallness) as the equilibrium is re-established. Eigen developed these relaxation measurements to unsurpassed mastery and thus solved important questions in biochemistry, such as that of the control of enzymatic activities, which in turn regulate many metabolic processes in the cell.
1964 - Nobel Prize in Medicine
Konrad Bloch and Feodor Lynen received the Nobel Prize jointly “for their discoveries concerning the mechanism and regulation of the cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism”. By succeeding in isolating activated acetic acid (acetyl coenzyme A) in yeast, Lynen established the basis for clinical research on lipid metabolism disorders, for example in Diabetes mellitus, or in the onset of atherosclerosis.
1963 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta “for their discoveries in the field of the chemistry and technology of high polymers”. The discovery of organometallic compound catalysts made of aluminium and titanium, the Ziegler-Natta catalysts, transformed both chemistry as a science and the chemical industry and its technology. Using the catalysts, ethylene could, for the first time, be polymerised into polyethylene at atmospheric pressure. Until then, this had only been possible under extreme conditions (a pressure of 1000 at and temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius). Today, a global annual production of several billion tonnes makes polyethylene one of the most commonly used plastics. Due to its sought-after properties, it is very versatile.
1954 - Nobel Prize in Physics
Walter Bothe received the Nobel Prize for the coincidence method and his discoveries made therewith. He shared the prize with Max Born. The coincidence measurements proved the penetration of extraterrestrial radiation – cosmic radiation. When studying cosmic radiation, Bothe used Geiger-Müller tubes that were set up so that they only displayed a discharge if a particle passed through them linearly; this meant that it could be established from which direction the charged particles were coming. Indeed, the particles generally fell vertically towards the earth’s surface, however their incidence intensity would shrink to zero if the device was instead pointed towards the horizon. This seems logical, since particles which do not fall vertically would have to penetrate a much thicker air layer. The thicker the air layer, the fewer the particles that penetrate it – only those particles particularly rich in energy “make it through”.