Did You Win One?

Well the Nobel prizes in medicine and physics are out (chemistry comes out tomorrow).

The medicine prize is a three-way split for the discovery and understanding of the role of the telomere and of the enzyme telomerase.

Science tip of the day: Whenever you see the suffix “ase” attached to a word, the substance is likely an enzyme designed to catalyze a reaction involving the base word – so telomerase catalyzes reactions involving telomeres, peptidase catalyzes the hydrolysis of peptide bonds, etc.

The Nobel prize in physics was a three-way split as well, though not evenly split. Half the prize goes to Charles K. Kao, one quarter to Willard S. Boyle, and the final quarter to George E. Smith.

Kao did seminal work on fiber optics, Boyle and Smith on Charged-Coupled Devices which are used in the fantastic imaging devices that bring us views of distant stars and close-ups of ants in electron microscopy.

Fiber optics are a good example of the “march of progress” in technology and science. In 1841, the idea that light could be moved in a pipeline was demonstrated by Swiss physicist Daniel Colladon The idea is called total internal reflection, and Colladon demonstrated it by trapping light in a curved spout of water using mirrors and the water itself.

At the same time, Jacques Babinet demonstrated similar effects using bent glass, candles, and bottles.

In the 1920s and 30s, there were many experiments with transmission of images using thin glass fiber bundles – in the 1950s, Abraham van Heel used a secondary coating (a “cladding”) to bounce stray light back into the fiber, and in the 1960s Kao and others demonstrated that the loss of signal efficiency in fiber optics was an engineering issue due to impurities in the glass, rather than a problem with the science behind the idea.

For this he gets a Nobel – as Newton said, standing on the shoulders of giants. There’s an excellent book on this called Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art that I recommend.

Of course, not everyone thinks that’s how it happened – in fact, frequent Art Bell show contributor Philip J. Corso claimed, in his book The Day After Roswell that he himself unleashed these brand-new and heretofore unseen technologies from crates where they had been found in alien spaceships after the crash at Roswell.

So I suppose he’d be protesting this award were he still alive. Seth Shostak in his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter also lays down a good argument for why the clamor for reverse-engineered alien technology doesn’t make good practical sense:

“Do you think we could reverse engineer machinery from a society several centuries in advance of us? That’s like giving your laptop to Ben Franklin… Despite his best efforts, he would not have been able to reverse engineer your laptop, thereby making spreadsheets and word processors everyday conveniences for his Philadelphia friends.

Indeed. Next up: The more interesting, more fascinating, all around more hilarious Ig Nobel Prizes!


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